By Marlene Watkins
Sun contributing writer
Marlene Watkins is the director of North American Lourdes Volunteers based in Syracuse.
Big Shoes to Fill
Underneath my desk is a pair of shoes that I continually hope to fill somehow in my lifetime. The moment I put eyes on these sandals, surprisingly I can more easily fill them with tears — every single time. Crying was considered a weakness in my family. Tears didn’t come easy. When I look at these $5.99 Hawaiian flip flops, no matter how busy or far away I might be from my Molokai experience, I am emotionally transported back to receiving these sandals. They came with a buy-one-get-one free gift of spontaneous tears, as if a wet cry-baby certificate was stapled to them.
While unexpectedly visiting Kalaupapa several months ago, we were taken to meet the nurse at the Care Center where the residents receive ongoing medical treatment. My old sandal broke on the secluded peninsula where I arrived unprepared for sparse simplicity. Nobody cared what shoes I wore. Walking barefoot gave way to a sole connection with holy ground where saints had walked. As we approached the medical site, we realized shoes were required inside the state facility. Sister Rose Annette Ahuna, OSF, slipped off her sandals without hesitation and gave them to me. I cried a mile in her shoes that day. I met a blessed woman, a live introduction to our very real Communion of Saints. Thus began my journey to meet Mother Marianne as a vibrant person, a living woman of faith, a religious of courage, humor, simplicity, the Light of Christ to many — a selfless woman of love breathing the Gospel into everyday life.
Still, it came as a gently startling realization that a sister with a Franciscan vow of poverty who could not go into town for another pair of sandals would make this gift so freely. She had one other pair of shoes at Bishop Home, so she walked back barefoot. There are no shoe stores in the Settlement which remains the outpost home of familiarity for Hansen patients who chose to remain. The government keeps a one-room grocery store that is open a few hours most mornings for residents. Visitors can bring one backpack with canned food and are only able to stay as a guest sponsored by a resident. Sister gave me her shoes for use during my island visit and told me to keep them. With God’s grace, I will keep trying to be worthy to wear them.
It seems spiritually ambitious to try to fill holy shoes, to walk like a saint as we are called to be. The sight of sister’s sandals under the desk calling to my not-so-holy feet has the power to change the way I can walk in them. It’s intimidating yet humbling to have these precious reminders tucked under my desk within our humble Syracuse offices in the Franciscan Motherhouse on Court Street.
Along the Road to Holiness
Mother Marianne remains in Hawaii and I truly met her on Kalaupapa two times in 2010. We don’t need to imagine 125 years ago or travel back in time to find Blessed Marianne Cope. We need only to meet her in her Franciscan sisters now. Today they are Marianne — alive and well among us. She lives her legacy of love through them. When we look into their eyes, we see through to her clearly. We can meet her.
Two worlds apart and one heart together is the unbelievable story of Mother Marianne and island Molokai. Invited by the Church to Hawaii, she accepted the work among exiled leprosy victims in the name of St. Francis. To trace the actual footsteps of the now-beatified Mother Marianne seems a logical path to follow. Trying to imagine her and trace her holy way of sacrifice amidst an island of suffering, we hope to find the imprint of her soul.
Possibly we can discover her way to Heaven, a road map for us to follow in our lives.
Three sisters reside at Kalaupapa. Sister Francis Therese as a dedicated nurse for 19 ½ years and Sisters Theresa and Rose Annette are a joyful presence for the remaining 19 residents.
These sisters still pick the fruit from original trees planted by Blessed Marianne as superior to nourish her sisters living on the peninsula. The sisters continue to nurture spiritual growth today just as she did. When Mother Marianne was in charge of the female Home at Kalaupapa, she promised dying Father Damien that after his death she would also take charge of the Boys Home. St. Damien said he could die in peace knowing the sisters were at the settlement. Through her sisters today they keep her word. The sisters work in the Gospel vineyard of tropical plants and spiritual fruits never abandoning those who were exiled and abandoned.
Sanctity feels out of reach for us ordinary, imperfect people. The lives of the saints seem so long ago and out of our league, too heroic, unobtainable. The truth must be that the majority of the Communion of Saints will be everyday sinners like us, purged-in-love through to Heaven, by the grace of God, paid-in-full by Christ. Our ticket to Heaven stamped, we need only to live up to cashing it in.
We arrived in Honolulu with short notice, surprised by love evident in quiet Sister Francis Regis who welcomed us in the Hawaiian tradition with an island flower lei. Aloha is hello, goodbye and love all rolled into one fragrant greeting. Sister Francis Regis is personified aloha. Her generosity and heart relay gracious and holy hospitality. Everyone at Kalaupapa knew I was a first-time island visitor. After I sat on a lava rock, all behind me could see the stains on the skirt of my only island outfit. When I returned to Honolulu, Sister Francis Regis scrubbed that skirt clean. Instead of ready-to-wear, I now have a humble reminder of worthy-to-wear with my matching sandals. Can I follow these ladies washing and walking in everyday holiness? I hope so.
Mother Marianne Today
Each sister of the Franciscan order represents a different facet of the hand-cut gem God masterfully honed to became the jewel Blessed Marianne in the Crown of the Communion of Saints. It is as if we are looking clearly through a precious prism of the holy aspects of Mother within each of her sisters.
No surfing or swimming or luau. We said we wanted only to follow the footsteps of Blessed Marianne when we arrived in Hawaii. Sister Francis Regis and the other sisters each humbly smiled and responded, “We are all trying to do just that.” And so we followed them and came to realize they truly are her, living and loving as Blessed Marianne did.
The sisters founded the first hospice, first dialysis center, first hospitals in Maui, Syracuse and Utica along with schools, orphanages, adult day care centers, and whatever the current needs of humanity were and are. Sister Kathleen at Francis House, Sisters Dolly (Dolores) and “JP” (James Peter) with Northside Ministries, Sister Jane originating Gingerbread House, Sister Christopher beginning the Adult Day Care and Sister Barbara Jean continuing this greatly needed ministry, Saints Elizabeth, Francis and Joseph Hospitals and three Schools of Nursing in Honolulu, Syracuse and Utica. The list continues with the good works of these tireless women. The Franciscan Sisters are where there is suffering or need, across the ocean, over the islands, throughout time, like Blessed Marianne, they do the nearly impossible to be Christ and Francis to us when we need Him most.
How can all these holy women exist? By the grace of God, following their models, Christ, St. Francis and Bl. Marianne, they become them personified for us to witness. The Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities are Blessed Marianne of Molokai, Hawaii, Syracuse and Utica, Buffalo, Hastings-on-Hudson, Melville and so many places beyond.