New education center in Hawaii honors the saints of Molokai

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People pass the under-construction Damien and Marianne of Molokai Education Center in Hawaii Aug. 12, 2019.(CNS photo/Anna Weaver, Hawaii Catholic Herald)

St. Augustine Church in the Diocese of Honolulu is opening a new Damien and Marianne of Molokai Education Center, a $6 million, 5,900-square-foot project spearheaded by the parish’s pastor, Father Lane Akiona. 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,” said Father Akiona, who is a member of Damien’s community, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and is from Molokai. “We want people who visit here to know their story.”

The vision of a museum to honor these saints and to tell the story of what took place in Hawaii began a dozen years ago when Father Akiona became pastor and wanted to better share the story of St. Damien in anticipation of his canonization, which occurred in 2009. Damien was born in Belgium, joined the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary 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. He eventually contracted and died of the disease. His feast day is celebrated on May 10.

St. Marianne Cope was a Sister of St. Francis of Syracuse, New York. She volunteered to come to Molokai with a small group of sisters. She helped to care for St. Damien during the final months of his life and continued his ministry after his death. Upon her canonization in 2012, Father Akiona decided to include her story, along with Damien’s, in the new educational center. The Church celebrates St. Marianne on Jan. 23.

In addition to informing visitors of the lives of these two heroic saints, Father Akiona said that the center will have a third component, the story of the lepers — or patients, as they prefer to be called — who were once confined to Molokai.

“It was their illness that prompted Damien and Marianne to respond to them out of Christian charity and compassion,” Father Akiona said. “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. Father Akiona hopes some will be lent to the center for display.

While the exterior of the building was completed in November, work is continuing on the displays inside. The center will open in the coming months, although an opening date has yet to be announced. It will be open six days a week and operated by paid staff and volunteers. The facility will also have a chapel and gift shop.

Bishop Larry Silva of the Diocese of Honolulu has a personal connection to the island of 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 small plane or by foot or mule by hiking a switchback trail up a 2,000-foot cliff. Once there, people can visit St. Philomena Church, where St. 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 between 1866-1969, and a handful of elderly patients remain there today by choice.

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. “The people there are always accommodating and help us to make due,” Bishop Silva said.

For additional information on the Damien and Marianne of Molokai Education Center, visit

Jim Graves writes from California.

Jim Graves

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He has written for many different publications, including National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic World Report.