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 2012, nine surviving Hansen’s disease patients from Kalaupapa made a pilgrimage to Rome to celebrate the canonization of Blessed 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” documents the pilgrimage to Rome — an emotional journey for the patients — but throughout the film a more humble story emerges. 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 a common experience. These patients, as they’ve chosen to call themselves, though cured of the disease, were at one time stripped of their human dignity. Out of necessity, they turned to each other and became a tight knit extended 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 are now free to leave.