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Terrance KleinOctober 26, 2012

Sister Leopoldina Burns recorded the event many years later, when she was more than 65 years old. Her English is a bit hard-pressed, because she wrote late at night. Twenty years in Hawaii, and she was still working long days as a nurse.

A short distance from the office they entered a long narrow building made of rough boards and they were whitewashed, this is the lepers dining room he said. Our gentle Mother and the Sisters stood staring—never in their lives had they met with such horrors, the dirt and swarms of flies that covered the long tables and benches. They were wondering if they had ever been cleaned? When they passed along a covered veranda at the end of the kitchen which was in a most frightful condition, thick with filth and flies. The slick handsome man having charge of the place was not ashamed—he seemed to think it was good enough for the lepers (125).

In A Song of Pilgrimage and Exile Mother Marianne’s modern biographers, Sister Mary Laurence Hanley and O. A. Bushnell, continue the scene. The patients’ wards were

Long narrow cottages given roofs but no ceilings. The rough walls, once whitewashed, were as mottled as the people propped up against them. Fat bedbugs nested in the cracks. Brown stains upon walls, floors, and bedding showed where their blood-filled bodies had been crushed by desperate patients. Straw mattresses, each more or less covered with a dirty blanket, lay upon the unswept floor or, for more affluent inmates, upon planks supported by low carpenters’ horses. Blankets, mattresses, clothing, and patients all supported an incredible population of lice. No attempt had been made to separate patients according to age, sex, or stage of illness. Men, women, adolescents, young children, the moribund as well as the quick: all were thrown together in those precincts of hell (125).

This was the first sight that Saint Marianne Cope and the six Sisters of Saint Francis, who accompanied her to Hawaii, had of the lepers they would serve. These were the people, to use the phrase of the Prophet Jeremiah, the Lord wanted delivered. “Look! I will bring them back from the land of the north; I will gather them from the ends of the earth, the blind and the lame in their midst...with weeping they shall come, but with compassion I will guide them” (31:8-9).

Shift now to an earlier scene. This one, back in Syracuse, New York. The German-born, Utica-raised Mother Marianne, having already built a hospital and been elected the provincial of her fledgling congregation, is ready to depart for Hawaii with her companions.

A few older sisters from the convent and from St. Joseph’s Hospital accompanied them to the railroad station, where friends from among the laity joined the group. Just before seven o’clock the express train from New York City came hissing in. With last embraces, tears, and prayers the seven Sisters of St. Francis...bade farewell to their dearest friends. Conductors helped them to enter the car. At seven o’clock the train began to move out of the station. Kneeling at the coach’s open window, looking back, Sister Crescentia saw a picture of grief that she would never forget. Mother Bernardina reaching out her arms, “her dear face so white and drawn like the agony of death.” And weeping sisters gathered around, to comfort her (85-86).

These are scenes one expects to see in the life of a saint: a challenge to be met, a goodbye to the comforts that preceded it.

Here is a small plot twist. Shortly after the train pulled out of the station, Mother Marianne realized that she had forgotten her purse. The heavy thing contained their tickets, their documents, their addresses, and their money. Her biographers write, “The incident of the forgotten purse is most uncharacteristic of this woman who, during all the years until that day, seems never to have forgotten anything else at any other time: it is a lapse of memory for psychologists to ponder” (86).

Did an unconscious desire to return produce the uncharacteristic forgetfulness? Or did Mother Marianne deeply desire one more look at the familiar, before God swept her deep into the unknown? 

Here is a lesson, which those of us who are not departing for mission lands, can learn from Saint Marianne. We think that a truly blessed spiritual life includes insight into the plans of God, into what comes next. We tell ourselves that, if only we could see the future, we would understand and would be better able to respond to the will of God. Our prayer is that of the blind man in Saint Mark’s Gospel, “Master, I want to see!” (10:51). Of course, he only sought a preview of the present; we want a peek at the future.

Ironically, one of the great blessings of God is ignorance of tomorrow. Think about it. When we marched down church aisles to swear vows, when we made commitments that we have struggled to keep, would we have been able to pronounce those promises without—pardon the odd phrase — graced ignorance? If we could see the future, would we have had the strength to say “yes”? If even a saint like Marianne Cope could not help but to desire, subconsciously, to turn back, what hope would the rest of us have if God did not gingerly and gracefully reveal the future at pace we can handle?

Only a few years after their arrival in Hawaii, the American novelist Robert Louis Stevenson watched Mother Marianne and her sisters tend the lepers of Molokai. He would say of what he saw: “even a fool is silent and adores” (185). For those who have eyes of faith, it is quite enough to watch what God is already doing in the world. Only a fool needs to see what happens next.

Jeremiah 31: 7-9 Hebrews 5: 1-6 Mark 10: 46-52


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