A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
When I was first asked to conserve this medallion, I thought of it only as an artifact. But later it became, for me, a personal token of a devout and caring woman. It was buried with the body of Mother Marianne Cope, a Catholic nun who spent 35 years tending to sufferers of leprosy exiled on the Hawaiian island of Moloka'i. From 1866 to 1969, some 8,000 people, mostly native Hawaiians, were sent to what was once described as a "living tomb." In 2005, as part of a campaign for beatification led by her order, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities of Syracuse, New York, her remains were excavated and taken to the order's Motherhouse Chapel.
At first, I knew very little about the artifact's archaeological context, as the church sealed that information from the public. The front (top) simply depicts the Virgin Mary, but the back tells a deeper story about Mother Marianne herself and how she was buried. The rust preserves an impression of the humble cloth habit she wore when she was buried. The garment has completely disintegrated, but this tangible evidence made her seem very real to me.
As a holy relic, the medallion is considered a living artifact that contains the presence of Mother Marianne. Even the particles of rust and sand I cleaned from the surface are believed to be imbued with her spirit and had to be preserved. I was humbled to cradle the relic in my hands, and thought often of how Mother Marianne might have held it. I hope my work helps preserve the medallion as an object of meditation and devotion.