A Leper Asylum in Mabolo Cebu

An aerial view of the Leper Colony in Cebu. The photo was taken on February 24, 1933. 
Photo from leprosyhistory.org

While enjoying "Talking History: Conversations with Teodoro A. Agoncillo" by Ambeth Ocampo, one of my newest reads from Shopee's Aklatan Bookfair, I began researching more information about the eminent historian online.

I came across one of his essays about "Literature as History". He was discussing Jose Rizal and his characters and how Rizal derived inspiration from real personages. Agoncillo mentioned John Foreman and his book, "The Philippine Islands" which was published in 1906. The Third Edition of his book is available online for free via Project Gutenberg. 

Foreman was an American Catholic living in the Philippines during the waning years of the Spanish Government to the Philippine Revolution and eventually the early years of the American Colonial Period.

In the Preface he noted the following:

"Long years of personal acquaintance with many of the prime movers in the Revolutionary Party enabled me to estimate their aspirations. My associations with Spain and Spaniards since my boyhood helped me, as an eye-witness of the outbreak of the Rebellion, to judge of the opponents of that movement. My connection with the American Peace Commission in Paris afforded me an opportunity of appreciating the noble desire of a free people to aid the lawful aspirations of millions of their fellow-creatures."

In one of his chapters, he mentioned that one of the prevalent diseases in the Philippines was leprosy. And that aside from Manila and Bulacan, Cebu and Negros  had numerous cases of the then-dreaded illness. 

"There is an asylum for lepers near Manila and at Mabolo, just outside the City of Cebú (vide Lepers), but no practical measures were ever adopted by the Spaniards to eradicate this disease."

"In Cebú and Negros Islands they were permitted to roam about on the highroads and beg."

Eventually, the American Government established the Leper Colony in Culion, Palawan in 1906 to isolate and segregate those who were infected. Foreman records in his book that in December 1903, there were 3,343 known and recorded cases. I think the number would have been higher throughout the Philippines if there was a thorough census conducted of those suffering from leprosy at that time. 

John Foreman, author of The Philippine Islands. Photo from Project Gutenberg

This information about a leper sanatorium in Mabolo was news to me. I did a quick search online and found a blog post from Cecilia Brainard (Leprosy: The Island of the Living Dead, Culion Leper Colony, Philippines). 

Ms. Brainard recalled that when she was still a young student in Cebu and studying in St. Theresa's College, the nuns brought them to a leper colony. The nuns were working in the leprosarium at that time. She wasn't able to say the exact location of the place. 

Could it be the one in Mabolo or was it relocated to someplace "rural" by then? At the start of this article, I shared a 1933 photo of the leper colony in Cebu. I hope someone could provide me more information about this place. 

For centuries, the religious were the ones who cared for the sick and ill. Their hospitals and sanitariums provided comfort --- mentally, spiritually, and physically.

In an article (Triumph over leprosy fails to wipe out stigma in Philippines) written by Ronron Calunsod for Kyodo News in December 2019, he states, "Compulsory segregation began on May 27, 1906, with the first batch of 370 lepers, mostly from Cebu, arriving on Culion by ship, even as the law that backed the policy was passed only a year later."

Upon arriving in Culion, the Cebuanons were met by Medical officers, nuns, and a Jesuit priest:

"They were received by the medical officer in charge, four Sisters of Charity who were to act as nurses, and a Spanish Jesuit priest. The patients most in need of hospital attention were placed in one of the old residences, while the rest were assigned to newly-constructed nipa-roofed houses. The conditions were described as chaotic, and some of the bare necessities of life were inadequate or lacking. As the years went by, however, conditions were improved and most of the deficiencies were remedied." (leprosyhistory.org)

When I was in college in the 1990s, I would encounter lepers living and asking for alms on the footbridges of Espana Avenue in Manila especially the one right in front of the University of Santo Tomas. I've also witnessed children with the disease and their parents waiting outside the Philippine General Hospital in Padre Faura.

In one of his work travels in Palawan, my Dad was able to visit Culion island. I only found out recently when I was going over some of our books at home and saw a book about Culion. When I opened the coffee table-sized book, there was a dedication from the Culion Community to my Dad. I regret that I wasn't able to read the book during that time. 

There's even a movie made about the Culion Leper Colony starring Iza Calzado. It would be timely to watch it now because of my growing interest in this topic.

Culion Leper Colony. photo via wikicommons

The stigma of having leprosy has been recorded in the history of the world for thousands of years. Even in 19th-century literature, it was a prevailing topic. In Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur, leprosy was one of the major plot points. Judah Ben-Hur's mother and sister were infected by it and were cured when Jesus performed one of his miracles on them. 

Noli Me Tangere incorporated a scene between Maria Clara and a leper. The beauteous and charitable maiden gave her expensive necklace to the leper when they chanced upon him begging during the San Diego fiesta. The necklace would eventually end up with the unfortunate Juli, Basilio's sweetheart, in El Filibusterismo. 

In the future, I hope that I'll be able to find learn more about the history of the leper community in Cebu. 


Foreman, John. The Philippines Islands, Third Edition, 1906. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22815/22815-h/22815-h.htm

Leprosy: The Island of the Living Dead, Culion Leper Colony, Philippines 
March 13, 2014

Triumph over leprosy fails to wipe out stigma in Philippines by Ronron Calunsod. December 22, 2019


Culion Museum and Archives
Culion Leprosy Colony (Philippines)

Suggested Readings on Cebu: