Saint Damien Church Opens on Molokai in Time for Christmas: Island Catholic Community Proud to Have Two Saints

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Saint Damien Church in Kaunakakai, Molokai

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – KAUNAKAKAI, MOLOKAI – For 14 years, the Catholic community on the scarcely populated island of Molokai, has tried to raise enough money to build a church in its main town of Kaunakakai to honor Saint Damien of Molokai.

After raising $2 million from bake sales, community fairs and donations, and the Catholic Diocese kicking in another $1.2 million, Saint Damien of Molokai Church opened two weeks ago. Run by Sacred Heart priests, the parish held its first mass last Sunday and will celebrate its first Christmas mass on December 24 and 25.


The timing for the church opening, some island Catholics believe, could not be more perfect.

Fr. Damien, known as “The Leper Priest and Hero of Molokai,” was declared a saint in 2009 and Blessed Mother Marianne Cope, who worked side by side with Damien and other sisters in Molokai, was cleared for “sainthood” by the Roman Catholic Church Pope last week.

Saint Damien

Saint Damien was sent to Honolulu in 1864 and then worked in Big Island missions. In 1873, he volunteered to work in Kalaupapa. In 1885, he was diagnosed with the disease, something he announced proudly because he wanted to experience what his patients did. And he continued to build hospitals, clinics, churches and coffins on the island. His sainthood ceremony was held in Rome on October 11, 2009, with King Albert II of the Belgians, Queen Paola and Belgian Prime Minister in attendance.

The Molokai church writes on its web site: In his ministry on Molokai, Father Damien bandaged and comforted the leprosy patients; built hospitals, houses, chapels and coffins; organized picnics; educated the children; and ministered to the patients’ spiritual needs. In his work with the patients who had been exiled to the isolated Kalaupapa peninsula, Father Damien reformed a settlement known for its lawlessness, filth and despair, into a community of individual respect, love and laughter. Father Damien built a community of love and hope through his teaching and living Jesus Christ’s gospel message of unconditional love.”

Like Saint Damien, Cope, the former leader of Syracuse’s Franciscan sisters, was known for her work and dedication to leprosy patients in Kalaupapa, Molokai.

Cope was born in Germany, but her family moved to the United States eventually settling in Utica. After joining the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse in 1862, she established two hospitals there.

Always caring for the sick and abandoned, she brought a group of sisters to Hawaii in 1883 to care for those with Hansens disease. When the patients were sent to Kalaupapa, Molokai, in an effort to keep the disease from spreading, she moved there in 1888 and continued to care for the patients for 30 years. She promised the sisters who came with her that none of them would ever contract leprosy and she kept her word. She died in 1918 and was buried in Kalaupapa.

Blessed Mother Marianne Cope

Cope, who has historical tribute to her work at the Kalaupapa lookout on Molokai, is deemed the “beloved mother of the outcasts.” Her remains were exhumed in 2005 by the church to prepare her for canonization.

Several cardinals and bishops on the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes for Saints announced last month the finding by a Vatican medical board there is no medical explanation for a “second miracle” that occurred when Cope healed an unnamed woman who was dying.

This followed her first miracle involved healing a 14-year old with a fatal health condition. According to “In 2004, Vatican officials ruled that a miraculous recovery involving a 14-year-old Syracuse girl in 1993 was the result of Mother Marianne’s intercession. The girl, Kate Mahoney, nearly died from complications after cancer surgery at Crouse Hospital.  Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, a Franciscan nun, visited Mahoney in the hospital and prayed to Mother Marianne to intercede with God on her behalf. Others also prayed for her to Mother Marianne. The Sisters of St. Francis have a shrine to Mother Marianne at their residence on Court Street in Syracuse.”

Nearly a century later, in 2003 and 2004, the Congregation for the Cause of Saints affirmed her as Venerable Marianne Cope. In 2004, the Vatican Medical Board ruled the girl’s case as an inexplicable medical recovery – a miracle due to the intercession of Cope. She was affirmed as Mother Marianne for beatification. Pope John Paul II confirmed the miracle case and Cope was declared blessed. In 2005, she was declared blessed in Rome in St. Peters and in 2011, she was confirmed for canonization. Last week, Pope Benedict XVI gave his final approval for Cope and 6 others to be canonized.

Saint Damien built a Catholic church in Kalaupapa, but the only way for people living outside the former Hansen’s disease colony to get there is by boat, airplane or mule. The other church, built by Saint Damien, is located on the east end of Molokai, more than an hour’s drive away from the island’s main population center.

The Catholic community here lost its main church to a fire more than a year ago.

Larry Helm and his wife Barbara Helm were active in helping to fund raise for the new Saint Damien Church, the only one named for Saint Damien in Hawaii.

Larry believes the spirits of both Saint Damien and Blessed Marianne Cope are with the people of Molokai.

Residents here say having two Saints from the remote Hawaiian island, and the long awaited church finally open in time for Christmas mass, are miraculous events for Molokai’s Catholic community.





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