When Mother Marianne was officially canonized today in Rome, there was one empty space in St. Peter's Square. One empty space among the hundreds of pilgrims who traveled from Hawaii and Syracuse, N.Y., to herald the anointing of a second saint at Kalaupapa.
The missing person was Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, whose name many of you have never heard, but one you should remember. If it hadn't been for Sister Mary Laurence and her years of faith, perseverance and exhausting research, there would probably be no Saint Marianne.
Mother Marianne Cope certainly lived the holy life of caring for people in Hawaii who had leprosy, but she needed a tireless champion to chronicle her virtues long after her death and convince the Vatican that she deserved to be on the path to sainthood.
Sister Mary Laurence Hanley listens as Pope John Paul II and Richard Marks talk in St. Peter’s Square in 1983 when Hanley and Marks were part of a contingent from Hawaii to acquaint him with the Cause of Mother Marianne.
Hawaii Catholic Herald photo
That champion was Sister Mary Laurence Hanley. Since 1974, Sister Mary Laurence - who often signed her notes or emails simply as SML - had dedicated most every minute of every day to advocating for the canonization of Mother Marianne.
The official announcement that sainthood was imminent arrived last Dec. 7, but it came on the day of the funeral of Sister Mary Laurence. Her illness was sudden and death was swift, as if Earth held nothing more for her once her beloved Mother Marianne had reached the mountaintop.
"My work here is done," Sister Mary Laurence told her fellow Franciscans shortly before she died in the Motherhouse in Syracuse. These were the same grounds where Mother Marianne had lived as provincial superior of her order before she answered a call initiated by Queen Kapiolani and King Kalakaua in 1883 to help the people of Hawaii who were suffering from leprosy.
Young Anna Mae Hanley had long wanted to follow the path of Mother Marianne. As a teenager, she read a biography of Mother Marianne, who had helped to open two of the first 50 hospitals in the United States and was trained in various aspects of medicine while serving as a Franciscan. Anna Mae joined the Sisters in 1944, when she was just 19, with hopes for a similar future. She eventually became Sister Mary Laurence.
"I was going to be a nurse, so I thought I might as well be a nun and a nurse at the same time," she said during an interview at the motherhouse in 2002. "However, the order decided I should be a teacher and so that was that."
Blessed with a sharp mind and ready for whatever God asked of her, Sister Mary Laurence's life was forever changed in 1974, when she was assigned to serve as assistant in researching the Cause of Mother Marianne, a monumental task of making the case for sainthood. Two years later, Sister Mary Laurence was named as director of the Cause.
"That's how I got chosen," she said.
For the next 35 years - the same number of years that Mother Marianne was in Hawaii before her death at Kalaupapa in 1918 - this was her mission.
Over time, Sister Mary Laurence became not only an encyclopedia on Mother Marianne, she evolved into the library of Mother Marianne. Her office was like that of a professor emeritus with stuffed drawers, cabinets, files - and at least one cat lounging on the edge of her desk next to a window. The top shelf that ran the length of the wall contained the 27 bound volumes on Mother Marianne's life that had been meticulously compiled and submitted to Rome in the early part of the canonization process. She mostly worked out of the motherhouse in Syracuse but made visits to Kalaupapa, where she was friends with many of the residents.
The Sister Mary Laurence I met nearly 20 years ago was already in her mid-60s, but still a force who answered questions from reporters with questions of her own. There was no sleepwalking through an interview with Sister Mary Laurence - you often left wondering who had just interviewed whom.
She was intimidated by no one - and insisted upon accuracy, mainly because the good works of Mother Marianne were sometimes credited to another, usually a man. My favorite photograph of her is from 1983 in St. Peter's Square, where she appears to be leaning in on a conversation between Pope John Paul II and Kalaupapa leader Richard Marks. It was as though Sister Mary Laurence was just waiting to pounce if Richard - or the pope even - made a mistake while talking about Mother Marianne.
Somehow she and I became friends. Although on the surface we had little in common - she was a by-the-books Franciscan who was seldom without her veil, and I was a free spirit who didn't like rules - we managed to click. We both shared a love of animals - her for cats, me for dogs - and could talk endlessly about Kalaupapa.
To get a better understanding of Mother Marianne and the sisters who she inspired, I made three trips to the motherhouse, including one visit where I spent a few days under the tutelage of Sister Mary Laurence. Every evening she would load me up with reading materials and shoo me off to my room in the convent where, still on Hawaii time, I would read until 2 or 3 in the morning, then try to rise for morning prayers. After breakfast, it was back to reading until about two hours before dinner, when I would be summoned into her office for intense discussions on what I had just learned - and what it all meant.
A little more than a year ago, one of the sisters at Kalaupapa told me that a second miracle had been attributed to the intercession of Mother Marianne - the final requisite for sainthood. Knowing that the Franciscans were careful not to spread rumors about Mother Marianne's prospects, I wrote to SML regarding what I had heard. As might be expected, the woman who had spent nearly 40 years of her life seeking this ultimate honor for the Mother she so admired tried her best to be cautious but couldn't completely hold back her excitement.
"It certainly is more than promising but until they have the meeting it just is promising," she replied in an email. "It is sort of scary to be this assured. . . . The way I look at it, God is speaking and says she deserves it. Blessings SML."
And then almost like a PS, she added, "I have to pray, too, and not be this confident."
We exchanged emails just once more - I got busy and assumed she did, too, what with the big news about to break. There was no reason to believe anything was out of sorts until word arrived that she had fallen ill. Two weeks later, I was told she had brain cancer.
A month after that, she was gone, her work completed.
This week, as Hawaii has turned its attention to Mother Marianne, I have an additional woman in my heart. An educator. A fierce debater. A stray cat's best friend. The wind beneath the wings of our newest saint. A Sister to all.
* Valerie Monson is a former staff writer for The Maui News. She is now the coordinator of Ka 'Ohana O Kalaupapa, a nonprofit organization of Kalaupapa residents, family members/descendants, and longtime friends and supporters.