UPSTATE N.Y. SPORTS LORE: Baseball, Saints and Sister Leopoldina Burns
As a child I often heard stories told by my maternal Grandmother, Margaret Jacqueline (Burns) Way, about herfamous Uncle George Burns and famous Aunt Sister Leopoldina Burns. The famous uncle she spoke of was George Joseph Burns, who was born in Utica in 1889 and enjoyed a 15 year career in the Major Leagues as on outfielder with the New York Giants (1911-21), Cincinnati Reds (1922-24) and Philadelphia Phillies (1925). In those 15 big league seasons, he compiled 2,077 hits, placing him 247th on the all-time hits list for a career amongst the 20,000 men who have suited up to play the game at the Major League level since 1869. Several times throughout his career he led the National League in numerous offensive statistics, including; games played, plate appearances, walks, runs and stolen bases. He also holds the distinction of being one of only four Major Leaguers in history to lead the league in both runs and walks five times. The others include Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle.
He was also a prolific base stealer, known for being able to perform a perfect hook slide from either side of a base in order to avoid a tag. In all, he stole 383 bases to rank him 85th on the all-time steals list. Included in that total are 28 steals of home, 3rd most all-time behind Hall of Famers Max Carey (33) and Ty Cobb (54). He also appeared with the New York Giants in three World Series; 1913, 1917 and 1921. He starred in the 1921 World Series, where his 8th inning double in Game #4 drove in two runs, and trumped the only home run that Babe Ruth in his first World Series as a Yankee. The Giants went on to win the World Championship that year. He was the son of John E. Burns of Utica, who himself had been a great baseball player and played professionally in 1886 with the Norwich team of the old Central New York League. George became a resident of Gloversville in 1920 and spent the rest of his life there. He died in 1966 and is buried in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Johnstown. In my opinion, he had a
Hall of Fame worthy career and has received several votes for induction over the years, but never enough for enshrinement.
The famous aunt (great aunt) my grandmother often spoke of was Sister Leopoldina Burns, who was a Catholic Nun who relocated from New York State to Hawaii in 1885. There she assisted in caring for patients with leprosy and worked closely with two individuals who would one day be canonized as Saints by the Catholic Church. Born Margaret Burns in Utica in 1855, she was a sister to John E. Burns, and aunt to ballplayer George Burns. How Sister Leopoldina came to work in Hawaii with such iconic individuals centers around the initiatives of Saint Marianne Cope.
In 1848, leprosy was first diagnosed in Hawaii. It was one of the world’s most feared diseases that enters the body through aerosol droplets and causes damage to nerves, respiratory tract, lumps and ulcers on the skin, muscle paralysis, and blindness. It is a long-term infection that will produce symptoms in some individuals within one year, and others in up to 20 or more years. By 1865 the incurable disease had become an epidemic in Hawaii and the government passed laws allowing the isolation of people across the islands thought to be afflicted with the disease. The following year, a leper colony was set up on the Kalaupapa peninsula area of the island of Molokai which is about 50 miles southeast of the island of Oahu. It had water on three sides and the fourth side was a 2,000 foot cliff, forming a natural prison with which to treat the severally afflicted patients. Being placed there meant being separated from any family, with no chance of ever returning. Between 1866 and 1969 when the isolation law was finally lifted, more than 8,000 Hawaiians were sent to Kalaupapa.
During this time, Hawaii’s leader King Kalakaua put out a world-wide plea to nearly 60 different organizations asking them to send help to take charge of their hospitals and schools. One of those letters was sent to Mother Marianne Cope, who was the provincial superior of the Sisters of St. Francis out of Syracuse. She had been
involved in the creation St. Josephs Hospital in Syracuse in 1869, one of the first 50 in the United States. In 1870, she became the administrator of St. Josephs Hospital, which along with St. Elizabeth Hospital in Utica, had the unique charter that stated they welcomed all patients regardless of ability to pay, ethnicity or religion. It was around this time (1873) that Dr. Gerhard Armauer Hansen of Norway made the revolutionary discovery under a microscope that leprosy was caused by a germ, Mycobacterium leprae, and not hereditary or caused by sin or a curse. Subsequently, the disease became known as Hansen’s disease, which I will use to refer to the disease for the remainder of this story.
Upon receiving the king’s request in 1883, Mother Cope viewed the opportunity as a calling from God and
recruited a select group of nuns from the St. Francis convent to relocate to Hawaii. Thirty five nuns volunteered for the assignment, and Mother Cope chose the six Nuns she felt could best handle the challenge. The group left Syracuse by train on October 22nd. Upon reaching San Francisco California, they then boarded the steamship
Mariposa to make the 2,300 mile trip out into the Pacific Ocean. After seven days at sea, they arrived on the island of Oahu in the city of Honolulu on November 8th. They were then tasked with managing the Kakaako Branch Hospital which served as a receiving station for Hansen’s patients who had been brought in from all of the islands in the Hawaiian chain. The severe cases were shipped to Kalaupapa. In addition to their work on Oahu, Mother Cope and the sisters were also involved in helping establish new hospitals and facilities throughout the Hawaiian Islands, including the Malulani Hospital located in Maui in 1884.
Beginning on September 7, 1880, twenty five year old Margaret Burns of Utica started the process of becoming a Nun when she entered the community of the St. Francis convent in Syracuse. Two years later she was professed as a Sister of St. Francis on August 12, 1882 and took the name of Sister Leopoldina Burns. She was then assigned to the Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Albany New York where she would spend the next three years. In 1885, at the age of 30, Sister Leopoldina traveled to Hawaii to assist the Syracuse nuns with their efforts. Upon arriving in Honolulu on April 7, 1885, she was commissioned to the Kakaako Hospital where she worked with Mother Marianne. It was also in 1885 that Father Damien, the priest who had been the first to volunteer to go to the Hansen’s colony in Kalaupapa back in 1874, began to show a presence of the disease himself. In 1886 his name was placed on the register as a diagnosed sufferer of Hansen’s disease. By 1887 the population of those with Hansen’s on Kalaupapa was now at 1,000 and thousands had previously died there from the disease. Father Damien’s own condition worsened and he became disfigured. He continued to work, but worried about what would become of the colony when he was gone. Late in 1888, the Nuns received permission to enter Kalaupapa for the first time. Mother Marianne Cope, along with Sister Vincentia McCormick and Sister Leopoldina permanently relocated to the settlement of Kalaupapa.
Their arrival provided great reinforcement and help for Father Damien’s efforts, while also allowing for them to care for him. He was relieved that his prayers had been answered and that there would be someone to carry on his efforts when he was gone. These three nuns opened and ran a girl’s school, funded by a prominent local business man who provided support to their missions. They brought professional hospital care, as well as a woman’s touch. They created a compassionate and supportive community by bringing in such things as music, flowers, trees, nice clothing and allowed the patients to partake in games. This provided the afflicted with dignity and a sense of hope. According the Sister Alicia Damien Lau who presently serves in Kalaupapa “it is amazing how the sisters managed in those early years because Kalaupapa was such a closed community. Ninety percent of those who went there were Hawaiians, and they only spoke Hawaiian. Both Mother Marianne and Sister Leopoldina learned and embraced the culture and language. Both understood and spoke Hawaiian.” Upon arriving on Kalaupapa, Sister Leopoldina was given a journal by Mother Cope, in which she began to document their experiences at the settlement.
After 25 years in Hawaii, in April of 1889, Father Damien passed away from the effects of Hansen’s disease, just six months after the arrival of the three Sisters. Sister Leopoldina aided in the preparation of Father Damien for his burial, and worked alongside with Mother Cope to prepare his coffin. A few weeks later, Scottish novelist and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson visited the settlement of Kalaupapa. He had previously penned the novels ‘Treasure Island ‘, and ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, among dozens of other works, making him world-famous. Upon spending time with Sister Leopoldina and seeing/hearing of the work that had been done by Father Damien, he became a strong advocate of him as a worthy candidate for sainthood. He then published a pamphlet “Father Damien” which attained great acclaim for the dedicated and inspiring life of the ‘Martyr of Molokai.’ Father Damien would ultimately be canonized a Saint by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11, 2009, being now known as Saint Damien of Molokai.
By 1890, Kalaupapa’s population crested at 1,213 patients. The Sisters carried on the efforts of Father Damien, and Sister Leopoldina performed the duties of being the main “sore dresser” for women patients at Bishop Home in Kalaupapa. Mother Marianne passed away in 1918 at the age of 80 from natural causes. While she had lived amongst those afflicted with Hansen’s since arriving in Hawaii in 1863, neither she, nor or any of the nuns ever contracted the disease. After Mother Copes passing, Sister Leopoldina took her only trip back to the mainland of the United States and visited the Upstate New York area. In addition the spending several months visiting with family, she also traveled around to the different ministries in the area. She then returned to Kalaupapa and continued to carry on the work of providing medical care for those with Hansen’s disease.
After providing 43 years of service caring for Hansen’s patients, Sister Leopoldina retired in 1928 at the age of 73.
She moved back to the island of Oahu and resided in prayer at the St. Francis Convent in Honolulu. My grandmother, Margaret Jacqueline Burns, was born that same year and named after Sister Leopoldina, carrying on her aunt’s birth name. Sister Leopoldina was also her godmother and sent her Rosary beads made out of berries, seeds and other materials found in Hawaii, along with a pair of white leather baby shoes. Both of which my family still cherish. She often wrote letters to my great grandparents Leo and Ethel DeMott Burns. The letters spoke of my grandmother, asking how her “namesake” was and stating that she was praying for her and asking that she do the same for her when she was old enough. Some of the letters are postmarked with “Kalaupapa HI,” showing that she continued to visit the settlement and her patients even after retirement. The letters to adults were always signed off as “Sister Leopoldina,” while items sent specifically to my grandmother were signed off as “Aunt Margaret.”
In 1932, Sister Leopoldina moved to the new Saint Francis Convent in the Manoa Valley section of Honolulu that is about 10 miles Southeast of Pearl Harbor. And on the morning of December 7, 1941 she and the others living at the hillside convent watched from afar as the Japanese attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor. After spending decades of her life caring for the sick, watching the destruction that took the lives over 2,300 people in the course of less than two hours must have been difficult to watch. Sister Leopoldina died in 1942 at the age of 86 with the reputation for holiness. She was also the last of the Catholic sisters to serve alongside of Saint Damien of Molokai. She was interred in the Catholic section of the Diamond Head Memorial Cemetery in Honolulu.
The following is an excerpt from her obituary (Saint Marianne Cope Shrine & Museum archives);
“Besides having worked with Mother Marianne so long, Sister Leopoldina has the distinction of having aided in the preparation of Father Damien for his burial; and for having prepared his coffin. Sister Leopoldina’s long years of devoted service among the lepers tell of her spirit of self-sacrifice and Christlike charity. With tender care she ministered to these sorely afflicted of God’s children, ever solicitous for the physical comfort and the spiritual welfare of the “dear lepers” as she was wont to call them.
Relieved of active duty because of advanced years and failing health, her last years were spent in retirement and prayer at St. Francis Convent in Honolulu. Becoming critically ill, Sister was removed to St. Francis Hospital, rite of Holy Mother Church, Sister died peacefully in the Lord to be united eternally to her Divine Master and Spouse, who she served so faithfully. May she rest in peace.”
In 1941, the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Carville, Louisiana discovered a drug called Promin that would cure Hansen’s disease. It would not make its way to Kalaupapa until 1946. When it did, it was said to produce improvements to patients almost overnight. Hawaii become the 50th state of the United States in 1959, and ten years later the isolation laws that had been in place there since the 1860’s were abolished. In 1973, an effort was started in central New York that tasked Sister Mary Laurence Hanley with gathering and documenting information about Marianne Cope that would support her being canonized. Important to this cause became the approximately 40 journals that Sister Leopoldina had created that recorded the daily life in Kalaupapa, with special emphasis on Marianne Cope’s character and strong faith. In 1980, Sister Mary Laurence’s research was submitted to Rome for the case of making Marianne Cope a saint. The research also led to a book called “Pilgrimage and Exile, Mother Marianne of Molokai” that was published in 1991 by Laurence and O.A. Bushnell. While the process would take thirty nine years, Mother Marianne Cope was canonized at the Vatican on October 12, 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.
One of the miracles that solidified her worthiness of becoming a saint was that neither she, nor any of the nuns who went to Hawaii have ever contracted Hansen’s. Also canonized as a Saint that day was Kateri Tekakwitha, who was a 17th century Native American. She is also known as the Lily of the Mohawks, having been born in Ossernenon (Auriesville) New York in 1656.
This past spring, my wife Lori and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary by taking a trip to Honolulu Hawaii. A few months ahead of the trip we reached out to the Saint Marianne Cope Shrine & Museum in Syracuse to learn more about Sister Leopoldina and the Sisters of St. Francis from Upstate New York who went to Hawaii to care for the Hansen’s patients. The museum is devoted to “inspiring people from around the world about the life, legacy and significance of Saint Marianne and the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities.” We received a tour by director Kristin Barrett-Anderson, and were pleasantly surprised to see that Sister Leopoldina and the other nuns are also a big part of the museum. The museum contains incredible exhibits about their works and the life of Marianne Cope leading up to her canonization as a Saint in 2012. We were then put in touch with Sister William Marie Eleniki and Sister Davilyn Ah Chick who are Sisters of Saint Francis in Honolulu. They then put me in touch with Sister Alicia Damien Lau who serves at Kalaupapa. As our trip got closer, we were informed that due to COVID rules, we would not be allowed to travel to the island of Molokai to learn more about the sisters. However, we were still allowed to travel to Oahu (Honolulu) and Sister William Marine informed us that Sister Leopoldina was laid to rest in a cemetery that was just a few miles from the hotel we would be staying at in Waikiki Beach.
We were then invited to a ceremony on May 5th that the Sisters planned at Sister Leopoldina’s grave at the Diamond Head Memorial Cemetery. Upon arriving at the cemetery we were greeted a group sisters from the area and Father Chris Keahi who took us to the grave of Sister Leopoldina. It was an emotional moment for me, being the first person from my family to ever visit her final resting place, and thinking back on my own mother, grandmother and great grandmother who often talked of her and her life with reverence. The sisters placed a wreath on her stone, and the group stood around it, talking about her life and her contributions to the world. We were then graced with a wedding vow renewal ceremony performed by Father Kehai, and received several gifts from the sisters in honor of the day. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Sister Davilyn took us around the area to visit the sites significant to Marianne Cope and the sisters. Stops included statues of Marianne Cope, a local hospital and attending a mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in which the priest welcomed us and mentioned our anniversary during mass. This is the first place that Marianne Cope and her six chosen sisters were brought upon arriving in Honolulu on November 8, 1883. The full remains of Saint Marianne Cope and the partial remains Saint Damien are enshrined next to one another in the reliquary near the alter.
While anyone who had ever been in the care of Sister Leopoldina, or watched George Burns play baseball are no longer with us, their exploits live on through writings and in museums across New York State. The life and works of Sister Leopoldina are documented at the Marianne Cope Shrine & Museum in Syracuse ( www.saintmarianne.org ), as well as in the book “Pilgrimage and Exile,” and numerous other books and movies that have been produced about the lives of Saint Damien of Molokai and Saint Marianne Cope. The career of George Burns has also been documented by the Fulton County Baseball and Sports Hall of Fame ( www.fchof.com ), and many items from his career are on display at the Parkhurst Field Museum (www.parkhurstfield.org) and the Fulton County Museum (www.fultoncountyhistoricalsociety.org ) in Gloversville.
Dedication; This story is dedicated In Memory of my Mother Karen Way Hauser, my Grandmother Margaret Jacqueline “Jake” Burns Way, and my Great Grandmothers Ethel DeMott Burns and Edyth Van Auken Burns. Thank you for exposing us to the story of Sister Leopoldina.
Special Thanks for their contributions to the story; Kristin Barrett-Anderson, Sister Davilyn Ah Chick (Honolulu), Sister William Marie (Honolulu), Sister Alicia Damien Lau (Kalaupapa), Father Chris Keahi (Honolulu), Lori Hauser, Jeff Hauser, Tom Hauser and Stephen Way.
Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organizations website at www.fchof.com, email; firstname.lastname@example.org or call (518) 725-5565.
If you enjoyed this story and want to learn more about other sports history topics, look for Hauser’s “Hometown Sports Heroes” series of paperbacks on www.amazon.com and search; ‘Mike Hauser Hometown Sports Heroes.’