From 1866 to 1969 over eight thousand people afflicted with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) in Hawaii were condemned to forced isolation at Moloka‘i’s Kalaupapa settlement. In October 2012, nine surviving Hansen’s disease patients from Kalaupapa made a pilgrimage to Rome to celebrate the canonization of Saint Marianne Cope. A Sister of St. Francis, Mother Marianne arrived at Kalaupapa one year before the death of St. Damien of Moloka‘i, the Belgian missionary who devoted his life to serving the lepers when few others would even dare make landfall in the settlement.

Of Saints and Exiles is a one-hour documentary film that follows the pilgrimage to Rome, while delving into the story of an underserved population that is fighting to preserve its history in the face of impending extinction. Throughout much of the 150-year history of the Kalaupapa settlement the exiles were condemned to nameless obscurity, a fact that is reinforced by the vast number of unmarked graves. As the end of the settlement grows near, the remaining residents and their kokua (“helpers”) are fighting to preserve their stories and the stories of those who went before them. It has fallen on these last lepers of Kalaupapa to secure their place in history on their own terms.

Through interviews, archival photographs, and lyrical moving images the film recounts the circumstances at Kalaupapa that inspired the work of two Catholic saints. The Hansen’s patients reflect on the legacy of Kalaupapa through their own stories of disease and exile, love and faith. Since the end of forced isolation in 1969, when multiple antibiotic treatments for Leprosy became reliable and effective, the Kalaupapa population has slowly died off, leaving just a handful of residents bound by the common experience of condemnation to exile. Out of necessity, they turned to each other and became ‘ohana (“family”). Because of this, and because it was the only home many had ever known since childhood, most patients chose to stay in the settlement for a lifetime, even though they have been free to make their homes elsewhere for the past 47 years. Of Saints and Exiles gives voice to the patients about what should become of their settlement when they are gone.

The critical goals of this film are to provide public television viewers with an inspirational story of the triumph of human dignity over the suffering and stigma of this terrible disease. A century and a half before the modern hospice movement, the hard work and faith of a few courageous missionaries provided care and comfort to thousands of souls condemned to die in isolation. This is the little known and tragic piece of American history about the mistreatment of an underserved population in the face of fear of an uncontrolled epidemic. Theirs is a human rights story that resonates globally today.