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When I was 13 years old my father’s job changed and we moved from Massachusetts to Syracuse, New York where I met and was educated for two years by Franciscan Sisters. It was during that first school year that I read a book about Mother Marianne of Molokai, later to be canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Mother Marianne Cope was already famous in Syracuse; she was, in the early years of the 20th century, the Superior General of the Sisters who taught in my school and lived only about a mile from there. Many of the Sisters in her community were born in or ministered to the people of Hawaii.

Today is the feast of Father Damien de Veuster who entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary at age 19 and later volunteered to go to the Hawaiian Islands to replace his brother, a priest who had been assigned there but fell ill. In 1873 Damien went as a part-time chaplain to the Hawaiian government’s leper colony on the island of Moloka’i but soon volunteered to stay there permanently to serve the physical, medical and spiritual needs of the people, especially those with leprosy (now called Hansen’s disease.).

Needing help for this difficult ministry, Father Damien wrote to many communities of religious Sisters asking for volunteers to come to work with him. The story goes that he promised in his letters that no Sisters who volunteered would contract the disease (although he himself was later to die of Hansen’s disease). Of the reputed 50 communities to whom he made the request, Mother Marianne was the only Superior who responded affirmatively and volunteered herself to go with her Sisters to Moloka’i. As promised, none of the Sisters became infected with the disease which is now curable with multi-drug therapy and early treatment.

The courage and willingness of Mother Marianne Cope and Father Damien touched my heart as a young teenager and remains an example to me to this day. I honor all of those who follow in the steps of St. Francis and celebrate them especially in the heritage of Father Damien and Mother Marianne.