A Treasure Comes Home

Feb. 3-9, 2005
A Treasure Comes Home
Franciscan Sister Davilyn Ah Chick carefully sifts through dirt taken from the grave site of Mother Marianne Cope in Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai Jan. 23
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Mother Marianne Cope’s Remains will be Brought Back to Syracuse

KALAUPAPA, HAWAII — In a historic and exciting journey, a contingent of Sisters of Saint Francis traveled to Kalaupapa, Molokai Hawaii to witness the next step toward sainthood for Mother Marianne Cope, who died in 1918. The journey is a culmination of close to 30 years of research, documentation and gathering of evidence by a group of historians and the Franciscan community led by Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, OSF, and will end when Mother Marianne is declared a saint. Mother Marianne was declared Venerable on April 19, 2004 by the pope and declared Blessed on Dec. 20, 2004. A ceremony at the Vatican to commemorate this significant occasion will follow in the months to come.

As a result of being elevated to the level of Blessed, she must be exhumed to verify her remains. Through forensic testing, her remains will be circumstantially identified and confirmed by Vince Sava, a member of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Central Identification Laboratory stationed at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu. Sava and his team of archeologists and forensic specialists volunteered their services to work on the project after Sava read about the exhumation requirement in the paper.

Mother Marianne grew up in Utica and attended St. Joseph’s Church. She made her First Communion and confirmation at St. John’s Church in Utica. While she longed for religious life, Mother Marianne fulfilled her duties to her family providing support by working in a factory and taking care of her parents. After her father died, Mother Marianne, then known as Barbara Koob, applied for admission to the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis under the guidance and encouragement of Mother M. Bernadina Dorn, OSF, one of the co-founders of the Franciscan Order in Syracuse.

Mother Marianne was invested in the habit of the Order of Sisters of St. Francis on Nov. 19, 1862 at the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Syracuse. She soon began teaching at Assumption School and seven months after professing her vows, was elected Vicaria to the Mother Superior of the Motherhouse, Sister Antonia Eulenstein. She served for many years in positions of leadership and administration, including prime founder, and later head, of St. Joseph’s Hospital –– the first hospital in Syracuse. St. Joseph’s Hospital opened in 1869, three years after the Franciscan Sisters founded St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica. Her talents of efficiency, good judgment, devotion to work and people would prepare her for the mission she accepted in Hawaii.

In 1883, Mother Marianne received a letter from F. Leonor Fouesnel, a priest assigned to a Catholic mission in Hawaii, begging for Sisters to assist in taking charge of the hospitals and schools in Honolulu. After much correspondence, prayer and soul-searching, Mother Marianne and five other Franciscans accepted Father Fouesnel’s invitation to help care for the ill. She wished to accept the work in the name of St. Francis. Several months later, the sisters traveled by train and steamship, arriving in Honolulu to set up hospitals to care for the Hansen’s Disease (then known as leprosy) patients .

Mother Marianne intended to commit herself to the work personally until the mission was established. She then planned to return to Syracuse. However, due to the pressing needs of her new apostolate, Mother Marianne spent the next 35 years on the islands, until her death at the age of 80. She and the sisters spent five and a half years in Honolulu before traveling to Kalaupapa –– a small, isolated peninsula on the island of Molokai where patients were transported upon being diagnosed. A current patient in Kaluapapa refers to the peninsula as the “Land of the Tomb.”

The first patients were shipped to Kalaupapa in 1864. Since then, more than 8,000 patients have been exiled and buried there –– in gravesites throughout the four-square mile peninsula, many unmarked. Today there are approximately 20 Hansen’s Disease patients on Kalaupapa. Sister Francis Therese, OSF is the only full-time Franciscan on the island, assisted part-time by Sister Francis Cabrini, OSF. In addition to ministering to patients, the sisters take care of Bishop Home and St. Francis Church, as well as provide spiritual support to the patients and staff. Sister Francis Therese also conducts tours to Kalawao, the first Hansen’s Disease settlement founded by Blessed Father Damien.

This week, dozens of Franciscans and more than 60 patients, residents, guests, visitors and park staff, came to witness the exhumation which began with an evening prayer service and candlelight procession to Mother Marianne’s gravesite on Sunday, Jan. 23, the 167th year of her birth. The Mass was concelebrated by Father Joseph Grimaldi, head and judge of the tribunal and vicar to the former bishop of Honolulu; Father Tom Gross, Administrator of the Diocese of Honolulu, and Father Joseph Hendricks, pastor of St. Francis Church in Kalaupapa. Also present was Dr. Paul DeMure, great-great grandnephew of Mother Marianne.

The Sisters took turns offering reflections, readings and tributes to Mother Marianne. At the end of Mass, Father Grimaldi invited the forensic team forward to receive his blessing and to lead the congregation to the gravesite. Musicians Robert Mondoy, music director at St. John Vianney Church in Kailua, and Calvin Liu, music director at Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in Honolulu, led the congregation in song as they processed to the gravesite. Father Grimaldi explained to the people gathered that part of the process includes identifying the site of Mother Marianne’s grave. He asked two residents to step forward and asked the first, “Let me know if this is the place traditionally known as the gravesite of Mother Marianne Cope.” The resident replied, “It is.” Approaching the second resident, Father Grimaldi asked, “We need to know if this is the site of Mother Marianne. Is this the place traditionally known?” The resident responded, “Yes.”

The head of the forensic team stepped forward and asked Father Grimaldi and Sister Grace Anne Dillenschneider, OSF, Assistant General Minister of the Sisters of St. Francis, if they had an exhumation permit. They replied that they did. Sava replied, “And with those documents we will begin the process.” On Monday morning, Jan. 24, the team officially started digging. However, before the digging began, Sister Grace Anne asked those gathered around the gravesite to pray in thankfulness. By 1:40 p.m. parts of the coffin were found, in a disintegrated condition. At 2:40 p.m. Mother Marianne’s skull, which was not intact, was found as was a large crucifix thought to be the crucifix that was placed by her head in the coffin upon her burial. Bone fragments were also found. Father Grimaldi explained that a large rock was placed on the coffin before she was buried, which may have caused the coffin to collapse.

On Tuesday, Jan. 25, the forensic team began digging by 8 a.m. More relics were unearthed, including pins used to hold Mother Marianne’s veil in place, a small cross and part of both arm bones. Additional bone fragments and coffin pieces were also unearthed. Throughout the process, Hansen’s Disease patients, island workers and members of the Franciscan community held vigil at the site, at times excited and at other times somber. Paul, a Hansen’s Disease patient came to Kaluapapa in 1945 at the age of 19 or 20. Paul tests negative for the disease but stays at Kaluapapa because he feels it would be a hard adjustment to leave. When asked what he thought of Mother Marianne being removed from Kalaupapa, he said, “Humanly, she would be lonely here by herself. There are only 20 of us left here. Personally, I’m not sad. I’ve been to Syracuse. I’ve seen the convent.”

His wife Winnie who came in 1943 at the age of 12 added, “And we’ve seen her museum. She will be happy in her new place. Her work is not done. Perhaps she will convert more people there.” Paul nodded his head in agreement. “I wanted to see her go long before this. She’d be lonesome — no one here for her. After the patients are gone from here, the park workers will take care of her grave.” By 3:15 p.m. on Tuesday, the team had unearthed both femurs and a cross thought to be that at the end of the rosary beads worn around her waist. The placement of the rosary beads helps confirm for the Sisters of St. Francis that the person in the grave is truly Mother Marianne. When news that the femur and cross had been found, word spread quickly throughout the peninsula and a crowd gathered. The Sisters were moved and excited by the findings. The forensic team was painstakingly gentle and used small brushes and dustpans to unearth each fragment.

During the evenings, the forensic team documented their findings, sorting, identifing and cataloging each bone fragment and relic. By noon on Jan. 26, the team was confident that they had gathered all the remains visible to the human eye and at 12:30 p.m. a graveside service was conducted by the Franciscan Sisters. Sava collected special intentions and prayers written by individuals who have been part of the process since the beginning of the week. He sealed them in double Ziplock bags and placed them in the east end of the hole, closest to the monument that will be left behind. More than 30 people gathered to sing a Hawaiian Aloha hymn and many shed tears for the end of this journey.

Before the filling the grave Sava made an announcement stating, “I suppose at some point there was discussion about leaving a part of Mother Marianne here in the grave. As many of you saw, many of the fragments disintegrated when they were touched. We used various sizes of screens to shift through the dirt to capture as much of her remains as possible. But the system is not foolproof. There are bone fragments still buried deep within the grave. Therefore, there are portions of Mother Marianne that will remain here in the dirt.”

“That it turned out that way –– that’s the beauty of it,” said Sister Mary Laurence. “Pieces of the bone fragments are left. Now part of her are still at Molokai.” At 1:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 26, the former gravesite of Mother Marianne Cope was completely filled in.

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