Saint Marianne

(on the anniversary of her birth, Jan. 23, 1838)

Let us make best use of the fleeting moments.
They will not return.
—Saint Marianne Cope, mother of outcasts, Kalaupapa, Moloka’i

In the old photos she looks so tiny,
the Franciscan nun with such faith
and persistence that she persuaded
an all-powerful bishop to let her bring
six sisters to a remote peninsula on a
small Hawaiian island to tend the dying.

“I am hungry for the work,” Mother Marianne
wrote the bishop in 1883. “I am not afraid
of any disease, hence it would be my greatest
delight ever to minister to the abandoned lepers.”

Even in fading black and white, there’s
determination in the eyes of that capable
nurse, promising the half dozen nuns who
came with her that none of them would fall ill
or die, more than a half century before drugs
arrived to arrest the disease Hawaiians called
ma’i pake. The sisters would house and educate
the girls, as the brothers did the boys, no
matter how long the children lived, tend
the sick, young and old, with their oozing sores,
offer comfort to the dying. They would wash
their hands after every patient.

God would care for them all; they would thrive.
And they did.

She was mother to them all, doing
“the work in the name of the great St. Francis”
for 35 years, dying in 1918 of natural causes,
laid to rest by adoring hands in the land
she loved. Almost nine decades later,
exhumed on the brink of sainthood, her
21st century sisters helped collect the relics
of their rising star who, it was said, had
changed a dark place into one of light,
dignity and joy.

They reverently arranged the bits of
her blesséd bones, one told me, on a
table in the Bishop Home where she
had lived with scores of women and girls,
sat a vigil and prayed for Hawaii’s
female saint, in gratitude and love,

Though her relics left Kalaupapa,
the woman they still call Mother
remains embedded in the hearts,
in the soil, along with 8,000 who died
in one of Hawaii’s most sacred places.
Among them a carpenter priest named
Damien, who welcomed her—he, too,
now sainted. Both heavenly lights called
to the work of their lives, like so many
who followed, who continue to honor
their names, in remembrance,
with aloha.


In memory of the people of Kalaupapa who lived and died there, with gratitude to those who continue to work to keep their stories alive. More information about Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka’i in Hawaii—where people with leprosy (now called Hansen’s Disease) were sent for almost 100 years and the project to build a memorial to the 8,000 people who died there—can be found here.

Mother Marianne Cope, center, and the nursing sisters of Kalaupapa, 1899

About janishaag

Writer, writing teacher, editor
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