Appropriately, we read a lot about the good work of Father Damien and Mother Marianne (both, now Saints.) But we don’t seem to hear of the many others who worked with them in ministering to those in need.
Here, we look at only a few (some of the earliest Sisters that worked with Mother Marianne,) and the hard work and hardship they endured.
The first shipment of lepers landed at Kalawao (Kalaupapa) January 6, 1866, the beginning of segregation and banishment of lepers to the leper settlement.
Receiving and detention centers were established on Oʻahu. Kalihi Hospital was the first hospital for leprosy patients in Hawaiʻi opening in 1865. Kapiʻolani Home opened in Kalihi Kai in 1891 adjacent to the Kalihi Hospital and Receiving Station; Kalihi Plague Camp (1900-1912) and Meyers Street, Kalihi Uka (1912-1938.) (NPS)
In January 1883, Walter Gibson, Minister of Foreign Affairs and president of the Board of Health, appealed to Hermann Koeckemann, Bishop of Olba, head of the Catholic Mission in Hawai’i, to obtain Sisters of Charity from one of the many sisterhoods in the US to come and help care for leprous women and girls in the Islands.
Father Leonor Fouesnel, with a royal commission from King Kalākaua, was designated as agent to go on this mission. Landing in San Francisco and traveling East, Father Leonor petitioned more than fifty different sisterhoods before a favorable reply was obtained, from the Franciscan Convent of St Anthony at Syracuse, New York.
The reply to the King’s emissary was not made lightly, but only after a long, serious debate among the sisterhood. One of the prime supporters of this action was the Mother Superior, Mother Marianne Cope. (Greene; NPS)
“I am hungry for the work and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen Ones, whose privilege it will be, to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the souls of the poor Islanders… I am not afraid of any disease, hence it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned ‘lepers.’” (Mother Marianne; NPS)
Mother Marianne consulted with all the sisters and, to her credit they felt free to voice their concerns. Responded one: “I am very honest with you. I am afraid. I have heard too much about these poor people. I heard also that there are no rules and regulations. That everyone does as he pleases.”
Another stated: “If it is not a suitable place for any woman how can it be for the Sisters.” (NPS) With calmness, good sense, firmness, and a kind heart she was able to get cooperation from all around her. Her religious life was a series of administrative appointments, culminating in her being placed in charge of missions in Hawai’i.
Only six sisters could be spared to go with Mother Marianne, who insisted that as superior of the convent it was her duty to go with the first group of sisters and help them get established. It was not the intent of the convent that she stay in Hawai’i permanently. (Greene; NPS)
On October 23, 1883, Mother Marianne and her companions set off for Hawai’i, arriving on November 9. These were: Sister M Bonaventure Caraher, Sister Crescentia Eilers, Sister Ludovica Gibbons, Sister M Rosalia McLaughlin, Sister Renata Nash and Sister Mary Antonella Murphy.
Three of the sisters and Mother Marianne went to work at the branch hospital for leprosy victims at Kaka’ako in Honolulu on January 11, 1884, and spent almost five years there. Three others were put in charge of the new hospital at Wailuku on the island of Maui.
“For us it is happiness to be able to comfort, in a measure, the poor exiles, and we rejoice that we are unworthy agents of our heavenly Father through whom He deigns to show His great love and mercy to the sufferers.” (Mother Marianne, 1884)
Queen Kapi‘olani had visited Kalaupapa in 1884 to learn how she could assist those who were diagnosed with leprosy and exiled there, and she raised the funds to build the Kapiʻolani Home for Girls. (KCC) She and others also recognized the need for a home for the non-infected children of the leprosy patients.
On November 9, 1885, the healthy girls living in Kalawao moved into Kapiʻolani Home on the grounds of the sisters’ convent at the Kaka’ako Branch Hospital. (Hawaii Catholic Herald)
On April 22, 1885, a second group of sisters arrived from Syracuse as reinforcements. This included Sister Leopoldina Burns, Sister Carolina Hoffmann, Sister Martha Kaiser and Sister Benedicta Rodenmacher. Shortly after, Sister Antonia Brown, Sister M. Vincentia McCormick, Sister M. Irena Schorp and Sister Ephrem Schillinger. (More came later.)
News continually filtered back to Kaka’ako about conditions at the Moloka’i settlement. The children on the island were in desperate need of care and the venerable Father Damien himself had been diagnosed as having leprosy and obviously had few years left in which to continue his work.
Mother Marianne, however, was being kept busy in Honolulu all this time. At one point she had suggested to Walter Gibson that a home for children of leprous parents be built near the sisters’ residence in Honolulu. This establishment opened in November 1885 as the Kapiʻolani Home for Girls. (Green; NPS)
Then, Mother Marianne Cope and Sisters Leopoldina Burns and Vincentia McCormick of the Third Order of St. Francis, Sisters of Charity arrived on November 14, 1888. They managed the Charles R Bishop Home for Unprotected Leper Girls and Women, which opened at Kalaupapa in 1888. (NPS)
Sister Leopoldina describes the place: “One could never imagine what a lonely barren place it was. Not a tree nor a shrub in the whole Settlement only in the churchyard there were a few poor little trees that were so bent and yellow by the continued sweep of the birning wind it would make one sad to look at them.” (Voices of Kaulapapa; SanDiego-gov)
While there was no cure for the residents of Molokai, the sisters tried to bring dignity to their lives. Before the sisters arrived, patients dressed in rags. The sisters gave the girls proper clothes and taught them embroidery, sewing and gardening. They also gave them music lessons.
Father Damien himself succumbed to leprosy on April 15, 1889. Upon the death of Damien, Mother Marianne agreed to also head the Boys Home at Kalawao. The Board of Health had quickly chosen her as Saint Damien’s successor and she was thus enabled to keep her promise to him to look after his boys.
A traveler on a steamer that later (May, 1889) brought Sisters Crescentia and Irene to Kalaupapa noted, “When I was pulled ashore one early morning there sat with me in the boat two sisters bidding farewell (in humble imitation of Damien) to the lights and joys of human life. One wept silently and I could not withhold myself from joining her.” (The Messenger)
The workload was extremely heavy in that Bishop Home alone provided shelter for 103 girls in 1893. There were times when the burden seemed overwhelming. In a moment of despair, Sister Leopoldina reflected, “How long Oh Lord must I see only those that are sick and covered with leprosy?” (Sister Leopoldina: NPS)
The Baldwin Home, which opened in May of 1894, replaced the Boys’ home built by Father Damien. Mother Marianne Cope and the Sisters of Saint Francis managed the Baldwin home until they turned over jurisdiction to Joseph Dutton and the Sacred Hearts Brothers in 1895.
While at Kalaupapa, Mother Marianne predicted that no Franciscan Sister would ever contract leprosy. Additionally she required her sisters use stringent hand washing and other sanitary procedures. No sister has ever contracted the disease. Mother Marianne died in the summer of 1918 at the age of 80.
Mother Marianne was canonized on Oct. 21, 2012, making her the first Franciscan woman to be canonized from North America and only the 11th American saint. Forevermore, she will be known as St Marianne Cope, with the title “beloved mother of outcasts.” (Lots of information here is from NPS and Hawaii Catholic Herald.)