'Mother Of Outcasts' To Be A Saint For Leprosy Work During a tragic era in Hawaiian history, more than 8,000 people with leprosy — now known as Hansen's disease — were banished to the island of Molokai. Mother Marianne Cope began caring for these patients in the late 1800s, answering their desperation with hope. Sunday, the nun will become a saint.

'Mother Of Outcasts' To Be A Saint For Leprosy Work

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Tomorrow, an American nun, Mother Marianne Cope, will become a saint. She is the second person from Hawaii to be so honored that way by the Catholic Church for caring for people with leprosy, a condition now known as Hansen's disease. Heidi Chang has the story from Honolulu.

HEIDI CHANG, BYLINE: During a tragic era in Hawaiian history, more than 8,000 people were banished to Kalaupapa, a remote peninsula on the island of Molokai. They had leprosy. Back then, there was no cure. The patients were treated as outcasts until a Belgian priest, Father Damien, came to care for them in 1873. But he eventually contracted the disease and died. Just five months before his death, Mother Marianne Cope arrived in Kalaupapa. Sister Alicia Damien Lau, says Cope risked her own life to care for people with leprosy.

SISTER ALICIA DAMIEN LAU: They had no idea what leprosy was all about. And did not speak the language, didn't understand the culture.

CHANG: Cope was a member of the Sisters of Saint Francis and spent 35 years caring for leprosy patients in Hawaii, mostly in Kalaupapa. She died there at the age of 80 of natural causes. Today, Cope continues to inspire Lau in caring for Hansen's disease patients. Lau says listening to their stories over the years has moved her to try to help some of them resolve their anger.

LAU: Being in Kalaupapa, and being here in the early days was worse than in prison.

CHANG: From 1866 to 1969, anyone diagnosed with leprosy was exiled to the settlement.

LAU: Coming to Kalaupapa, once you got here, you knew that you would never leave Kalaupapa. And this was in the early days, before they found the cure for Hansen's disease or for leprosy. And that was in, you know, the late '40s.

BISHOP LARRY SILVA: I think she took a situation where there was a lot of sadness and disfigurement, and tried to bring joy and beauty to it.

CHANG: Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva says Cope also gave people hope and dignity. He points out that Cope planted flowers and fruit trees so that the place where they lived would be beautiful, and they'd have food. Silva is going to Rome for Cope's canonization. For him, it's a personal journey because he grew up knowing that his great grandfather and great aunt were sent to Kalaupapa. But some of his relatives kept their exile a secret.

SILVA: So, I asked my aunt, how is it that your children never knew this? And she said we were told never to talk about this because if someone in the family had leprosy, the whole family was suspect.

CHANG: Today, only 17 Hansen's disease patients remain in the state of Hawaii. One of them is Gloria Marks, who's lived in Kalaupapa since 1960.

GLORIA MARKS: You know, it takes a lot of courage, you know, for somebody to give up and come to Kalaupapa to care for the patient.

CHANG: Marks attended the canonization of Father Damien in 2009 and will also be going to Rome to see Cope elevated to sainthood.

MARKS: We are very, very proud of it. We can walk on clouds, you know, because we so proud that two from a little island get two saint on it. So, I think Hawaii should be proud of it.

CHANG: Today, Mother Marianne Cope's legacy lives on in Hawaii through the hospital she established, and through the work the sisters do in health care and education. They continue to take care of the elderly, the poor and the last remaining Hansen's disease patients in Kalaupapa. For NPR News, I'm Heidi Chang in Honolulu.


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