Born January 23, 1838, in Germany | Died August 9, 1918 in Hawaii (now the United States)
Canonized October 21, 2012 | Feast Day: January 23
Marianne’s Radical Gift
Marianne Cope listened only to God, accepting and caring for people others feared or found distasteful and putting her own health at risk.
When she was two, Maria Anna Barbara Koob (the name Cope was adopted later) moved with her family from Germany to Utica, New York. Utica’s population had exploded from about three thousand to nearly thirteen thousand in twenty years. Industrial development helped to attract immigrants. The city also was an important stop on the Underground Railroad for those escaping enslavement in the South. In the years after she arrived in Hawaii, the islands experienced revolution, abdication of the final queen, establishment of a republic, and then annexation to the United States.
Marianne’s Radical Path to Holiness
Fr. Leonor Fouesnel, who was assigned to Hawaii’s Catholic mission, sent a letter to more than fifty communities of women religious. It identified the need for sisters to run hospitals and schools and to “procure the salvation of souls and promote the glory of God and the interest of our holy religion…”
But every community declined. Every community, that is, until the letter made its way to Mother Marianne Cope, provincial superior for the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, New York. She felt called and wrote back for more information. Future letters from Fr. Leonor talked about the islands’ climate; the salary the sisters would receive; and the possibility Protestants would be asked to help if the Sisters of St. Francis didn’t say yes. A month would pass before, during a personal visit to the sisters, Fr. Leonor disclosed that the work would be among those who suffered from Hansen’s disease, in those days called leprosy.
Hansen’s disease struck fear in the hearts of most people. It was believed—later disproved—that the infection that strikes the skin, nervous system, and more was highly contagious. When the infection went untreated, those with the disease often were crippled, paralyzed, and blinded. As a result, in Hawaii and elsewhere, those suffering from Hansen’s disease and sometimes their family members were cast out from society. And based on the information available at the time, anyone working with those stricken put his or her health at severe risk.
Knowing all this, the community’s vote was radical in its courage: eight to one in favor of going to Hawaii. Within a few months, Mother Marianne and five others were on their way. Hard work and criticism were nothing new to Mother Marianne.
After she finished school, she had worked at a factory, possibly the textile mill across the street from her parents’ home. Her plan upon beginning her novitiate in 1862 was to be a teacher, and while she did that for a time, her focus changed to healthcare and administration.
She helped to establish central New York’s first two Catholic hospitals, where she was reproached for allowing alcoholics and other undesirables to receive treatment. What she and the others found when they arrived in Hawaii was much more challenging: The facility she was to manage had been built for one hundred people but housed double that. Conditions were deplorable. But instead of turning around and leaving on the next boat, Mother Marianne and the others chose to stay.
Mother Marianne became a tireless advocate for those she served. When she learned patients were being abused at a hospital near Honolulu, she gave an ultimatum: Either the administrator left, or the sisters would. She won control of the hospital. The sisters also set up a home within the hospital campus to tend to the daughters of those with Hansen’s disease, for no other facility would care for the girls, and they took on responsibility for additional hospitals and schools.
Mother Marianne and Fr. Damien, known as the apostle to the lepers, met after she had been in Hawaii only a few months. When he himself was diagnosed with Hansen’s two years later, she courageously nursed him and took on his work among men with the infection. Despite thirty-five years in ministry on the islands, Mother Marianne never contracted the disease. Her insistence on strict sanitary and hygiene procedures generally are credited for this. She died of natural causes in 1918. Her remains currently reside at the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu.
Praying with Marianne
St. Marianne, help me to find the courage and vision
to see Christ in all those I encounter, regardless of my
initial reaction to their differentness.