Partners on Molokai: Damien, Marianne Cope, and Lepers

St. Philomena Church, Molokai, photo by Eric Shuler

The guide pointed to the wooden floor of the church. “You see the holes? Fr. Damien carved them out so the congregation didn’t worry about profaning the church if they needed to spit out a bit of their throat or cheeks that had come off while singing.”

I was lucky to be there. The church—St. Philomena’s—sits near the ocean in the tropical paradise of Molokai, Hawaii. No one comes to that church on the Kalaupapa Peninsula though just for the view. They come because it is a site that is holy and horrible, a place where ill people were stripped of humanity and where two saints worked together to change that. I proposed to my future wife on the feast day of one of those saints, and there is a reason for that choice.

The Leper Colony of Molokai

I had to board a eight-person passenger plane from a neighboring island to get to Kalaupapa. It was the kind of plane where the captain had to gruffly tell each person where to sit so that the weight would be distributed—even so the flight felt like the whole aircraft was mounted on a polo stick. Once on Molokai, we were assigned mules and begin an hour-long, 2000-foot descent down a steep cliffside path with drop-offs that alternated between spectacular and terrifying. This was the only “road” that can go down into the peninsula.

The author riding his mule down into Kalaupapa on the only trail down. Photo by Kathy Shuler.
The author overlooking the bay where lepers were told to wade ashore. No dock or pier would be built until after Fr. Damien’s arrival. Photo by Kathy Shuler.

Kalaupapa’s isolation is purposeful. It was a leper colony. When Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) arrived in Hawaii in the 1800s, people reacted in fear (as they had in most places). It is a horrible disease. You start to lose feeling in your toes and fingers, and then the rest of your body begins to decay. Loosing that sense of touch means you frequently injure yourself and perhaps don’t even notice until infection sets in. Leprosy victims may have large, bulbous sores or may have parts of their body literally slough away. Some live with leprosy for decades; others die in a couple years.

Hansen’s Disease had no cure before the discovery of antibiotics. Fortunately, it isn’t very contagious and many people are naturally immune, but that wasn’t understood then and, even so, who would want to risk being one of the unlucky ones? King Kamehameha V followed standard practice and ordered any person with leprosy in the Hawaiian islands be taken from their families and banished to Kalaupapa. Even young children were taken.

The lepers were left to care for themselves even as their bodies failed. No one wanted to live with them out of fear of the disease. No system existed to care for children or the ill. Food supplies were irregular; lepers were expected to grow food despite their sickness. Bodies often went unburied since they had no family and other lepers were too busy husbanding their strength for their own survival.

Fr. Damien: Saint of Molokai

Fr. Damien belonged to the Congregation of the Sacred Heart, which appropriately encapsulates both his giant heart and his willingness to suffer for others as Jesus did. He came to Hawaii as a missionary and volunteered to go to Kalaupapa to be the lepers’ priest. They had already built the first St. Philomena’s Church and needed someone to give them sacramental comfort. Despite this being in theory a temporary assignment, Fr. Damien never left.

Cover of the book that introduced me to St. Damien of Molokai. If you look closely at the image, you can see the beginnings of leprosy deforming the right side of Fr. Damien’s face. You can see more pictures of him over the course of the disease at

There is a lot that could be said of his achievements: organizing care for orphans, building a cemetery, providing medical care, and relentlessly advocating for the rest of society to care for and respect the victims of Hansen’s Disease. Even non-Catholics around the world came to admire and respect him. My first introduction to Fr. Damien actually came through a book by a non-Catholic whose distance made his admiration for Fr. Damien’s faithful life that much more powerful to me.

What impresses me most about Fr. Damien though is his legacy of love. A handful of former patients still live in Kalaupapa and a Sacred Heart priest still ministers to them. When one of the former patients spoke to my tour a hundred years after Damien’s death, he still spoke with passion about how Damien would go into the rough houses of lepers, sit with them, eat out of the same pot as them (in Hawaiian custom), and just talk to them. Even their families had in some cases abandoned them, but he refused to let their leprosy change his treatment of them one iota.

That decision probably killed Fr. Damien in the end. He contracted leprosy himself and died five years later in 1889, sixteen years after first coming to Molokai. He is still remembered with love.

Mother Marianne Cope

I proposed to my wife on the feast day of Kalaupapa’s second saint: Mother Marianne Cope. She is a hometown saint for me. Although born in Germany, she spend a good part of her life in Syracuse, NY as a member of the Sisters of St. Francis. She served as a teacher, a school administrator, and then the leader of the sisters’ new hospital—St. Joseph’s, the first hospital in Syracuse open to the general public.

Franciscan sisters in the Middle Ages had founded some of the first hospitals dedicated to caring for the ill, including houses for lepers. So it was fitting that when a call went out from Hawaii for volunteers to staff hospitals and care for lepers, Mother Marianne and her community responded. It was not an easy decision. Their work in New York still was young. Hawaii was halfway around the world with few modern amenities and no easy way to return to visit family and friends. Then there was the specter of leprosy. Mother Marianne made a promise though to her religious sisters: none of them would contract the dreaded disease if they came. As it turned out, none of them did.

Mother Marianne, companions, and girls for whom she cared in Hawaii. Wikimedia Commons.

Mother Marianne was in many ways the opposite of Fr. Damien. She was practical, hard-nosed, efficient, and a skilled administrator. She built her hospitals, orphanages, and other enterprises to last. She insisted on the latest nursing practices including hygiene and sterilization (things that we would take for granted now but was still new back then). However, she never forgot the humanity of her patients in the midst of her clinical work. The orphan girls under her care, for example, remembered a home filled with laughter and music. In 1918, Mother Marianne passed away after thirty-five years in different ministries in Hawaii.

Partnerships in God

She did say yes! Somewhat self-indulgent photo by author.

Why did I choose Mother Marianne to be the patron for when I “popped the question” to my future wife? In part there was the hometown appeal. I had worked with the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse after university as part of the FrancisCorps volunteer program, and they had pride in their saint (and still continued her medical mission in Hawaii); being with awesome women who liked her definitely made me like her too. Also, while getting married is a different kind of journey into the unknown than volunteering to minister on the other side of the world, I figured St. Marianne could still help.

The best reason though comes from thinking of Marianne and Damien together. I think theirs is a wonderful example of partnership in Christ. They had the same love for God and neighbor. They had the same willingness to sacrifice. They both loved those whose dignity had been snatched away by the world. Yet both carried out their holy work in very different ways. Each brought their special charism, whether for companionship or creating something lasting.

I think that is a wonderful blueprint for marriage or any other holy partnership. You need a shared goal and a shared love to shape a shared vision and give strength in living it. At the same time, each person, each spouse, each saint is unique. We honor each other—and the God who made us with our special blend of gifts—by having a partnership that can embrace each person’s creative path of service. Saints Marianne and Damien, pray for us.