Trip to leper community makes impact on priest’s faith

Written by Karen Mahoney, Special to your Catholic HeraldThursday, 25 July 2013 08:31

The canonization of St. Marianne Cope held special memories for a retired Milwaukee priest, Sacred Heart Fr. Tony Russo, who walked in her footsteps last November, just weeks after she was declared a saint by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 21.
<img alt="" src="http://www.chnonline.org/images/stories/2013/7-25-13ML/leper.jpg&quot; style="border-style: solid; border-width: 1px; margin: 0px;" title="Sacred Heart Fr. Tony Russo displays some of the literature he has collected on St. Marianne Cope. Last November, just weeks after she was declared a saint, Fr. Russo walked in her footsteps by visiting the island of Molokai where she ministered to people with leprosy. (Catholic Herald photo by Karen Mahoney)” />Sacred Heart Fr. Tony Russo displays some of the literature he has collected on St. Marianne Cope. Last November, just weeks after she was declared a saint, Fr. Russo walked in her footsteps by visiting the island of Molokai where she ministered to people with leprosy. (Catholic Herald photo by Karen Mahoney)German-born St. Marianne Cope was a Sister of St. Francis in Syracuse, N.Y., who ministered as a teacher and hospital administrator and helped found two of the first hospitals in the central New York area. In 1883, an emissary from Hawaii asked for Catholic sisters willing to provide health care on the island of Molokai.

St. Marianne was the only one of 50 religious superiors to say “yes” in response to a plea for sisters to provide care to persons with leprosy. She spent the last 30 years of her life in Molokai ministering to people with leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease.

In 1884, she met the future St. Damien de Veuster, already ministering to lepers in Molokai. In 1889, after caring for the dying priest, she became St. Damien’s successor at the Boys Home in Kalawao. St. Marianne died in 1918 of natural causes.

A pioneer of social justice, St. Marianne advocated the importance of cleanliness in caring for patients and advocated practices such as washing hands before ministering to patients.

She once promised members of her order that no sister who went to minister on the island would contract leprosy. To this day, no sister has contracted the disease. The Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities continue to care for persons with leprosy at Kalaupapa, Molokai in Hawaii.

In previous trips to Hawaii, Fr. Russo was unable to visit the leper colony, as he was uncomfortable with the prospect of navigating the steep path to the bottom by mule. Thankfully, air travel was available when his brother-in-law suggested the return trip to the island over Thanksgiving.

“I wanted to get to Molokai, but you need to have a sponsor to travel into the colony,” he explained. “I found out that a good religious sister friend of mine in Hales Corners is a Franciscan and knows the sisters from Syracuse and was there for the beatification and canonization of St. Marianne. She made arrangements for one of the leper patients to sponsor me to get down to the bottom.”

After a 20-minute flight over craggy cliffs on an eight passenger Cessna, Fr. Russo landed in the heart of the leper colony and met with Sacred Heart Fr. Patrick Killilea, pastor of St. Francis Parish in St. Damien’s Community. The Sacred Heart Fathers maintained the mission in Kalaupapa before St. Damien arrived in 1873.

“The pastor met me and we drove around the island and to the Kalaupapa Peninsula,” said Fr. Russo. “The first thing we did was to drive to the city hall administration building to register and then we took a walk to the store where my sponsor was. We visited with her and she gave me a soda.”

Fr. Russo explained the leper patient lived in Kalaupapa since the 1960s, had a husband not affected with the disease and like most of the more than 8,000 people sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula from 1866 to 1969, chose to remain on the island for the remainder of her life, despite no longer being contagious.

“You wouldn’t know she was a leper,” he said. “I gave her a hug. There is very little of those affected with the disease now, because the medication can take care of it right away. There are only 12 patients left, two don’t live on the island, but they still have homes there.”

After all of the lepers die, the National Park Service will assume responsibility of the island where it is already doing repairs and renovations.

“There is nothing left of the leper colony now,” said Fr. Russo. “The buildings are all gone. They have a couple of places where you can see walls and parts of walls that are still standing from the boys and girls homes and other buildings. I went with Fr. Pat to St. Philomena Church where the original leper colony was – this was the church that Fr. Damien set up. Next to the church is a cemetery and you can see his grave. At one time, they exhumed his body before his canonization, but they brought back his arm and buried it there.”

One of the most emotional moments of his trip to the leper colony was celebrating Mass at St. Philomena Church at the altar built by Fr. Damien.

“It was so moving to me when I was there – that I was saying Mass where this saintly man said Mass,” said Fr. Russo, adding, “One very interesting thing I saw was all the holes in the floor. When Damien said Mass, the lepers, who were so sick, often had to spit and went outside to do this. Damien wanted to keep them in church, so he put holes in the floor and there were big leaves underneath that they could spit into. He was a handy guy and helped build a lot of buildings on other islands in Hawaii before coming to Molokai.”

Walking the peaceful grounds, visiting St. Philomena and the convent chapel where St. Marianne Cope prayed and worked was a contrast from the crowded horrible place it used to be.

He described St. Damien and St. Marianne as “two people who really lived out the Gospel and went to a place where people were abandoned and often abused,” said Fr. Russo. “And it was incredible to see what was done there and knowing that these people were not depressed, that they would never leave the island, but excited and enthusiastic about changing lives. I don’t know if I could have done that. They went there freely, knowing it was a death penalty for them. The world saw this and knew that those who went there would get leprosy and die just like the patients who lived there.”

Although Fr. Russo is retired, he assists at St. John the Evangelist Parish, Twin Lakes, and St. Alphonsus Parish, New Munster. He enjoys celebrating Mass with the school children, who were eager to learn about his trip to Molokai.

“I know that they are excited to learn more about my trip, and about the two saints who lived and died there,” he said. “I hope to return one day; the trip impacted me and my faith more than I expected – I was moved to tears.”

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