Welcome Home

Feb. 10-16, 2005
VOL 124 NO. 5
Welcome Home
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
KALAUPAPA, HAWAII –– From Jan. 22 to Jan. 31, a group of sisters from the Franciscan Order in Syracuse, joined sisters and priests from the Honolulu Diocese; Mother Marianne Cope’s ancestor, Dr. Paul DeMure; patients; residents and guests to witness the exhumation of Mother Marianne Cope’s remains. Mother Marianne, whose cause for sainthood was started by the Sisters of St. Francis, was declared Venerable in April 2004 by Pope John Paul II and declared Blessed on Dec. 20, 2004. As a requirement for beatification, Mother Marianne’s remains must be exhumed for identification. The Kalaupapa peninsula is located at the northern end of the Island of Molokai and is run by the National Park Service. It is where Mother Marianne lived and worked for 30 of her 35 years on the islands. To ensure that Mother Marianne’s remains will be secure for the future, they were removed from Kalaupapa and brought to Syracuse where a shrine will be erected in the future.

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. Then known as Barbara Koob, Mother Marianne applied for admission to the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis and was invested in the habit of the Order on Nov. 19, 1862 at the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Syracuse. After serving for many years in positions of leadership and administration, including Superior of the Franciscan Order, prime founder (and later head) of St. Joseph’s Hospital, she was called to Hawaii by Leonor Fouesnel, a priest assigned to a Catholic mission in Hawaii. Intending to stay only until the mission was established, Mother Marianne spent the next 35 years caring for Hansen’s Disease (then known as leprosy) patients. She died in 1918 at the age of 80.

The island of Molokai is a 20-minute flight from Honolulu. Its rugged cliffs and pounding surf are breathtaking. Molokai has the highest sea cliffs in the world –– rising two and one-eight miles above sea level. What today would be considered an extraordinary example of tropical beauty is far different from what Hansen’s Disease patients in the 1800s and 1900s would deem a wondrous site. For them it was a place of deportation and isolation.

Today, Sister Francis Therese Souza, OSF, is the only full-time Franciscan Sister on the island, assisted by Sister Frances Cabrini Morishige. Sister Francis Therese explained the patients’ journey to Kalaupapa in the early years of exile. “The whaling ships would stop in Honolulu to restock their food supply. The government wouldn’t give them food unless they agreed to transport the leper patients to Molokai. Because the shore was so rugged, the ships would moor out of range of the jagged rocks and throw the patients overboard,” she said. “The Hawaiian ships came closer to shore and threw out a rope ladder for the patients to climb out and make their way up the steep cliffs. It was very inhumane.”

Thousands of Hansen’s Disease patients were torn from their homes and families and exiled to the three-square-mile peninsula of Kalaupapa. Society considered persons with leprosy as being dead to the world. They no longer had the rights which other persons were entitled, including the right to live with family and friends and be part of a community. Through hopelessness and despair, Mother Marianne and Blessed Damien brought them hope and dignity.

In Jan. 1866, the first leprosy patients were sent to Molokai. They were put on the island for the express purpose of isolation. Leprosy was rampant in Honolulu. While hospitals had been built to treat milder cases of the disease, the board of health procured a large tract of land on the island to which the more advanced cases would be sent. The peninsula was separated into three land divisions –– Kalaupapa on the west, Makanalua in the middle and Kalawao on the east. It was here that Father Damien de Veuster began his mission ministering to the hundreds of Catholic patients on the island. Throughout his years at Kalawao, Father Damien introduced moral habits among many of the patients who, out of hopelessness, had turned to lawlessness. In the absence of a resident physician, Father Damien served as both nurse and doctor. While the visiting physician took care of the worst patients, Father Damien attended to those living on the outside –– cleaning and bandaging sores, applying ointments and prescribing medicines. He helped people to construct their own dwellings, to build a small reservoir and to lay pipes which brought fresh water for drinking, bathing and washing clothes.

The arrival of Mother Marianne and Sisters Leopoldina and Vincentia at the settlement in Nov., 1888 fulfilled one of Father Damien’s greatest wishes –– that the care of the sick and abandoned would continue after his death. Father Damien contracted leprosy in 1876 and died on April 15, 1889, spending the last 16 years of his life on Molokai. Mother Marianne and the sisters introduced strict rules of hygiene and moral behavior upon their arrival on Molokai. Through their medical knowledge and precautionary measures, they improved conditions tremendously. Their stringent standards are still in practice today.

Olivia Robello Breitha was 18 years old when the S.S. Hawaii delivered her to Kalaupapa on June 30, 1937. She found out she had leprosy after visiting the hospital for a pain in her side. A routine examination determined that Olivia required a tonsillectomy. “I woke up in the isolation ward,” said Olivia. “I had a lesion on my leg. The doctor did a skin snip on my ear. My mother was in the hospital at the same time. They wouldn’t let me go and see her. I knew something was up.” A few days later, a bounty hunter showed up at Olivia’s home. “I let him in. He told me I had to go to the hospital. He meant Kalaupapa. I told him I wasn’t sick. ‘Yes you are,’ he said. ‘I’m not sick,’ I repeated. ‘You have leprosy,’ he said. When that bounty hunter came after me, it was just like the world had no floor. I was ready to get married. They brainwashed us –– even my mother. They wouldn’t let me touch my mother.” Olivia had three siblings. They never contracted the disease.

It’s been 67 years since Olivia was brought to the island and like several of the other remaining patients she considers her life there both good and bad. One of the most difficult things for Olivia and the other patients to overcome was their inability to come in physical contact with visitors and family members. Kalaupapa residents cherished family visits but rules prohibited them from having physical contact with them. Patients met with their visitors in the “long house” –– a narrow building that had a heavy wire fence down the center that separated the patients from their loved ones. Olivia shared her anguish at not being able to touch her mother during those visits. “Once a fly landed on my arm and I brushed it off. It landed on my mother. I felt that fly was better than me. It could touch my mother and I could not. I felt small, inconsequential.”

Paul and Winnie Harada have been married since 1955. Paul was sent to the island in 1945 at the age of 19. Winnie was exiled in 1943 when she was 12 years old. They both mourned the absence of their families. While Paul told the story of his arrival on Kalaupapa, his wife added her own thoughts. “I was very frightened getting off that ship. So many people on shore looking at us,” said Winnie. “For me, it was very traumatic. I was a mama’s girl. It was traumatic for her as well.” Winnie’s mother had four children, three of which contracted the disease. She and her two brothers lived on Kalaupapa. Her mother came to visit the children twice a year. When Winnie and Paul married, her mother and sister were able to attend the ceremony. “My mom came. My sister was my maid of honor. We still couldn’t touch, but she stood up for me.” Winnie said through the help of the sisters, she was able to have a white lace wedding gown made. “I went over to Oahu. A nun took my measurements and we went to a shop. I wasn’t allowed in the shop, but they did a good job fitting it.”

Nellie McCarthy was the only female patient on a boat with five men when she was transported to Kalaupapa in 1941 at the age of 20. At age 84, Nellie considers her life on the island a good one. Married to her second husband for 40 years, she has one daughter and one grandchild who live in Honolulu. “She comes to Kalaupapa once in a while to visit,” said Nellie. It wasn’t until 1947 that the fence was finally removed from the “long house” but other rules and regulations were still in place at the settlement well into the 1960s. The mail was fumigated before it left the island and patients could not ride in a car with non-patients. They were also segregated at church, not permitted to enter through the front door of the hospital and could not approach the convent at Bishop Home where Mother Marianne and the other sisters lived. To this day, the arbor in front of the convent, with its two benches facing each other, is a reminder of the segregation that took place throughout the peninsula.

No longer set apart from other residents and visitors, the patients joined the congregation in an evening prayer service and candlelight procession to Mother Marianne’s grave on Sunday evening. Sister Marion Kikukawa, OSF, former general minister of Syracuse’s Franciscan Community and native of Molokai, is currently the principal of St. Joseph’s School in Hilo, HI. She reflected on Mother Marianne’s life and virtue and the inspiration she gained from her. “I think for many of us here who are Sisters of St. Francis, it is impossible to reflect on Mother Marianne without personalizing it,” said Sister Marion. “She has touched the core of my being. As a native of Molokai, I embrace her as ‘Ohana [family] because she called this island home for 30 years. She became a child of this land. I embrace her as a sister. One who said yes to God when he said, ‘Come follow me.’ She persevered and gave her life to God even when some of her greatest heartaches were from those with whom she shared community. I embrace her as a role model –– as one who was privileged to serve in congregational leadership. ‘I do not fear any disease,’ said Mother Marianne. I try to emulate her. I do not fear any dis-ease –– it’s only in those moments of dis-ease that great things can happen for God.”

Following the prayer service, approximately 75 people processed in the twilight to the gravesite, holding candles and singing Hawaiian hymns. Some people had traveled down from “topside” –– the peak of Molokai that is more developed –– to join in the ceremony. Ida Reyes works at the Molokai Credit Union and has lived on the island for 27 years. “A group from topside came down to say goodbye to Mother Marianne and to participate in the service.” As Ida placed a lei on Mother

Marianne’s monument, she said, “She is always going to be in our hearts, even if her remains go.” Kanani Peelua Negrillo, a resident of the island for all of her 66 years, said that she has always prayed to Mother Marianne for help. Showing emotion, Negrillo shared her belief that through Mother Marianne and Blessed Damien’s intervention, her son-in-law’s dream of becoming a park ranger on Kalaupapa came true. “I know she wants to go home,” said Negrillo. “She belongs with her family –– her sisters.”

Throughout the week on Kalaupapa, prayer services, Masses, vigils and reflections took place daily. The peaceful and serene island enhanced the spirituality of those present. St. Francis Church, re-built in 1908 after the original church burned, is perched on a grassy knoll at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The small church that combines Asian and Spanish influences is inviting and features several life-sized statues of saints. Behind the altar, a large crucifix of Jesus hung above a life-sized statue of Saint Francis.

Father Joseph Grimaldi, vicar general and head judge of the tribunal and canonical affairs for the Honolulu Diocese, presided at most of the week’s services and also supervised the exhumation process. “My job is to be here while the exhumation process is going on, to oversee the whole process and make sure the remains go in the metal box and that the box is sealed. I will gather the documentation that Vince gives me and put the seals of the diocese on them. And then, the notary, the promoter of justice will send them to Rome,” Father Grimaldi explained. Vince Sava was the head of the forensics team conducting the exhumation. He and his colleagues, most of whom are members of the joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu volunteered the services for this historic project.

“The Holy Father has been criticized for elevating so many people to sainthood,” said Father Grimaldi. “But we need saints as role models. Sainthood for Blessed Damien and Mother Marianne is so relevant today. So many people are dying of AIDS. In the past, leprosy was like the AIDS of today. People once feared people with AIDS. They were looked upon as the dregs of society. Leprosy patients experienced such loneliness. They were cast out of society. We lose sight of that because it’s now under control.”

Sister Francine Gries, OSF, entered the convent in Syracuse, trained at St. Joseph’s Hospital and worked at Mercy General Hospital in Auburn before transferring to the Honolulu Diocese where she worked for 37 years. Sister Francine spent almost eight years on Kalaupapa in the 1950s and 1960s, including six years as Mother Superior. She remembers well the sense of isolation the patients experienced. Her first experience was in 1955. “I came to Kalaupapa for the summer. I landed one afternoon and was told to report to work the next day. I started down the hill toward the hospital. The land was all overgrown and I got lost and ended up at the church. A patient stopped and said, ‘You look lost.’ I said, ‘I am.’ Because he was a leprosy patient, I couldn’t get in the car with him. He told me to follow him and he drove ahead of me about five miles an hour and I trotted along behind him.” Sister Francine explained that when the patients were leaving the island for medical reasons, they had to bring all their clothes in to be fumigated before they took them off the island. “The island administrator would drive them to the airport in his own car. The patients couldn’t drive their cars to the airport for contamination reasons.”

Life on the island has changed significantly since Sister Francine’s ministry there. Segregation is no longer practiced and visitors on the island for the exhumation had the privilege of dining, worshipping and socializing with the patients. Their stories were powerful and poignant, inspiring and insightful. Their hospitality was exceptional and evident as they presented the convent with homemade food and baked goods to help feed the guests.

Patient Paul Harada donated the use of his truck to carry Mother Marianne’s remains to St. Francis Church for the Aloha Mass on Jan. 25. In true Hawaiian custom, choir members from St. John Vianney’s Church in Honolulu joined the islanders in decorating the truck with ti leaves, maile leis and yellow hala. The container holding her remains was draped with a white cloth and leis. Sister Frances Cabrini, Sister Pat Burkard, Sister Mary Laurence Hanley and Father Grimaldi led the procession from the convent to the church. Six Franciscan Sisters acted as pallbearers. In the early morning light, Hawaiian songs filled the air and islanders stopped their morning tasks and joined the procession.

At the Mass, Sister Grace Anne Dillenschneider, assistant general minister of the Franciscan Order in Syracuse, reflected on the week of exhumation, vigils and services. “As I stood by the grave and watched her remains gradually emerge, I experienced many emotions,” said Sister Grace Anne. “A sense of sadness that we had to disturb Mother Marianne but then a sense of joy and a sense of peace –– knowing that this is the right time to do this, as Mother Marianne will become known throughout the world; a sense of awe that we were actually looking at Mother Marianne; a sense of gratitude for the privilege of being here; a sense of wonder for all that she was and all that she is –– here in Kalaupapa and in Honolulu and in Central New York.”

After the Aloha Mass, the islanders held a reception in the church hall before Mother Marianne’s remains were taken to the airport. Approximately 20 cars processed to the tiny airport, passing the many, many graves of people that Mother Marianne had cared for and ministered to. At the airport, patients were brought to the tarmac, so that all could witness Mother Marianne’s remains being loaded onto the plane. The choir led those gathered in singing the familiar Hawaiian song, “Aloha Oi” –– until we meet again.

So many shed tears for their beloved patroness, including Father Joseph Hendricks, pastor of St. Francis Church. However, a few showed joy –– knowing that Mother Marianne was one step closer to sainthood. Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, OSF, led the Franciscan Community for close to 30 years researching, documenting and gathering evidence to present to the Vatican for Mother Marianne’s cause.

On this momentous occasion she stood alone, quietly watching the plane taxi down the short runway. Her face and eyes sparkled with joy. When asked what that smile meant, she just smiled wider and walked to the white picket fence that bordered the runway. As the plane picked up speed and became airborne, Sister Mary Laurence saluted this woman she knew so well, 87 years after her death. Later she explained her smile. “I was thinking, at last. At last she will be recognized.” Father Hendricks admitted it was very sad to see Mother Marianne leave the island. “It was touching, “ he said. “For me it really was. She was a human being –– a beautiful example of what we all should be. Her whole life was spent in service to God.” He understood that her remains couldn’t stay because the land in which she rested was not church land. “They will use her to increase vocations in Syracuse. The main thing of a Christian life is charity. Mother Marianne was an extreme example of that.”
At St. Francis Convent in Honolulu, the Sisters of St. Francis welcomed the remains of Mother Marianne at a prayer service held on Saturday, Jan. 29 and a Mass on Sunday, Jan. 30. On Monday, Jan. 31, the public said a final farewell to Mother Marianne during a Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu. More than 500 people gathered to say Aloha and to prayer for Mother Marianne’s canonization to sainthood.

Mother Marianne’s remains were received at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with a special blessing and welcome on Feb. 2, the Feast of the Presentation. Those Sisters of St. Francis gathered in the Cathedral noted that the date was significant because many sisters recognized that date as their day of entrance into the Franciscan community. As the 300-plus crowd waited for the moment when the blue-gray brocade coffin carrying Mother Marianne’s remains would be brought into the Cathedral, they smiled and chatted among themselves. The grins were huge as some of them nodded and waved to friends as they arrived. Sister Christine Marie Altman, OSF, said, “I only have one word for you — AWESOME!”

Three Sisters of St. Francis from Hastings-on-Hudson, part of the newly-formed Franciscan congregation that includes sisters from Syracuse, Buffalo and Hastings-on-Hudson, were there to witness the monumental event. Sister Jean Canora, OSF, arrived earlier that evening and was planning to stay a few days with the community in Syracuse. Sister Patricia Schofield, OSF, works at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse and she said the patients and nurses were waiting for the remains to be driven past the hospital. “I told them she would be passing by between 9:30 and 10 p.m. and that they would be able to pray and remember her during that time,” Sister Patricia said. “It is so fitting that she is coming home today.”

With trumpet sounding, her coffin was escorted into the Cathedral and then both Bishop James Moynihan and Bishop Thomas Costello came to welcome the remains. Bishop Moynihan then blessed the remains saying, “I, as Bishop of the Diocese of Syracuse, welcome you, Venerable Mother Marianne Cope. I welcome you to the Cathedral of the diocese.”

Mother Marianne’s remains were presented to the bishop by Sister Patricia Burkard, OSF, general minister of the Sisters of St. Francis. The mood was one of reverence and awe as Bishop Moynihan expressed the great joy both he and Bishop Costello felt that evening. “Mother Marianne left this diocese many, many years ago and she always promised she would be back,” he said. Bishop Moynihan thanked the Franciscan community and particularly Sister Mary Laurence for her work in promoting Mother Marianne’s cause. He told the congregation that the biography written by Sister Mary Laurence and O.A. Bushnell, A Song of Pilgrimage and Exile: The Life and Spirit of Mother Marianne of Molokai, was a very good book, one that “you cannot put down.”

When the bishop made his first ad limina visit to Rome in 1998, he had the opportunity to speak with the Holy Father about Mother Marianne’s cause for sainthood. After he described her story to the pontiff, Pope John Paul II said, “She took care of the AIDS patients of her day,” and the pope told Bishop Moynihan, “We’ll have a saint for Syracuse.” The pride of the diocese, the pride of the Franciscan community — especially the Sisters of St. Francis — is justified in the simple woman who became a hero to the disenfranchised, disfigured, displaced suffering of Molokai.

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