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Timeline / Defining Rights and Responsibilities / 1874: Father Damien comes to Kalawao leper colony

1874: Father Damien comes to Kalawao leper colony

The Kingdom of Hawai‘i's Board of Health places patients with leprosy in segregation on the island of Moloka‘i, providing supplies but not resident doctors or nurses. Father Damien, a 24-year-old Belgian Catholic priest, volunteers to work with the patients at Kalawao Colony. At first horrified by the smell of rotting flesh, he learns to dress ulcers and goes on to help build 300 buildings for the leprosy patients on Moloka‘i, including homes, hospitals, and orphanages.

“Like most of the other Sacred Hearts fathers in the islands, Damien already knew about leprosy firsthand. He had seen the disease in the Kohala district in the 1860s; Damien had no reason to think that leprosy was curable, and it was his understanding that it was ‘very contagious.’ Confessing Hawaiians with the visible signs of the disease, he had sometimes felt a kind of burning or itching on his own skin at the closeness of contact.” —Gavan Daws, Holy Man—Father Damien of Molokai, 1973

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Father Damien as Saint Damien of Moloka‘i.


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Father Damien after sixteen years of caring for residents at the leper colony. Father Damien eventually contracted leprosy and died of the disease.

Courtesy Hawai‘i State Archives

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Father Damien with patients

Courtesy Hawai‘i State Archives