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Saints of Molokai Minister to Forgotten Exiles

Posted on April 24, 2020 in: News, Reflections

Saints of Molokai Minister to Forgotten Exiles

In February, my husband and I were blessed to vacation in Hawaii. The scenery everywhere was breathtaking, but there was a beauty and a peace on the island of Molokai that I didn’t experience on the other more populated islands we visited. Maybe it was the less-frantic pace of Molokai, which boasts one hotel and so little traffic that there is not one traffic signal on the entire island. Or, perhaps the calm I found was a sense of the pervading spiritual presence of what the native Hawaiians refer to as the “Saints of Molokai.”

Saints Damien De Veuster and Mother Marianne Cope answered a missionary call to serve victims of Hansen’s Disease, more commonly known as leprosy, who were exiled to Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai beginning in 1866. At the time, little was known about the treatment and spread of leprosy. It was thought to be highly contagious resulting in the forced quarantine of its victims regardless of age. The peninsula is isolated from the ‘topside’ of Molokai by towering sea cliffs nearly 2,000 feet tall.

Saint Damien, a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, was sent by his superiors to Hawaii in 1864. He was ordained and ministered there for nine years before volunteering in 1873 to serve the exiles at Kalaupapa. He would remain there until his death from Hansen’s Disease at age 49 on April 15, 1889. Damien was canonized October 11, 2009, and his feast day is May 10. 

In his 16 years on the peninsula, Damien was a strong advocate for the residents promoting their dignity, instilling in them a sense of worth, and improving the overall conditions of the facilities in which they lived. He cleaned and changed their bandages and saw to their spiritual needs. It is estimated that he built over 300 homes and buildings for the community – including a new church, school and orphanage – and dug most of the graves for the dead and built over 1,600 coffins. Because of his compassion and care for those he ministered to, Damien is revered throughout all of Hawaii. A statue of him outside the state capitol in Honolulu is frequently adorned with leis.

A year before Damien died, Sr. Marianne Cope, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, NY, and two members of her order arrived in Molokai to work beside him. Sr. Marianne cared for Damien as his health deteriorated. She also oversaw the home Damien had established for boys and men. With a background in nursing, she introduced many beneficial health measures for the residents. Like Damien, she honored the dignity of the residents and saw in them the face of Christ rather than the ravages of their disease. She and her sisters were a motherly presence for the hundreds of children exiled there. She died on the peninsula 30 years after she had arrived on August 9, 1918, at age 80. She was canonized October 21, 2012 and her feast day is January 23. 

Advances in medical science eventually brought a cure for Hansen’s Disease and in 1969 Hawaii abandoned its isolation policy. Today, Kalaupapa is a National Historic Park and a small cluster of former patients still live there. My husband and I had hoped to visit the park, but the cost was prohibitive. Visitors can only arrive by plane and must register with a designated group for a four-hour tour and leave thereafter. It would have cost approximately $500 to $750 for us to visit for less than five hours, a price we could not justify.  

The closest we could get was a view of the peninsula from an overlook on the topside of Molokai. Looking down, I was struck at how isolated Kalaupapa is from the rest of the island.  The choppy ocean waters that day, the crashing waves, and a brisk wind, gave me an eerie sense that the residents must have felt like outcasts, alone and forgotten.  But, my faith tells me they were never alone – that through the visible love and compassion of Saints Damien and Mother Marianne and other Christians who ministered alongside them, the people of Kalaupapa were always then, and hopefully now, in the presence and care of our loving and gentle God.

-- By Mary-Jo McLaughlin

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