Thursday, October 18, 2012

Before a Nun Is Sainted, Honoring Her Upstate Past

UTICA, N.Y. — But for a wooden sign at its edge, the vacant field resembled any other in a neighborhood of factories and worn-out buildings here, not far from the Erie Canal: a few trees scattered across thick green grass, a patch of shaggy weeds growing beside a boarded-up garage at its rear.
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Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
(Photo Right) Ivy Kahilihiwa, part of a group from Hawaii celebrating the canonization of Mother Marianne, greeting Sister Rosanne LaManche at St. Anthony Convent in Syracuse last weekend.
Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
A statue of Mother Marianne, who will be canonized on Sunday. 
And yet, on Sunday, three tour buses bearing more than 100 Hawaiian pilgrims arrived. Ignoring a steady stream of rain, they climbed across the buckled sidewalk to pray for a woman who once lived on this land, whose favorite hymn, “O Makalapua,” they know by heart and whose face they wore on pins, medallions and specially made Hawaiian shirts: Mother Marianne Cope.
Mother Marianne will be one of seven Roman Catholic saints — including another New Yorker, Kateri Tekakwitha — canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday. The pilgrims had stopped en route to Rome to celebrate the canonization of a woman beloved in Hawaii and known as “Mother of the Outcasts” for her work among the sick.  “She was just an ordinary person, like us,” said Charlotte Recarte, 67, a retiree from Oahu. “Inside all of us, we can be saints. We just have to do the work. That’s what Mother Marianne did.”
Born Barbara Koob in what is now Germany, Mother Marianne moved with her family to Utica in 1839, when she was a year old. Her faith was formed at St. Joseph’s church and parish school, which she attended until eighth grade. When her father grew ill, she left school to work for in the city’s factories to help support her younger siblings. In 1862, when they were old enough to care for themselves, she entered the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse.
In 1883, she answered a call to help thousands of Hawaiians who were ill with a mysterious and disfiguring disease known as leprosy and who were being taken from their families and exiled to a remote peninsula on Molokai called Kalaupapa.  Would the nun take charge of the hospitals and lead a ministry among these patients? “I am not afraid of any disease,” she wrote, agreeing to what would become a more-than-30-year mission serving those banished to the towering sea cliffs of Kalaupapa. She also paved the way for others in her order to continue her work, connecting communities in Hawaii and New York.
Eight thousand people with leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, lived on Kalaupapa from 1866 until the isolation laws were lifted in 1969. Among the 17 still alive, 9 traveled to New York to visit the life that the nun had left behind.  “I wanted to come to learn about what she was before Kalaupapa,” Ivy Kahilihiwa said.
Ms. Kahilihiwa arrived on Kalaupapa in 1958, after a small mark on her back signaled her illness. By that time, medicine was available to help ease her pain, but she saw in the older patients the disfigurement that was widespread before treatment became available.  “It made me so grateful for Mother Marianne,” Ms. Kahilihiwa, 76, said. “Not anybody could go there and do that work to help so many who suffered.” As they crisscrossed central New York visiting her home, her convent and her first parish, the pilgrims — patients, parishioners and clergy members from across Hawaii, including Larry Silva, the bishop of Honolulu — saw pieces of Mother Marianne’s youth.
At St. Joseph and St. Patrick Church, opposite the site of the original wooden building where Mother Marianne first prayed, parishioners welcomed the Hawaiians for a prayer service.  “Shalom.” “Aloha.”
“We are so joyful you are here.”   Incense filled the air of the towering Italianate-style church. Hymns were accompanied by ukulele and pu‘ili, a Hawaiian bamboo rattle. Stephen Prokop, the superintendent of Kalaupapa National Historical Park, performed a reading in his forest green uniform, a kukui nut lei strung around his neck.  “Mother Marianne is a major, major figure in the history of Kalaupapa,” he said afterward, adding, “I wanted to learn more about Mother Marianne’s life.”
The group traveled between Utica and nearby Syracuse throughout the day.  At St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Utica, one of two hospitals in central New York that Mother Marianne helped establish, a group of Hawaiian nuns dashed into a parking lot, hugging two nuns who had been waiting to glimpse members of their order, whom they had not seen in years. And during the final stop of the day, at St. Anthony Convent of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Syracuse, the last patients of Kalaupapa met with now-retired nuns who had continued the work of Mother Marianne, ministering on the peninsula before the isolation ended.
At the convent where Mother Marianne began her religious life and where her remains lie, the former patients and nuns clasped hands and steadied one another, recalling the beauty of the landscape and the nicknames of those on the island: “tip toe,” “tom boy,” “the fishing nun.”  Sister Rosanne LaManche, 92, smiled while listening to the shared memories of long ago. She recalled her arrival on the island in 1949.   “Driving in along the peninsula, I saw that along one road there were graves, graves, graves,” she said, shaking her head. “Mother Marianne should’ve been canonized the day she died.”
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