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Midweek, Oct. 24, 2007, Sisters of St. Francis 
 
 

Sisters of St. Francis

What little good we can do ... to help and comfort the suffering, we wish to do it quietly and so far as possible unnoticed and unknown. - Mother Marianne Cope

For 125 years, the Sisters of St. Francis have made actions speak louder than words. Vowed to religious obedience and sacrifice, their contributions to our community are veiled in humility. Yet at this historic milestone, it’s time to unveil the story of the Sisters of St. Francis, one of the oldest religious orders in Hawaii.

Their mission began in the darkest chapter of Hawaii’s history, when the kingdom banished some of its citizens to a life of isolation and alienation to be forgotten. The outcasts were known as “lepers,” those afflicted with Hansen’s disease or leprosy. The shroud of mystery and painful memories still linger in the shadow of Kalaupapa, Molokai. It took the courage of Catholic missionaries to answer the call for what seemed like mission impossible. The Sisters of St. Francis, coming from many miles away to an unknown dot in the Pacific, brought spirituality and hope to tormented natives.

That is the legacy of the Sisters of St. Francis who have since served Hawaii through health care, education and social ministries. With the recent ownership change of St. Francis Hospital, there is a perception that the work of the nuns is ending.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

“We’re looking forward to continuing our mission for many more years to come,” says Sister William Marie Eleniki, regional minister of what today is officially known as St. Francis of the Neumann Communities-Hawaii, with 45 sisters statewide, most of whom grew up in Hawaii.

Spurred by the anniversary theme “Women of Vision, Women of Risk - Celebrating 125 Years of Service in Hawaii,” they are rededicated to their work of faith, hope and charity.

In fact, mission impossible has never been more plausible. And they have an enviable track record to prove it.

One wonders how different our community would be if in 1883 the sisters had not answered the call for help from King David Kalakaua. Mother Superior Marianne Cope and six sisters of the Order St. Francis from Syracuse, N.Y., responded when 50 other religious communities in the United States did not.

The sisters worked with leprosy patients throughout the Islands for 40 years. In 1927, the sisters founded St. Francis Hospital to “serve the medical needs of people with communicable diseases, including leprosy, and the underprivileged.”

They went on to establish Maui’s first hospital, Hilo Hospital, as well as Catholic schools and educational programs on all islands. The flagship campus on Oahu is Saint Francis School in Manoa, where 430 students are enrolled in kindergarten to high school. Principal is Saint Francis graduate Sister Joan of Arc Souza, who cites educational and spiritual training as core disciplines of the Order.

The school, originally located in Liliha, taught students academic skills to become teachers, nurses and health caregivers. Today, Saint Francis graduates are in various professions and positions of leadership in the community, having had basic values shaped by the nuns.

For instance, a Saint Francis student must do 100 hours of “volunteer” community service before they graduate. “Otherwise, no diploma,” says Sister Souza. “To whom much is given, much is expected.

“We provide students with what’s missing in society today,” she states. “Our education is based on a strong campus ministry and spiritual life. We are building self-esteem in students so they take the necessary risks to do what God has called them to do.”

Sister Agnelle Ching, chief executive officer of St. Francis Healthcare System, recalls the humble beginnings of its medical services. In 1924, when the Oahu community needed a hospital to treat the poor, it turned to the Sisters of St. Francis. Three years later, it admitted its first patient.

That hospital, now Hawaii Medical Center East, is known for landmark medical achievements. It introduced services in kidney dialysis, organ transplantation, home care, cancer rehabilitation, hospice care and a bone marrow registry program. In 1990, they opened St. Francis Medical Center-West, now Hawaii Medical Center West, for people living in the leeward and central communities.

  Sister Helen Agnes Ignacio pages through the commemorative Kalaupapa calendar by photographer Kim Taylor Reece.

The sisters’ health care ministry continues through St. Francis Healthcare System and five subsidiaries. They also run an adult day program in Manoa and various nursing homes on Oahu.

“Our mission is part of the Catholic Church’s mission and the larger Christian mission,” says Sister Ching. “Many people are called. Our obligation is based on the same values and commitment held by Mother Marianne (Cope).”

“The sisters are incorporated as a region and our ministries are independent,” she explains. “We get no funding from the Vatican or the Catholic Diocese. We have to make it on our own like any other family, business or non-profit agency.”

The order faces other challenges as well. They are concerned with dwindling numbers entering the sisterhood locally and nationally, affecting succession and the organizational structure to carry on their mission.

The number of nuns who retire or die each year is greater than the number of women who join religious orders. The median age of nuns is 68 years. There are fewer sisters as role models for young women.

  Mother Marianne Cope with sisters and patients in Kalaupapa one week prior to her death

Religious life is not for the faint-hearted. It is considered a radical life choice, committed to prayer, community and unselfish service. In an age when primary secular values are sex, power and money, nuns are vowed to chastity, obedience and poverty.

Sister Rose Loraine Matsuzaki, who oversees the infirmary at St. Francis Convent, reflects, “I had no intentions of joining a nunnery, but I was curious. I wanted to know what sisters do. I entered in 1952, and I have no regrets. There’s so much to do, and so many people to help.”

Another who is part of the mission is Sister Richard Marie Toal, 91, who ministered to Hansen’s disease patients on Kalaupapa for 41 years. Growing up in New Jersey, she had read about Kalaupapa, but had to wait 10 years before she was called to the Hawaii mission.

“I liked it very much,” she says recalling her days on Molokai. “I had very happy days. I enjoyed going to the shore on my day off to go fishing.”

But leisure time was limited at the isolated colony. Mother Marianne had set up high standards of cleanliness and patient care that required diligent daily routines.

Now retired and residing at St. Francis Convent in Manoa, Sister Toal lives a quieter life that is light on fishing but heavy on prayer.

She will no doubt be delighted with the commemorative calendar that has been produced for the 125th anniversary.

A limited-edition calendar featuring striking photos of Kalaupapa by photographer Kim Taylor Reece will be available by special request to the Sisters of St. Francis. The release of the calendar launches a year of anniversary tributes which will end Nov. 8 next year with a re-enactment of the sisters’ 1883 arrival.

Events to mark the anniversary are:

* Nov. 8, 2007: Opening liturgy, 5:30 p.m., Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace

* Jan. 23, 2008: Blessed Marianne feast day liturgy, 7 p.m., Co-Cathedral of St. Theresa

* Aug. 9, 2008: Musical concert featuring a national act. Details to be confirmed.

* Nov. 8, 2008: Closing liturgy, noon, Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, to include a re-enactment of the sisters’ arrival with a royal welcome and a horse-drawn carriage through downtown Honolulu.

Public participation at these events would be a fitting tribute to the Sisters of St. Francis, who have a proud legacy of achievement in our community.

Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, the sisters say they will continue to “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”