Women of Risk

The Sisters of St. Francis celebrate 125 years of service in Hawaii.

Photo by Rae Huo

Sisters Alicia Damien Lau (left) and Marie Jose Romano continue the work started by Mother Marianne Cope (pictured).

More than a century ago, leprosy reached epidemic proportions in the kingdom of Hawaii. Due to the contagious nature of the disease (now known as Hansen’s disease) and the uncertainty of how it was spread, most in the medical field wouldn’t touch the afflicted, much less treat them. Instead, hundreds and ultimately thousands were ripped from their homes and families and quarantined to the remote Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai. At a loss as to how to help his people, King Kamehameha V made an urgent plea to 50 Catholic institutions across America for nursing Sisters to help care for the patients and their children.

Only one woman had the courage to accept: Mother Marianne Cope of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Third Order of St. Francis of Syracuse, N.Y. 

In her response letter, Cope famously replied, “I am hungry for the work.”

On Nov. 8, 1883, the 45-year-old Cope arrived at Honolulu Harbor with six other nuns and the fearless determination to care for Hawaii’s sick. Now, 125 years later, the Sisters of St. Francis in Hawaii celebrate Cope by perpetuating her work through healthcare, education and social work.

“Mother Marianne is the reason we’re here today,” Sister Marie Jose Romano explains. Accordingly, the group has chosen “Women of Vision, Women of Risk,” as the theme for their yearlong 125th anniversary celebration.

While Cope spent the last 30 years of her life tending to the needs of Hansen’s patients at Kalaupapa (without ever contracting the disease), her work inspired healthcare programs on almost every island in the state.

On Maui, the Sisters opened the island’s first hospital in 1884, now known as Maui Memorial Medical Center. They also operated the Hilo County Memorial Hospital, now known as Hilo Medical Center, in the early 20th century. On Oahu, the Sisters opened two hospitals, one in Honolulu in 1927, where they were among the first to offer innovative services such as kidney dialysis, organ transplants and cancer rehabilitation, and the other in Ewa Beach in 1990, to serve the needs of Leeward residents. The hospitals are now known as Hawaii Medical Center East and Hawaii Medical Center West, respectively.

Through its five operating subsidiaries, including the St. Francis Healthcare Foundation and the St. Francis Residential Care Community, the Sisters continue to pioneer and provide quality medical and healthcare to the community. “St. Francis worked with the impoverished and marginalized,” Sister Alicia Damien Lau says. “The Sisters have always done the same, following his philosophy of compassionate caring. We take care of patients whether they can pay or not.”

In recent years, the Sisters have extended their healthcare to include hospice care and nursing homes. They also continue to provide medical care for the 25 or so Hansen’s patients still living in Kalaupapa.

In addition to healthcare, the Sisters of St. Francis opened St. Francis Convent School in Manoa in 1924, now known as St. Francis School, and continue to provide administration, staffing and religious educational programs at numerous schools and parishes throughout the Islands.

“When you take a look at the lives of St. Francis and Mother Marianne, they were always doers. A lot of our Sisters have also been doers in the sense that we get a lot of satisfaction from helping those who cannot help themselves,” Lau says. “And there’s so much more to be done.”  


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