The Mormon Experience in Kalaupapa

Research Update

Fred E. Woods

Fred E. Woods ( is a professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.

This article offers a glimpse into a fascinating story of a unique settlement on the Hawaiian island of Moloka‘i known as Kalaupapa.[1] Here, patients afflicted with leprosy (now known as Hansen’s disease) were forced to separate from society; yet, working together, they forged a loving, united community from which sacred space emerged.

In 1969, the same year that Neil Armstrong took a giant step onto the moon, the Hawai‘i Board of Health finally made the move to permanently end the isolation of all patients—but many chose to remain. This book helps explain why they wanted to stay and emphasizes the Mormon experience encountered on that hallowed ground.

In 1980, the US Department of the Interior and National Park Service established the Kalaupapa National Historic Park to preserve the historic buildings and heritage of this unique community. One of the stipulations of creating the park was that patients would be able to live at Kalaupapa as long as they wanted and that their lifestyle and privacy would be protected. The year 2016 marked the sesquicentennial of the moment when the first dozen “inmates” were outcast to this island prison.

I felt the tug of Kalaupapa long before I ever visited there. My wife, JoAnna, and I had been researching the Hawaiian Islands in preparation for a research and anniversary trip to O‘ahu in 2003. I asked her where she would like to visit after my research was completed. “I don’t care whatever else we do, but we must visit Kalaupapa,” she said. As is our pattern, her impression set me on a decade-long passion and changed our lives forever.

It was high adventure just getting to that remote peninsula. The destination necessitated a precarious mule ride down the highest sea cliffs in the world.[2] At last we heard the thunderous pounding of the Pacific reverberating against the northern coastline, and we inhaled deeply at our safe arrival. Our small caravan spilled us out onto the flat four-mile terra firma peninsula that I would one day consider consecrated.

Scope of Documentary Efforts

Over the years, the phrase “Saints of Kalaupapa” has come to have a broader meaning for me, reaching beyond my view of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) who reside at the settlement. I have often thought about the community as a whole and the general composition of its inner goodness. Among other things, I have learned that the literal translation of Kalaupapa may be rendered “flat plain” or “flat leaf.”[3] In either case, I discovered through much reading, many interviews, and multiple firsthand encounters that Kalaupapa is a leveling experience: one crosses the boundaries of one’s own acknowledged beliefs and ethnicity into a larger realm of brotherhood and compassion. For it is in Kalaupapa where religious denominations and cultural divides vanish—where the love of God and mankind manifest themselves in a truly magnificent way.

After over a decade of research, interviews, expeditions, and contemplation, I believe I’ve unearthed the settlement’s secrets. It is the story of community—community unlike anywhere else in the world—not a space divided by borders and barriers or fences and enclosures, but a place which beckons every race and religion, every color and creed. Kalaupapa is proof that community is possible, though not without price. The cost was suffering—suffering together.

My experiences and research have prompted me to write the recently released Kalaupapa: The Mormon Experience in an Exiled Community. This book reveals the impact the Kalaupapa community had on Mormon patients who lived at or visited the settlement and reveals that their experiences were quite similar to others who had any contact with this unique peninsula of sacred space, regardless of race or religion. What makes this book unique is that it is the first book ever written that emphasizes the Mormon experience at Kalaupapa whose LDS members made up an average of about 10–20 percent of the total population of the patients during the time it was an active settlement. It also depicts how this sacred space touched people who came into contact with this extraordinary community.


The book relies heavily on primary historical sources so readers can capture the authentic, historical voice of the past and, above all, the divine touch of Kalaupapa. To ensure that this touch is experienced, the book includes excerpts from scores of interviews to capture the messages of people from all walks of life who were deeply moved by the Kalaupapa experience either as patients in the settlement or those who have visited this sacred turf.

Themes of Charity, Service, and Community

The charity and uncommon service rendered at Kalaupapa is relevant in any age and serves as a reminder of the importance of erecting bridges instead of barriers, finding common ground instead of a battleground, and in valuing one another regardless of ethnicity and religiosity. It provides a vivid illustration of the need for Latter-day Saints and others to not only join hands, but to look outside the circle of their faith’s community to embrace the universal message to love one another, regardless of our differences. Such an ecumenical philosophy of inclusiveness seems to be desperately needed in a world that suffers from societal diseases such as selfishness, pride, bigotry, and prejudice. In addition, it is hoped that the message of the Kalaupapa community will serve as a reminder of the acute need for each of us to generate light instead of heat and to apply the Latin maxim: “In the essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”


Note: The author also just published Reflections of Kalaupapa which is a compilation of interviews and personal narratives he gathered over the past decade.

[1] Kerri A. Inglis, Ma‘i Lepera: Disease and Displacement in Nineteenth-Century Hawai‘i (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press: 2013), xiii. In her dissertation, Inglis uses the strict definition of Makanalua for the peninsula of the north shore of Moloka‘i generally. However, I prefer to use the more commonly known name of Kalaupapa to refer to the entire peninsula.

[2] These cliffs are nearly two thousand feet tall.

[3] Emmett Cahill, Yesterday at Kalaupapa (Honolulu: Editions Limited, 1990), 2.