Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Two Saints for All Saints

This photograph was taken in 1889. It shows St Marianne Cope OSF praying, with one of her brethren, by the funeral bier of St Damien de Veuster SSCC. It is the earliest, and perhaps the only, photograph of two canonised saints in the same frame. New Advent published it earlier in the week.

Of course, friendship between the saints has lit the way for many centuries: Damien was a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, founded for men and women through the friendship of Pierre Coudrin and Henriette Aymer de Chevalerie. On Christmas Eve, 1800, amidst the turmoil of revolutionary France, Pierre recited his vows at 11.45pm: I Marie-Joseph take the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience following the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as a Zealot of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, in whose service, I wish to live and die. Mother Henriette renewed her vows shortly thereafter. By the time of Coudrin's death in 1837 the SSCC had 276 brothers, 1125 sisters, working through the charism that pair shared together.

Marianne was a member of the Sisters of St Francis of Syracuse, New York. Who has not heard of the friendship between St. Francis and St. Clare? She left home at 18 to go and follow his example, his way of finding God, Christ, salvation.  Then, there's Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal - of their friendship Francis himself wrote in An Introduction to the Devout Life: It is a blessed thing to love on earth as we hope to love in Heaven, and to begin that friendship here which is to endure for ever there. 

So, it is not the friendship between these two great saints that is surprising. The two worked in parallel to help those suffering with leprosy on the Hawaiian islands. Marianne took on the management of a hospital O'ahu in 1883, which cared for sufferers from all the islands. Damien came from the leper colony on Molokai to visit her for the dedication of the chapel. However, by 1888 he was very ill, having finally succumbed to leprosy. Marianne moved to nurse him. He died the following year, on the 15th April. Marianne shouldered his work, and continued living with the people on Molokai. She opened a girls' school, and named it after him. In 1895, at her suggestion, four brothers of the SSCC came to the island to care for the boys. The friendship of Marianne and Damien began on earth and endures in heaven.

No, their friendship is not the surprising thing about this photograph, nor their beautiful shared mission to love for love of others. What is surprising is the photograph itself. It is timeless. It is sharp, as if it were yesterday. Damien, dressed for burial in a fine chasuble, ready to offer Mass, looks restful - although his skin is marked from the leprosy that hastened his death. Marianne, mourning the loss of her friend, also seems at peace - she knows he will be cared for in the life to come and, she will continue his mission in this life. I sat next to a nun in church with a habit like that last Sunday.

Here they are then, two saints. Two modern saints. Looking, for all the world, as if they could be in the next room. What is remarkable about this photograph is that instead of time traveling through centuries, or peering into the distant medieval past, these two bring sainthood hurtling into the present. That's the power of a photograph.

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