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Legatus Magazine

Cover Story
Jim Graves | author
Apr 01, 2020
Filed under Featured

Hawaiian saints who embodied heroic love

Waikiki’s St. Augustine Parish in the Diocese of Honolulu, HawaiI, this year is opening a new Damien and Marianne of Molokai Education Center, a $6 million, 5,900-square-foot project spearheaded by Fr. Lane Akiona, St. Augustine’s pastor. It will tell the story of two of the Hawaiian Islands’ most popular saints, St. Damien of Molokai (1840-89) and St. Marianne Cope (1838-1918), with photographs, videos, interactive exhibits, and artifacts.

“Damien and Marianne are important to the Church in Hawaii because they are models for us on how to respond to those in need with charity,” explained Fr. Akiona, who is a member of Damien’s community, the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (SS.CC), and is from Molokai. “We want people who visit here to know their story.”

The vision of a Damien museum—called an “educational center,” to facilitate the raising of needed funding—began a dozen years ago when Fr. Akiona became pastor and wanted to better share the story of Father Damien in anticipation of his canonization, which occurred in 2009. Damien was born in Belgium, joined the SS.CC community, and volunteered to be a missionary in Hawaii. He was ordained a priest in 1864 in Honolulu’s Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace. He worked for a time on the Big Island, and then volunteered to spend the last 16 years of his life caring for the lepers confined to the Kalaupapa and Kalawao regions on the north side of Molokai Island. He eventually contracted and died of the disease in 1889.


Fr. Herman Gomes is provincial superior of Damien’s SS.CC community today and has been a member of the community for more than 40 years. In his extensive studies of the saint’s life, he has marveled at his unshakeable faith in God even after he contracted leprosy and knew a miserable death awaited him. Fr. Gomes said, “Damien saw that it was something God was allowing for his sanctification and his response was ‘Thy will be done.’”

Catholics in the Hawaiian Islands today see him as a committed missionary, and as a “model of faith and a great humanitarian.”

Conditions in the leper colony of Molokai were harsh when he arrived in 1873, Father said, with a few primitive dwellings and a might-makes-right system of governance. Stronger residents could assault weaker ones physically and sexually, Father said, without fear of consequence. Father explained, “What could they do, throw you in jail? In your mind, as you were already permanently confined to the island, you were in jail.”

For the next 16 years, St. Damien helped bring civility, a better standard of living, and the Catholic faith to the settlement, so that “a place of despair” was transformed into one that was “tolerable or even pleasant.”

Marianne was a Sister of St. Francis of Syracuse, New York. She volunteered to come to Molokai with a small group of her sisters, cared for Damien during the final months of his life, and continued his ministry after his death.

Sr. Alicia Damien Lau is a member of Sr. Marianne’s community, which is now known as the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities. She first came to the Kalaupapa community in 1965, when patients were still confined there, and still serves the few remaining ones who voluntarily chose to live in the settlement. Sr. Alicia said that when St. Marianne, or “Mother Marianne,” as the surviving patients like to call her, arrived, it was her desire that Kalaupapa be “not a sad but a happy place.” She encouraged the residents to dance, for example, and one of her letters described the residents as “joyful as butterflies.” Sr. Alicia said that she is reminded of this letter when she sees butterflies at St. Marianne’s gravesite at the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace. She continued, “Marianne cared for the disfigured and the outcast with unconditional love and compassion. Along with Fr. Damien, she made a tremendous contribution to the suffering of the time.”

Sr. Alicia traveled with 11 surviving Kalaupapa patients to Rome for Marianne’s canonization in 2012, the majority of whom had to use wheelchairs. It was also upon Marianne’s canonization that Fr. Akiona decided to include her story, along with Damien’s, in the new educational center.


In addition to Damien and Marianne, Father noted that the center will have a third component, the story of the patients who were once confined to Molokai. Father explained, “It was their illness that prompted Damien and Marianne to respond to them out of Christian charity and compassion. It led to their becoming saints.” 

The artifacts to be on display include St. Damien’s eyeglasses, cane, a pipe given to him by the bishop who ordained him a priest, vestments, and carpentry tools. St. Marianne’s artifacts are in the possession of her community in Syracuse, New York; Fr. Akiona hopes some will be lent to the center for display.

While the exterior of the building has been completed, work is continuing on the displays inside. The center will open this year, although an opening date has not been announced. It will be open six days a week and operated by paid staff and volunteers; visitors will be asked to pay a modest admission charge. The facility will also have a chapel and gift shop. 

Father plans to feature rotating exhibits, so that visitors will have incentive to return again and again. While it is difficult to project the number of visitors who will come, a previous Damien and Marianne Center housed in a nearby store from 2010-13 drew 40,000 annually. It closed because of a rent hike.


The bishop of Honolulu, Most Reverend Larry Silva, wondered why the center wasn’t located near the cathedral at a less expensive location. Waikiki has heavy foot traffic, Father Akiona responded, so a parking lot would not be necessary. Additionally, he said, large numbers of people come to Waikiki, bringing many potential visitors to the center.

Like Fr. Akiona, Bishop Silva has a personal connection to Molokai. His ancestors first came to Hawaii to work in the sugar cane industry in the 1870s; one contracted leprosy and was confined to Kalaupapa. He regularly leads pilgrimage groups to Kalaupapa, which must be accessed either by a 9-passenger airplane, or by foot or mule on a switchback trail up a 2,000-foot cliff. Damienrelated sites which can be visited on Molokai include St. Philomena Church, where Fr. Damien celebrated Mass, St. Joseph Church in Kamalo (outside of the leper colony), which he built, and Damien’s original gravesite. Eight thousand patients were confined in Molokai 1866-1969. The few remaining residents who stay by choice will be allowed to remain until the end of their lives, despite the great expense to operate the site.

Typically, visitors come to Molokai on day trips, but more than once, the bishop said, bad weather has led to the cancellation of flights and groups have had to spend the night on Molokai. Bishop Silva continued, “The people there are always accommodating and help us to make do.”

Fr. Akiona welcomes inquiries by educational organizations interested in partnering with the education center to help him create a “broader story line” of the pair. For additional information, visit

JIM GRAVES is a Legatus magazine guest contributor.


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