National Catholic Register


Mother Molokai

BY Father James Gilhooley

May 11-17, 2008 Issue | Posted 5/6/08 at 2:37 PM


The nuns of my boyhood in the 1940s wore undertaker-black habits. While invaluable to me, they never struck me as colorful women.

So I found myself immediately drawn to Marianne Cope. Sister Marianne loved colors. The wilder the better.

She was born in 1838. She entered the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1862. She was a gifted woman. She was elected superior.

In 1883, she entered history. A Hawaii priest appealed for help with lepers on the islands. He wrote to 50 religious communities in the United States and Canada. Communities declined his request precisely because of the leprosy, today known as Hansen’s disease. Open sores, rotting flesh and decaying bone were too overwhelming even for consecrated women.

Syracuse’s Sisters of St. Francis volunteered. Had not their patron Francis of Assisi kissed a leper’s wounds? Thirty-five sisters of St. Francis volunteered. That figure represented more than half their company.

Mother Marianne chose six volunteers to accompany her to Hawaii. Her plan was to accompany them and set up the mission. Then she proposed to return to Syracuse. Hopefully she had not bought round-trip tickets, for her brief visit listed 35 years. The lepers were the beneficiaries.

The trip from New York overland and by sea was an exhausting 5,000 miles over a numbing two-week period. The six Franciscan nuns and Mother Marianne reached Hawaii in late 1883. Initially they worked with lepers for five years in Honolulu and three other islands in the chain of eight major islands that make up Hawaii.

The establishment of hospitals, orphanages and schools was the order of the day for Mother Marianne. But the creative woman wanted to bring more than the three Rs, surgical bandages and structure in the lepers’ lives. She wanted to reduce the darkness of their existence.

She ordered up colorful clothing and radiant scarves. She wanted these lepers to feel good about themselves. Marianne Cope did not want hand-me-down clothing for the lepers either. She insisted on the latest fashions. She and the sisters made many of the clothes. It is not difficult to picture her consulting a dashion magazine at night and then working at her sewing machine.

She wanted to transform the lives of the lepers and transform them she did.

In 1888, the lure of the Molokai settlement where the seriously ill of the lepers lived became too strong for her. Despite much opposition from well-meaning people, she and two of her sisters went to Molokai. They took care of the women and girls. The Belgian priest Damien DeVeuster, who had contracted leprosy on the island, was in charge of the males.

Within five months of their arrival, Father Damien died. Marianne and her sisters assumed his duties and built upon his programs. The modus operandi was the same. Hospital and school of course. Also color and more color. She and her companions planted more flowers, more shrubbery and more trees. Music and sport leagues continued. The filth and depression of Molokai were replaced by beauty.

Marianne’s work was so notable it caught the eye of Robert Louis Stevenson. He wrote a poem extolling her. It is titled simply “To Mother Marianne”: “… beauty spring from the breast of pain!”

She died Aug. 9, 1918 and was buried on Molokai.

Oops! Almost forgot, Marianne Cope was beatified in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on May 14, 2007 in a fittingly colorful ceremony. You already guessed that. You’re probably wondering why she hasn’t been canonized.

Father Gilhooley’s homilies

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