Saint Marianne Cope & Saint Damien de Veuster
an excerpt from Spirit 2012-2013 by Joan Mitchell, CSJ
Only Mother Marianne Cope answered one of the 50 letters inviting religious communities to care for people with leprosy in the Hawaiian Islands. The request was made on behalf of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani. Mother Marianne was a Franciscan sister. Perhaps St. Francis, who kissed a leper and gave the man his cloak, inspired her to follow his example and serve these outcast people.
On October 21, the Catholic Church will canonize Mother Marianne of Molokai. For 35 years she cared for the lepers of Hawaii and continued the work of St. Damien of Molokai, who was made a saint in 2009. Both cared for people no one else did.
When her father got sick, Barbara Cope quit school in eighth grade and worked in a mill to help support her family. At 24, she entered the Franciscan Sisters in Syracuse, New York. Never a nurse, Sister Marianne became the administrator of the sisters’ hospital in Syracuse and led it to become an outstanding teaching hospital. The sisters elected her their leader; she became Mother Marianne.
Mother Marianne and six other Franciscan sisters traveled from Syracuse, New York, to the Island of Oahu, arriving November 8, 1883. The sisters took charge of Kakaako Branch Hospital, which housed people suspected of having leprosy until they were sent to the Island of Molokai for the rest of their lives. The sisters put the hospital in order, cleaned people’s rotting sores, and applied soothing ointments.
Within a year Mother Marianne started a hospital on the Island of Maui for anyone who was sick, not just those with leprosy. Within two years she built a home for the daughters of patients with leprosy to protect the children from getting the disease.
Today we know most people (95%) have a gene that protects us from getting leprosy. Also, medicine today can cure the disease in just weeks. But earlier, to be a leper was to be an outcast. Doctors considered leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, contagious and incurable.
When doctors diagnosed people with Hansen’s disease, police locked them up and held them like criminals. Families often tried to hide and care for a family member with leprosy. Even young children were separated from their families. Boats took the people with leprosy to Kalaupapa and dropped them off to spend the rest of their lives there. Some 8,000 people with Hansen’s disease lived on Molokai over time. Most are buried there.
The bishop in Honolulu was reluctant to assign any of his priests to St. Philomena Church on Molokai, even though the people pleaded for one. To serve the people at St. Philomena meant the risk of contracting the disease.
When the bishop decided to send priests for three-month rotations, Father Damien volunteered first and never left. The head of his order wrote to him, “You can stay as long as your devotion dictates.” He served the people for 16 years until he died of leprosy at 49. Damien drew no difference between lepers and everyone else, between us and them.
Joseph de Veuster grew up in Belgium in a farm family of eight. He received the name Damien when he joined the congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1859, a missionary order that served the peoples of the Pacific. Father Damien was ordained a priest at Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in Honolulu in 1864.
Sturdy and steady, Father Damien worked for nine years on the big island of Hawaii. He was five feet eight inches tall. He sometimes traveled 25 miles on horseback to make a sick call. He built eight chapels. He learned the language of the Hawaiians, who blew a conch shell to call people to church. Damien became a priest of the people. “I would gladly give my life for them,” he wrote.
In 1873 Father Damien went to the settlement on the Kalaupapa Peninsula. He slept under a tree for the first weeks he was there. People with leprosy surrounded him. They coughed. Their faces, hands, and feet were often disfigured. Many had smelly sores and little medical care. Father Damien reported that he started to smoke a pipe to counteract the smell when he visited lepers’ homes.
The people who lived at the settlement had a reputation for lawlessness. People had no reason to live and care about one another. They drank. They left people lying outside to die.
Father Damien aimed to help the people suffering from leprosy recover their human dignity. To bury the people with dignity, he fenced a cemetery, dug graves deep enough to keep animals away, and built coffins. He celebrated funeral Masses for those who died. He anointed those who were sick, washed their bodies, and bandaged their sores. He was not afraid to touch them. He sometimes amputated limbs when gangrene set in.
After six months Damien wrote to his brother, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” Damien did not agree with people who thought leprosy was a punishment from God. He saw the disease as a suffering that he worked to ease. He established a special home for boys.
Steadily Damien used his strength to build small houses, so the settlement began to look like a village. He taught the people to farm and raise animals. He taught them to play musical instruments and started a band. He built a church.
In 1884 Damien was soaking his feet and realized he couldn’t feel the hot water. He knew he had leprosy. The disease destroys nerve endings in the body. He kept on building to finish all the work he could before the disease took the course he knew so well from caring for others.
Father Damien asked Mother Marianne to take over when he died. She led the first group of sister nurses to Molokai in 1888. A thousand people with leprosy lived there. She started a home where girls and women could live. She rebuilt the boys’ home after Father Damien died.
In his last two weeks of life Damien focused on a watercolor of St. Francis of Assisi, who in his prayer so identified with Jesus on the cross that he received the same wounds in his body—the stigmata. St. Damien received the same wounds in his body that he had treated in the patients from whom he never separated himself.
Father Damien died in 1889. Hawaii made Father Damien its representative in the statuary hall in the capitol building in Washington D. C. Today the whole Church recognizes Father Damien and Mother Marianne.
Read the rest of this issue, the first of SPIRIT for 2012-2013.