A Poem and a Piano: Robert Louis Stevenson's Gifts to Sister Marianne Cope

Mother Marianne Cope is the patron of lepers, outcasts, those with HIV/AIDS, and the Hawaiian Islands. Her feast day is Jan. 23.

LEFT: Robert Louis Stevenson in 1893, by Henry Walter Barnett (1862–1934). RIGHT: Mother Marianne Cope, from the Honolulu Advertiser Library Photo Archives
LEFT: Robert Louis Stevenson in 1893, by Henry Walter Barnett (1862–1934). RIGHT: Mother Marianne Cope, from the Honolulu Advertiser Library Photo Archives (photo: Register Files)

Life was bleak for people with leprosy at the Branch Hospital in Kakaako, Oahu, in the mid-1800s. Many were far advanced in the disease – with blinded eyes, parts of faces eaten away, leaving gaping holes where their noses had been. Many had lost fingers and toes; their hands were contracted into claws, and their legs ended in painful stumps. The hospital had been built to house 100 patients, but more than 200 were squeezed into the rooms under deplorable conditions.

After the Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy (also known as the Segregation Law) was enacted in 1866, things got even worse for the lepers of Oahu. They were relocated to a leprosarium on the island of Molokai, where they were separated from their loved ones and crowded into dank and dirty quarters.


Sister Marianne Cope Arrives to Help

It was to this fetid community that Mother Marianne Cope and her sisters arrived in 1883. Mother Marianne, seeing the squalor and hopelessness in the community where lepers were abandoned to a sure death, immediately set about improving the community. She and her sisters worked methodically, washing patients' wounds, cleaning their living quarters, and repairing dilapidated housing. They planted flowers and trees, surrounding the compound with beauty, as well as fruits and vegetables for use in the cookhouse. Sister Marianne saw that the eighty girls in the Bishop Home were all dressed in plain wine-colored uniforms and she set out to sew stylish and colorful dresses to boost their spirits.


A Noted Poet Stops to Visit – and Stays to Help

In May 1889, the Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson docked his boat on the shores of this happy community, where the Sisters helped the sick to thrive during their remaining days. Stevenson, who had suffered since childhood with tuberculosis, had embarked with his wife and her son aboard the chartered yacht Casco on a cruise of the South Seas islands, in search of a favorable climate in which he could work without coughing. The sea air did, in fact, improve his health; and it was while there that Stevenson made a side trip to the island of Molokai, to meet Sister Marianne and to see firsthand the leper community there.

Mother Marianne welcomed the author and showed him the community where she and her sisters lived and worked, caring for the helplessly sick patients. For eight days, Stevenson resided in the settlement's guest cottage – observing the daily lives of the lepers in the community, and helping Sister Marianne with their care. He was so inspired by her determined attempt to create a warm and fulfilling life for the patients in her care, that he penned a poem in her honor:

Reverend Sister Marianne
Matron of the Bishop Home, Kalaupapa

To see the infinite pity of this place,
The mangled limb, the devastated face,
The innocent sufferers smiling at the rod,
A fool were tempted to deny his God.

He sees, and shrinks; but if he look again,
Lo, beauty springing from the breast of pain! –
He marks the sisters on the painful shores,
And even a fool is silent and adores.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Kalawao, May 22, 1889

Later, after Stevenson had departed the leper community and reunited with his family in Honolulu, he had a piano shipped to Mother Marianne at Kalaupapa, so that “there will always be music.”


Stevenson's Defense of St. Damien of Molokai

Robert Louis Stevenson had never had the opportunity to meet Fr. Damien of Molokai, who died shortly before Stevenson's visit to the leper colony. He learned about the saint's life, though, from Mother Marianne and from others. When a Presbyterian pastor, Rev. Mr. C.M. Hyde of Honolulu, criticized the saint in a letter to another Protestant pastor, Rev. Gage, shortly after Father Damien's death, Stevenson stepped in to defend him.

Gage had inquired about the recently deceased priest after he heard favorable reports about his charity and heroism. Rev. Hyde's letter calumniating Father Damien was published in October 1889 in an Australian newspaper, the Sydney Presbyterian. Stevenson wrote a rebuttal to that letter; but the Sydney Presbyterian refused to publish it. Stevenson then published his lengthy defense of Fr. Damien as an Open Letter which was widely read throughout the English-speaking world. The comprehensive Robert Louis Stevenson website summarizes that criticism:

In the letter, Dr. Hyde criticized Damien's work at the leper settlement, which Stevenson took umbrage with. RLS was outraged that what he perceived as Damien's selfless work with the lepers could be censured.

RLS's response was deeply scornful, attacking Hyde personally. Indeed, his pamphlet was filled with such vitriol, he was convinced (wrongly) that he would be sued for libel.

In Father Damien Stevenson quotes passages from Hyde's letter at length, refuting his statements point by point. For example quoting Hyde, RLS writes, “ 'Damien was dirty.' He was. Think of the poor lepers annoyed with this dirty comrade! But the clean Mr. Hyde was at his food in his fine house (pp. 22-23).” Indeed, the notion of Hyde's “fine house” and wealth are recurring themes in RLS's pamphlet: Stevenson criticizes Hyde and other religious men like him for professing philanthropy but living in luxury.

RLS recounts how he himself visited Damien's grave and spoke with people who knew him: Stevenson felt that as a result he was able to understand Damien's devotion to his cause, as well as his weaknesses. He then accuses Hyde of overlooking the fact that Damien was a man with human foibles but who was nevertheless heroic.

Robert Louis Stevenson later wrote the gothic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In it, Stevenson tells the story of a London lawyer named Gabriel John Utterson who investigates strange occurrences between his old friend, Dr Henry Jekyll, and the evil Edward Hyde. It's thought that the villainous character Hyde is named after the Presbyterian pastor who so offended Stevenson with his criticism of Fr. Damien.

Robert Louis Stevenson never returned to his native Scotland, or to the United States where he had resided for some time. He died in Samoa on Dec. 3, 1894 at the age of 44.

Mother Marianne Cope died Aug. 9, 1918. She was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2005, and was canonized Oct. 21, 2012. She is the patron of lepers, outcasts, those with HIV/AIDS, and the Hawaiian Islands. Her feast day is Jan. 23.