Saint Marianne Cope, Virgin
January 23—Optional Memorial USA
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of lepers, outcasts, those with HIV/AIDS, Hawaiʻi.
An immigrant learns generosity in her large family, and practices it her whole life
Today’s saint was a model female Franciscan who emulated Saint Francis’ heroic example of personally caring for those outcasts of all outcasts—lepers. Saints are not born, of course; they are made. And Saint Marianne Cope came from a specific time, place, and family. She could have developed her abundant talents in many directions and used them for many purposes, but she re-directed what God loaned her to serve and honor Him, His Church, and mankind. The Church, the Franciscans, and Hawaii were the arenas in which this elite spiritual athlete exercised her skills. She was asked for much and gave even more. She became a great, great woman.
Marianne Cope was born in Germany and was brought to New York state by her parents when she was still a baby. She was the oldest of ten children. Her parents lived, struggled, and worked for their kids. She saw generosity in action at home everyday. She quit school after eighth grade to work in a factory to financially support her ailing father, her mother, and her many siblings. The challenges inherent to migration, a new culture, illness, a large family, and poverty turned Marianne into a serious, mature woman when she was just a teen. She fulfilled her long delayed desire to enter religious life in 1862. Once professed, she moved quickly into leadership positions. She taught in German-speaking Catholic grade schools, became a school principal, and was elected by her fellow Franciscans to positions of governance in her Order. She opened the first hospitals in her region of central New York, dedicating herself and her Order to the time-honored religious vocation of caring for the sick, regardless of their ability to pay for medical services. She was eventually elected Superior General. In her early forties she was already a woman of wide experience: serious, administratively gifted, spiritually grounded, and of great human virtues. But this was all preparation. She now began the second, great act of her drama. She went to Hawaii.
In 1883 she received a letter from the Bishop of Honolulu begging her, as Superior General, to send sisters to care for lepers in Hawaii. He had written to various other religious Orders without success. Sister Marianne was elated. She responded like the prophet Isaiah, saying, “Here I am, send me” (Is 6:8). She not only sent six sisters, she sent herself! She planned to one day return to New York but never did. For the next thirty-five years, Sister Marianne Cope became a type of recluse on remote Hawaii, giving herself completely to the will of God.
Sister Marianne and her fellow Franciscans managed one hospital, founded another, opened a home for the daughters of lepers, and, after a few years of proving themselves, opened a home for women and girls on the virtually inaccessible island of Molokai. Here her life coincided with the final months of Saint Damien de Veuster. Sister Marianne nursed the future saint in his dying days, assuring him that she and her sisters would continue his work among the lepers. After Father Damien died, the Franciscans, in addition to caring for the leprous girls, now cared for the boys as well. A male Congregation eventually relieved them of this apostolate.
Sister Marianne Cope lived the last thirty years of her life on Molokai until her death in 1918. She was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 and canonized by him in 2012. She loved the Holy Eucharist, the Virgin Mary, and the Church. And because she loved God first, she loved those whom God loves, her brothers and sisters in Christ. She sacrificed for them, left home and family for them, put her health at risk for them, and became a saint through them.
Saint Marianne Cope, help us to be as generous as you were in serving those on the margins, those who need our help, and those who have no one else to assist them. You were a model Franciscan in dying to self. Help us to likewise die so that we might likewise live.
missionary to leprosy patients
Barbara Koob (now officially “Cope”) was born on 23 January 1838 in SE Hessen, West Germany. She was one of 10 children born to Peter Koob, a farmer, and Barbara Witzenbacher Koob. The year after Barbara’s birth, the family moved to the United States.
The Koob family found a home in Utica, in the State of New York, where they became members of St Joseph’s Parish and where the children attended the parish school.
Sisters of St Francis
Although Barbara felt called to Religious life at an early age, her vocation was delayed for nine years because of family obligations. As the oldest child at home, she went to work in a factory after completing eighth grade in order to support her family when her father became ill.
Finally, in the summer of 1862 at age 24, Barbara entered the Sisters of St Francis in Syracuse, N.Y. On 19 November 1862 she received the religious habit and the name “Sr Marianne”, and the following year she made her religious profession and began serving as a teacher and principal in several elementary schools in New York State.
She joined the Order in Syracuse with the intention of teaching, but her life soon became a series of administrative appointments.
God had other plans
As a member of the governing boards of her Religious Community in the 1860s, she participated in the establishment of two of the first hospitals in the central New York area.
In 1870, she began a new ministry as a nurse-administrator at St Joseph’s in Syracuse, N.Y., where she served as head administrator for six years. During this time she put her gifts of intelligence and people skills to good use as a facilitator, demonstrating the energy of a woman motivated by God alone.
Although Mother Marianne was often criticized for accepting for treatment “outcast” patients such as alcoholics, she became well-known and loved in the central New York area for her kindness, wisdom and down-to-earth practicality.
In 1883, Mother Marianne, now the Provincial Mother in Syracuse, received a letter from a Catholic priest asking for help in managing hospitals and schools in the Hawaiian Islands, and mainly to work with leprosy patients. The letter touched Mother Marianne’s heart and she enthusiastically responded: “I am hungry for the work and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen ones, whose privilege it will be to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the souls of the poor Islanders…. I am not afraid of any disease, hence, it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned “lepers'”.
A mother to the lepers
She and six other Sisters of St Francis arrived in Honolulu in November 1883. With Mother Marianne as supervisor, their main task was to manage the Kaka’ako Branch Hospital on Oahu, which served as a receiving station for patients with Hansen’s disease gathered from all over the islands.
The Sisters quickly set to work cleaning the hospital and tending to its 200 patients. By 1885, they had made major improvements to the living conditions and treatment of the patients.
In November of that year, they also founded the Kapi’olani Home inside the hospital compound, established to care for the healthy daughters of Hansen’s disease patients at Kaka’ako and Kalawao. The unusual decision to open a home for healthy children on leprosy hospital premises was made because only the Sisters would care for those so closely related to people with the dreaded disease.
Bl. Damien and Mother Marianne
Mother Marianne met Fr Damien de Veuster (today Blessed Damien is known as the “Apostle to Lepers”) for the first time in January 1884, when he was in apparent good health. Two years later, in 1886, after he had been diagnosed with Hansen’s disease, Mother Marianne alone gave hospitality to the outcast priest upon hearing that his illness made him an unwelcome visitor to Church and Government leaders in Honolulu.
In 1887, when a new Government took charge in Hawaii, its officials decided to close the Oahu Hospital and receiving station and to reinforce the former alienation policy. The unanswered question: Who would care for the sick, who once again would be sent to a settlement for exiles on the Kalaupapa Peninsula on the island of Molokai?
In 1888, Mother Marianne again responded to the plea for help and said: “We will cheerfully accept the work…”. She arrived in Kalaupapa several months before Fr Damien’s death together with Sr Leopoldina Burns and Sr Vincentia McCormick, and was able to console the ailing priest by assuring him that she would provide care for the patients at the Boys’ Home at Kalawao that he had founded.
Optimism, serenity, trust in God
Together the three Sisters ran the Bishop Home for 103 Girls and the Home for Boys. The workload was extreme and the burden at times seemed overwhelming. In moments of despair, Sr Leopoldina reflected: “How long, O Lord, must I see only those who are sick and covered with leprosy?”.
Mother Marianne’s invaluable example of never-failing optimism, serenity and trust in God inspired hope in those around her and allayed the Sisters’ fear of catching leprosy. She taught her Sisters that their primary duty was “to make life as pleasant and as comfortable as possible for those of our fellow creatures whom God has chosen to afflict with this terrible disease…”.
Mother Marianne never returned to Syracuse. She died in Hawaii on 9 August 1918 of natural causes and was buried on the grounds of Bishop Home.