Father Damien and Dr. Hyde, Part III

Group of pioneer Franciscan Sisters from Syracuse, at Kalawao, Molokai. Back row: Sister Crescentia, Mother Marianne, Sister Leopoldina. Front row: Sister Elizabeth, Sister Benedicta. (Photo provided)

On Jan. 24, 1889, the schooner-yacht Casco, Capt. Otis, dropped anchor in Honolulu harbor, Hawaii, at 3 p.m. Aboard were Robert Louis Stevenson and his family. They were long overdue in port and had been presumed lost at sea. Their voyage north from Tahiti “was most disastrous,” said RLS, with “calms, squalls, head seas, waterspouts of rain, hurricane weather all about, and we in the midst of the hurricane season.”

Honolulu was the last port of call on a seven-month sea adventure that this invalid author of Treasure Island had dreamed up when he was living with the Baker family in Saranac Lake. The sudden fame and fortune that came to RLS when he was there, due to the huge success of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” enabled him to live this dream. With the cruise of the Casco behind them, the Stevensons settled into a comfortable house on Waikiki beach and ended up staying there for five months. That gave Louis time to finish “The Master of Ballantrae,” the novel he began in Saranac Lake. Stevenson also decided to engage in more risk-taking by going on a solo tour of the Hawaiian archipelago, picking destinations and making notes along the way from which he went on to write ten essays, published together as “The Eight Islands.”

The Lazaretto is the title of part six of this work. A lazaretto is a place of quarantine for people with contagious disease. In this case it is leprosy or Hansen’s disease and the lazaretto is the isolation station/prison on the remote and desolate Kalawao peninsula on the north side of the island of Molokai. “Here, then, is a prison fortified by nature, a place where thousands may be quartered and a pair of sentinels suffice” was Stevenson’s first impression of the place.

RLS had known about Molokai’s leper colony for a long time, ever since Charles Warren Stoddard, a travel writer, told him about it during their first meeting in San Francisco, California, in 1880. Stoddard praised the leader of the colony, the self-sacrificing Father Damien, a peasant from Belgium who went through all the hoops to become a priest in The Fathers of the Sacred Hearts brotherhood of Catholicism with their headquarters in Paris, France. Stevenson had been hoping to meet with Damien face to face during his eight islands tour but unfortunately, the priest passed away having got the disease himself, at age 49, while RLS was inspecting the Kona Coast. Stevenson decided to stick with his plan to go there anyway. After all, he had already purchased a brand-new croquet game in Honolulu to be delivered to the Bishop School for Girls at Kalawao prior to his arrival.

By the time Stevenson arrived at Kalawao, there had been significant improvements since the early days when a sign at the entrance warned that “There is no law in this place,” a place which one visitor said was “like Main Street in Sodom in there.” Father Damien had been the tip of the spear in this transformation from near savagery to appropriate behavior but he had not done it alone. Mr. Walter Murray Gibson was the head of the board of health at the time and soon to become His majesty’s prime minister in King Kalakua’s twilight regime. It had been the call for a priest to go to Molokai, that Gibson put in the newspapers in 1873, that had brought Damien there in the first place. As the years passed and Damien’s workload increased, Gibson could see that Damien needed help. He sent one of the priests, Father Leonor, on a mission to find sisters of the faith who were willing to toss their present lives overboard to go to Molokai, to bring sane and clean conditions to a population of diseased people and probably die there themselves.

That sounded too good to be true to six volunteers from the famed Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse. Sister Marianne Cope was their leader. She started out as Barbara Koob, born in Heppenheim, Germany, in 1838. By the age of 2, she was already in the USA, fresh off an emigrant ship with her family. They settled down in Utica, in a small house with a view of the Mohawk River. When she graduated from her parish school, St. Joseph, she got a job at the local factory at about the same time the family changed their name from Koob to Cope. Now she was Barbara Cope. That wasn’t good enough because she had powerful religious aspirations so Barbara eventually quit the factory after her father’s death and took the necessary measures to officially change her name, with God’s approval, to “Sister Marianne,” by age 25.

Sister Marianne had everything it took to rise to the top in her profession and established a reputation not only as a good sister at heart, but also as a great organizer and idea factory combined with seemingly limitless energy. Consequently, the former Barbara Koob was given important assignments involving schools and hospitals, etc. Then came one of those days that set your life on a new tack without warning. For Sister Marianne, that was the day when Father Leonor, envoy for health minister Gibson, knocked on her door, looking for his volunteers.

It took a good old fashioned 19th century journey to get from Syracuse, to Hawaii in less than a month. For Sister Marianne and company, it was a one-way trip. Before getting down to business at their final destination, the traveling Sisters had to be the guests of the king and his consort, with their entourage, including Gibson. The sisters must have felt like a blessing to Father Damien. They operated a real hospital and ran schools for boys and girls. They put in gardens and tried to make the place pretty and homelike. No one doubts that they infused the community with at least a degree of optimism.

By the time Damien died in April 1889, he was practically a figurehead. With Sister Marianne at the helm, the six sisters from Syracuse had the whole operation running with corporate efficiency. As de facto superintendent of the leprosarium, Marianne was at her desk one day when an unusual visitor came calling. It had been less than two weeks since Damien’s death and Marianne was still getting used to her new role. Marianne’s fellow volunteer, Sister Leopoldina, was present for the occasion and wrote down the nature of the meeting in her journal. Just like other people who by chance ran into Robert Louis Stevenson, Sister Leopoldina wanted to preserve it in writing. Her version begins on a hot morning when she saw.

“A strange looking man, hanging on the fence. I walked over to speak to him, and would not have been surprised had he told me he was a tramp and needed help…the morning was hot and he had walked far. His remarkable eyes were sunk with dark rings around them. He was a small man … I greeted him and asked, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ ‘Oh,’ he said with a pleasant smile, ‘I wish to see Rev. Mother.’ I told him, ‘Go around to the front door and you will find her.’ Had I known who he was I think I would have accompanied him to the house …”

“I told mother how I took him for a tramp, she smiled and said, ‘Well, he’s the best tramp I ever met, and the tramping he is doing here is not good for him as the poor man is subject to hemorrhage.'”

Mother Marianne Cope had thanked Stevenson for the croquet set followed by his request that the children be ready the next morning for their first lesson. Sister Leopoldina continued: “Poor dear children could hardly believe that a fine well white man would not be afraid, and why he did not shrink from them and shun them as all other white men do…they kept away thinking it could not be possible but when he called to them, ‘Come girls, I only have a few days to teach you, and you must know your game well so that you can beat me or I shall not be happy leaving you!’ In a few minutes they were all at ease, they knew that he meant to be their friend in every way … He had learned all their names, and it was remarkable how quickly they were learning and how very happy and interested they were. Mr. Stevenson became one of them so that they could forget at least for a little while that they were victims doomed for life.”

Robert Louis Stevenson returned to his family at their temporary home on Waikiki beach and made preparations for his upcoming six-month cruise aboard the trading schooner Equator. The day was still far away when his righteous indignation would be thoroughly aroused after being shown a published letter which smeared the memory and reputation of Father Damien, deceased. A man named Hyde wrote the letter and he would live to regret it.


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