kalaupapa leper colonyThe story of Jonathon Napela would not be complete without first a brief introduction of George Q. Cannon.  George Q. Cannon was just 13 years old when he was baptized, along with his family, in Liverpool, England in 1836.  In 1842, the entire Cannon family set sail for the United States to join with the main body of the church then in Nauvoo, Illinois. On the voyage over the Atlantic Ocean, however, Cannon’s mother fell ill and died. The motherless family eventually arrived safely in Nauvoo in the spring of 1843, when George was 20.

george q cannonOnce in Nauvoo, George Q. Cannon’s father sent him to live with his uncle and aunt, John and Leonora Taylor.  Cannon worked in the printing office of the Times and Seasons and the Nauvoo Neighbor for his uncle, who was an editor of both newspapers. In June 1844, Taylor accompanied Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, and Willard Richards and others to Carthage Jail. There, Joseph and Hyrum were killed, and Taylor sustained serious bullet wounds. Cannon tended to the printing affairs, while his uncle John Taylor recovered from his injuries. This training would later serve Cannon well in subsequent Church assignments. Cannon’s father then died in 1845, leaving George without any parents at the age of 22..

In 1846, Taylor travelled to England to organize the affairs of the church after Joseph Smith’s death. Meanwhile, Cannon accompanied John Taylor’s wife Leonora (his aunt) and family as they moved to Winter Quarters, Nebraska. When Taylor returned the following spring, Cannon traveled with his aunt and uncle to the untamed Salt Lake Valley, arriving in October 1847, at 24. Just two years later, in 1849, Cannon was asked by the new President of the Church, Brigham Young, to serve as a missionary for the church in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).

In 1850, Brigham Young sent a total of ten missionaries, including Cannon, to the Hawaiian Islands. Embarking from San Francisco on November 12, they landed in Honolulu on December 12, 1850, after a successful voyage of a month’s duration. Elder Cannon wrote in his journal that first day that although they had been sent to the islands, the group assumed that they would be preaching to the foreigners and whites living there. Without understanding the language or even the culture, this first group of missionaries found the work extremely difficult. Eventually they became discouraged, including their leader.  Indeed, they became so discouraged that five of the ten elders soon left their missions to return home to Utah.  However, the youngest of the remaining 5 missionaries, Elder George Q. Cannon, was determined to stay and finish his mission.  Perhaps it was because he had no real home of his own to return to, but in any event, Cannon went to the Lord in prayer and asked for divine direction.  The Lord inspired him to go to Lahaina on the island of Maui. He did so immediately.

jonathan napelaIn the spring of 1851, while living in Wailuku, Maui, the local attorney and judge, Jonathan Napela, recounted to his wife Kitty, the details of a dream he had experienced the night before about a stranger dressed in white who had been sent to them to deliver an important message. Not long afterwards( by some accounts it was the next day) this unusual dream was fulfilled by the visit to the Napelas by Elder George Q. Cannon. Elder Cannon had experienced little success as a missionary in his first four months in Lahaina. After severe sickness and deep discouragement, Elder Cannon was nursed back to full health by a local Lahaina woman, Nalimanui. Having recovered his health, Elder Cannon set out on foot for four days over the West Maui mountains to Wailuku where the majority of the population were local Hawaiians. Cannon apparently felt impressed to stop laboring among the foreigners in the islands and to “push out among the natives and commence to preach to them.”

As Elder Cannon approached this town, two ladies saw him (and his white shirt) and went screaming into a nearby house and quickly brought out Jonathan Napela.  The locals apparently knew that Napelahad had a dream that a messenger of God was coming to their  town (wearing white) and that he must be feed him and then they must listen to  his message.  Elder Cannon was invited to stay and preach in the home of Napela, who was a very well-educated man and the magistrate of the local district.  Napela was trained as a lawyer and served as a judge in Wailuku, Hawaii when he met Cannon. (After his conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints he was removed from his judgeship.) He was also an alii(chief) of minor rank. A descendant of the illustrious Hawaiian families of Liloa, Umi, and Keawe, he was influential among the Hawaiian people. He was also a man of substance, owning land in several districts on the island.

Subsequently, Elder Cannon and Judge Napela became very close friends.  Because of the guiding hand of God and Brother Napela’s great help, along with the hospitality and kindness of the Hawaiian Saints, the missionary work began to excel in Hawaii, and the foundation was laid for a great and marvelous work in this beautiful land.

kitty napelaNapela’s interest in the gospel and his friendship with Elder Cannon were immediate. Napela listened to Elder Cannon’s explanation of the First Vision, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the uniqueness of the Latter-day Saint faith. Having a circuit court judge and a highly educated and distinguished Wailuku family take such an interest in his message gave Elder Cannon the enthusiasm and the confidence he needed to succeed as a missionary. Finally, someone was actually listening to the gospel message. However this close companionship between the Utah missionary and the local Hawaiian leader caused intense pressure upon both men from representatives of other religions and political groups in the town. After a few weeks as a guest in the Napela home, Elder Cannon decided to reduce this pressure by moving on  to Kula, then on to Waianu, Wailua, and Honomanu.

After several months of teaching and baptizing new members living in other regions on Maui, Elder Cannon, in December of 1851,  responded to a spiritual impression and prompting that directed him to return immediately to Wailuku and his friends theNapelas.  Upon his arrival in Napela’s home, Elder Cannon found the persecution level had greatly increased against his friends, Jonathan and Kitty. The record of his return states that Cannon had arrived to find a serious and bitter religious debate raging. The missionaries spoke and taught the Napelasall night, and when the sun rose the next morning, the Napelafamily had retained their faith in the teachings of the Church.

Cannon had returned just in time to intervene.  A few weeks later, on January 5, 1852, George Q. Cannon baptized the Napelas into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The faith of Napela was illustrated on one occasion when Cannon and other American elders had prayed for good weather, but decided the weather would be poor and were on their way to hold the meeting inside a building. Napela, who had been present when the missionaries prayed for good weather, was surprised at their lack of faith, and the missionaries followed his lead and held the meeting in a grove of trees outside. Starting in January 1852, Napela begin working with Cannon on translating the Book of Mormon.  Cannon would first render the text of a few pages in Hawaiian, then he would discuss the meaning of the pages with Napela; then Cannon would ask Napela to explain the meaning of the new translation.

Napela was the first member of the leadership or “alii” royal line to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the first person to translate the Book of Mormon into the native Hawaiian Language, the first person to organize a missionary training center in his own home, the first to construct a building in the Hawaiian Islands for the sole purpose of preaching  the restored gospel, he was also the first Hawaiian to receive his temple endowments.

The Napelas were two of the 833 members who joined the Church on Maui that year (1852). From the beginning, the Napela family remained at the center of missionary activities in the area, opening their home to missionaries, members and investigators to gather and discuss the gospel. Here translation of the Book of Mormon in the Hawaiian language took place. By the end of Elder Cannon’s four-year mission in 1854, there were some 3,000 new church members living throughout the Kingdom of Hawaii, with 43 organized branches of the church.. During Elder Cannon’s final visit to Wailuku, he returned to Napela’s home, where, overcome by emotion, he could scarcely keep from weeping when he beheld so many of his dear convert friends who had received the everlasting Gospel.

On Wednesday, October 5, 1853, after fifteen months and eight days of intermittent labor, Elder Cannon announced that the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished (Cannon, “My First Mission” p. 189). Elder Napela’s part in the project-providing sustenance, copy work, and counsel with the language-is incalculable. According to Elder Cannon, “Few in the nation were as well qualified as Brother Napela, to help me in this respect. … He was an educated, intelligent Hawaiian, who thoroughly understood his own language, and could give me the exact meaning of words.” (Cannon, p. 187). With Brother Napela’s help, Elder Cannon “was able to correct any obscure expression which might be used, and secure the Hawaiian idiom.” (Cannon, p. 189). The manuscript was recopied, corrected, and finally printed in April of 1856.

On one occasion, Elder Napela was called to accompany a party of elders to the island of Hawaii to settle some difficulties which had arisen there. After matters were taken care of, the missionaries, ready to return, were prevented by several weeks of torrential rain.  One morning the brethren asked Elder Napela to pray that the rain would cease. This he did, and before the elders were off their knees, the skies had begun to clear. They began their journey that day.

On another trip, several elders were traveling in a whale boat from Lanai to Lahaina, when adverse winds and turbulent water made headway impossible.  All of the brethren were seasick. Elder George Q. Cannon asked Elder Napela to pray and quiet the sea. Elder Napela did so, and within fifteen minutes the sea was calm and the missionaries continued on their journey.

The attention of many Hawaiian people was turned to the gospel by outpourings of the gift of healing. A woman who wished to be baptized but who hadn’t been able to walk upright for five years asked the elders for a blessing. George Q. Cannon records that Elder Napela and other native elders “laid their hands upon her and commanded her in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to arise and walk. She immediately stood up and walked, and went and was baptized.” (Cannon, p. 181.)

In 1869 Brother Napela was given the necessary permission by King Kamehameha V to travel to the United States. He went to Salt Lake City in the company of President George Nebeker and on August 2 received his temple endowment. He felt that this was his crowning blessing.  He also was able to join the First President and Quorum of the Twelve to observe the Pioneer Day parade and other festivities.  Upon his return to Hawaii he reported to King Kamehameha V in great detail the things he had observed.


His Great Love for Kitty

In 1873, just seven years after Jonathan’s visit to Utah, his wife Kitty contracted the dreaded disease of leprosy.  Today modern medical knowledge has advanced so that this disease is no longer fatal (antibiotics were first used to treat leprosy beginning during WWII and a cure was developed in the 1960s)  but at that time in the late 1800s, there was no known cure for this dreadful disease.  The Kingdom of Hawaii at this time was facing a public health crisis. Many Native Hawaiians had  become infected with new diseases brought to the Hawaiian Islands by foreign traders and sailors. Thousands of Hawaiians died of influenza, syphilis, and other ailments that had never been seen on the islands before. One of these other diseases was leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease. At that time, leprosy was thought to be highly contagious and  incurable.

In 1865, out of fear of leprosy spreading out of control through the Hawaiin islands, (this was just eight years before Kitty became infected), the Hawaiian Legislature passed and King Kamehameha V approved a new law entitled: “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy”.

This law quarantined the lepers of Hawaii and caused them to be moved to settlement colonies of Kalaupapa and Kalawao on the eastern end of the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokai.  The two leper villages are divided from the rest of Molokai by a steep mountain ridge, and even now the only land access to it is by a mule trail. About 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula from 1866 through 1969, when a cure was finally developed.  The village is located on the Kalaupapa Peninsula at the base of some of the highest sea cliffs in the world, dropping over 2,000 feet to the Pacific Ocean.  Although not a true prison, the inhabitants were indeed captured by the sea on three sides and the huge cliffs on the fourth.

In the beginning, the Hawaiian Royal Board of Health provided the quarantined people with some food and limited supplies, but it did not have the resources to offer proper health care for them. According to documents of that time, the Kingdom of Hawaii did not plan the settlements to be penal colonies, but the Kingdom did not provide enough resources to adequately support these suffering patients. The Hawaiian kingdom originally planned for the inhabitants of the colonies to grow their own crops, but because of the local environment and the weakening effects of leprosy, this was soon discovered to be impractical. By 1868, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), drunken and lewd conduct prevailed in the colonies. The easy-going, good-natured people in effect were imprisoned without adequate housing, food, or health care. There were no amenities, not even shelter or food, and no medical help for the ill. Occasionally small ships pulled close to the peninsula and unloaded meager rations of food that were soaked with sea water before the weak and sickened people could drag them ashore. The new patients were unloaded the same way. The inhabitants had no equipment to fish, to garden, or to build shelters. In the words of historian Alfons L. Korn, “social oblivion followed by a harrowing form of death, sooner or later, was the common lot of Molokai lepers during the late 19th century.”

Jonathon decided that he could not let Kitty face such a future alone. He requested an appointment as assistant superintendent of the colony, which enabled him to accompany Kitty and become her Kokua (helper or nurse). They arrived together in the leper colony in January 1873. It was a voluntary choice made of true love and devotion. He loved her too much to send her there to die alone. Their only child, Panana, was sent to the Big Island to live with relatives. There, Panana married Samuel Parker and together they became the parents of nine sons and daughters. The daughters of Harriet PananaNapela and Samuel Parker became progenitors of some of the most prominent families of Hawaii. Brother Napela’s descendants can still be found in the Church in the islands today. Meanwhile, Jonathan Napela served as the local branch president at the leper colony conducting meetings sometimes out in the open or under a hut made of woven fibers.

History records that this valiant priesthood leader worked in the leper colony, and fought to obtain government assistance for the hundreds of lepers living there to have a more comfortable place to live out their lives. He was a spiritual giant in the pure love of Christ he exhibited for his wife and people.  This beautiful peninsula on the north coast of the island of Molokai, was unsurpassed in human sorrow, suffering, and degradation. Nonexistent facilities and a board of health that knew nothing about the disease condemned the lepers to suffer under almost unimaginable conditions.

Napela was 60 at the time, and he would live out the rest of his life at the leper colony for the next 6 years.  His wife Kitty was the only female of mixed Hawaiian and European descent admitted to the colony that year. Napela was soon appointed superintendent of the leper colony but soon ran into trouble with the board of health because of his unwillingness to enforce a rigid segregation of lepers and non-lepers. For the rest of his life he presided over the Latter-day Saints branch at the isolated colony.  Eventually Jonathan contracted leprosy as well.  When visiting Kalaupapa near the end of Napela’s life, Elder Henry P. Richards, serving his second mission to Hawaii, stated that the disease had taken Napela beyond recognition. Prior to his death, Napela was permitted to visit Laie once again, attend conference, and bid farewell to his beloved friends and saints living here. During his final days, despite great pain and disfigurement, Napela continued to provide service to the local saints in the leper colony. He also continued to care for his wife Kitty and willingly assisted the members of other church denominations, including the Catholics and their local leader, Father Damian, with the basic care and comfort necessary to survive under unimaginable difficulties. Napela died on August of 1879, at the age of 66.  His grave is in the crater near Kalaupapa.  Kitty passed away just two years later.


On March 19, 1864, at the age of just 24 years old, the Belgian missionary-priest Father Damien de Veuster,  landed at Honolulu Harbor on Oahu as a Catholic missionary.   In 1865, he was assigned to the Catholic Mission in North Kohala on the island of Hawaii. Bishop Louis DsirMaigret, Father Damien’s supervisor, believed that the lepers on Moloakineeded a Catholic priest to assist them. However, he also realized that any assignment to the leper colony would probably become a death sentence. Hence he did not want to assign anyone who would go to Molokai just “in the name of obedience.”  After much prayer, four Catholic priests bravely volunteered to go. The bishop’s original plan was for the four volunteers to take turns assisting the inhabitants at the leper colony, and not stay too long. Father Damien was the first priest to volunteer, and so it was that on May 10, 1873, Father Damien, then 33, arrived at the secluded settlement at Kalaupapa, to accept his assignment to work among the 816 lepers living there. Damien’s first course of action was to build a church. His role was not limited to being a religious priest. He also dressed ulcers, built homes and furniture, made coffins, and dug graves. Six months after his arrival at Kalawao he wrote his brother, Pamphile, in Europe, stating as follows:

“…I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”

Father Damien’s arrival, which coincided that same year with the voluntary arrival of LDS Branch President Jonathan Napela, is seen by many as a turning point for the small leper community.

Under the leadership of these two great men, both who arrived of their own free choice, basic laws were enforced, shacks became painted houses, working farms were organized, and schools were established. At his own request,  Father Damien remained on Molokai, rather than be rotated to other assignments as had been originally planned. Molokai served as home to Father Damien  for the next sixteen years, (ironically he arrived the same year as Napela 1873 and died in 1889, ten years after Napela).

During his visit to the leper colony in 1878 to visit President Napela, Elder Richards stayed at the house of Father Damien, the famous leper priest, who characterized Brother Napela as my “yoke-mate.” Depressed by their visit, but inspired by Brother Napela’s faith and service, Elder Richards and his companion blessed Brother Napela and his wife, bid them farewell, and left, never to see them again in this life.

One of the Kalaupapa patients said:

“Kalaupapa used to be a devil’s island, a gateway to hell, worse than a prison. Today it is a gateway to heaven. There is spirituality to the place. All the suffering of those whose blood has touched the land – the effect is so powerful even the rain cannot wash it away. “


In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Father Damien, Saint Damien of Molokai, Apostle to the Patients.  In his ministry on Molokai, Father Damien, like his LDS friend Jonathan Napela, bandaged and comforted the leprosy patients;  built hospitals, houses, chapels and coffins; organized picnics; educated the children; and ministered to the patients’ spiritual needs.

In their joint efforts to help the hundreds of patients who had been exiled to the isolated Kalaupapa peninsula, Father Damien and President Jonathan Napela reformed a settlement known for its lawlessness, filth and despair, into a community of individual respect, love and laughter. Though they belonged to different religions, Father Damien and President Napela of the LDS Branch,  jointly built a community of love and hope through their teachings about Christ and unconditional love for our fellow human beings. The historical record has left us little material on Napela’s years in Kalaupapa, but we do know that he and Father Damien became fast friends. A contemporary described the two men as “the best of friends,” and circumstances gave them much in common despite their different backgrounds and affiliations.

Father Damien died of leprosy on April 15, 1889, at the age just 49. The next day,  the villagers  followed the funeral cortge to the cemetery where Damien was laid to rest under the same tree where he first slept upon his arrival on Molokai.


Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Honolulu  special presentation to  the PCC and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

In 2010 the Roman Catholic Church presented the Polynesian Cultural Center, owned by the LDS Church,  with a special plaque commemorating Jonathan Napela?s cooperation with  Father Damien at the leper colony on Molokai.   The Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Honolulu  presented the PCC and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a unique certificate stating:  “in gratitude for the collaboration” of St. Damien and Jonathan Napela, a traditional Hawaiian ali’i or chief who was among the earliest converts and leaders in the Sandwich Islands Mission. The lives and stories of the two men became inseparably entwined at Kalaupapa in the 1870s.

The Most Rev. Clarence “Larry” Silva presented the certificate to Von D. Orgill, president and CEO of the Cultural Center, and Area Seventy Elder Scott D. Whiting, during a meeting on May 7, 2010, that began with flower lei greetings and a Hawaiian chant. Also participating in the presentation were Father Marc Alexander, Vicar General for the Honolulu Diocese; Steven C. Wheelwright, president, Brigham Young University-Hawaii; R. Eric Beaver, president and CEO of Hawaii Reserves Inc., and his assistant, Steve Keali’iwahamana Hoag; John A. “Jack” Hoag, Hawaii public affairs director for the church; and Elder Marshall and Sister Jolene Ogden, the service missionaries, as well as several other PCC officers and leaders.

Bishop Silva said that though Father Damien and President Napela belonged to different churches, they worked closely together at the leper colony at Kalaupapa in selfless service to help all the patients; and that each eventually contracted the dreaded disease, died from it and were buried there. St. Damien once described Napela as his “yoke-mate” in their charitable work.

In addition to the new certificate, Jonathan Napela also continues to be remembered in Laie, where a heroic-sized statue outside the BYU-Hawaii Cannon Activities Center recognizes him and George Q. Cannon for their work in translating the Book of Mormon into Hawaiian. The school’s Hawaiian Studies program is also named in Napela’s honor.