SYRACUSE, N.Y. — In 1883, Mother Marianne Cope, the superior general of the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, opened her mail and read a plea for nurses that could minister to leprosy patients in Hawaii. Forty-nine religious orders had set the request aside, but she chose to accept the challenge.
“I am not afraid of any disease,” announced Mother Marianne, an early advocate of routine hand washing in the order’s hospitals.
She soon departed for Hawaii with six sisters, with plans to stay just long enough to get them settled. But the patients’ great needs led her to remain in Hawaii for almost four decades — she died there in 1918.
Almost a century later, Blessed Marianne is expected to be canonized, possibly in 2012, following the Vatican’s Dec. 6 announcement that a second miracle attributed to her intercession was approved.
The news was confirmed Dec. 19, when the Pope met with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and authorized the promulgation of several decrees of canonization.
Those included the decree for another North American, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the Mohawk maiden who lived from 1656 to 1680 in what is now New York state and Canada.
Blessed Kateri’s father was a Mohawk chief and her mother was an Algonquin who was raised Catholic. A smallpox epidemic killed both of her parents and left her with poor eyesight and a badly disfigured face at a young age.
Despite objections from her relatives, she was baptized at age 20, after meeting several Catholic priests. An outcast from her community, Kateri lived a life of deep prayer, with a strong devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.
She died in 1680 at the age of 24. Witnesses said that the scars on her face disappeared after her death. Known as the “Lily of the Mohawks,” she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980, the first Native American to be declared blessed.
Of Marianne Cope, Franciscan Sister Davilyn Ah Chick said, “We are so deeply thankful to God. For anyone to be declared ‘Blessed’ is a miracle in itself. But for Hawaii to have two saints for the universal Church, that is the beautiful part of it.” Sister Davilyn attended the order’s school in Honolulu, where relics of Blessed Marianne and St. Damien de Veuster, canonized in 2009, have been installed at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace.
On the East Coast of the United States, that joyful gratitude was echoed at the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Williamsville, N.Y.
“As soon as we sent word out, a larger number of sisters went to the shrine where her remains have been buried and said a prayer of thanksgiving,” said Franciscan Sister Patricia Burkard, spokeswoman for Blessed Marianne’s cause.
“She is recognized as a person with great compassion, but she also had the kind of skills that inspired trust and hope. She showed enormous dedication, giving to others at great personal sacrifice,” said Sister Patricia.
Blessed Marianne faced hardship from her early years. Born in 1838, the then-Barbara Koob was the oldest of 10 children of German immigrant parents who settled in Utica, N.Y. Her father’s health failed, and Barbara went to work in a factory after completing eighth grade.
Once her siblings were old enough to support themselves, she entered the convent of the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse. She began working in the order’s schools, serving as a teacher and principal, but eventually her focus shifted to include health care.
In the 1880s, as a member of the governing board of her religious community, she helped pave the way for the opening of two hospitals that boasted distinctive charters for that era: They accepted patients of any nationality, creed or race. At the time, they were among just 60 registered hospitals in the United States.
“Early on, she was recognized to have great leadership. She helped found St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Utica and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse,” said Sister Patricia.
Mother Marianne left those institutions in capable hands when she left for Hawaii in 1883. And when the sisters’ ship arrived in Honolulu Harbor later that year, they were greeted by the pealing of bells from Our Lady of Peace Cathedral and a jubilant crowd.
The sisters received their first glimpse of the tragic plight of Hawaii’s leprosy patients at the holding hospital in Honolulu, where those suspected of contracting the disease — known today as Hansen’s disease — were evaluated by public-health officials.
Once the diagnosis was confirmed, they were “exiled” to the island of Molokai, where Father Damien had already begun his own ministry with afflicted men and boys. But soon after her arrival, the government’s policy of exile was temporarily discontinued, and patients were cared for at a Honolulu hospital.
Within two years, King Kalakaua of Hawaii had decorated Mother Marianne with the medal of the Royal Order of Kapiolani for her outstanding service to the sick and the needy. In 1884, she established “Malulani Hospital, the first general hospital on the island of Maui,” according to her official biography at BlessedMarianneCope.org.
Care and Christian Comfort
Mother Marianne moved a step closer to a permanent stay in Hawaii after she was asked to return to Honolulu to intercede on behalf of leprosy patients who were mistreated by a government-appointed administrator. She issued an ultimatum: She would return to Syracuse if he was not dismissed. Ultimately, she was placed in charge of that hospital, securing her commitment to remain there.
But five years after her arrival in Honolulu, the government reinstituted its policy of exiling leprosy patients. The government asked the sisters to take over nursing duties in the isolated settlement of Kalaupapa on Molokai. Marianne knew that if they accepted the assignment, there would be no going back to New York.
“Our hearts are bleeding to see them shipped off,” she wrote to Father Damien, confirming her decision to establish a home for afflicted women.
She met Father Damien soon after her arrival, though the two operated separate missions.
In 1886, after he contracted leprosy, according to her biography, “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. … Her caring turned other leaders around to his favor, especially after a visit by royalty was arranged to take place at the hospital.”
At the end of his life, Damien asked her to take over his mission, and she carried on his work with men and boys until a religious order of brothers took charge.
The settlement of Kalaupapa was primitive, and her patients lived in huts, their sense of dignity in tatters. The sisters began by nursing the patients, and, eventually, the order established a hospital for treatment. Mother Marianne continuously stressed the need for hand washing, promising the sisters that if they maintained that simple ritual no one would contract the disease.
“And, 127 years later, that is still true. Not one sister ever contracted the disease,” said Sister Patricia.
Over time, the order opened schools for the patients’ healthy children. The children lived in an orphanage established by the sisters and were only able to see their parents from time to time under restricted conditions at the settlement.
The patients’ profound isolation had resulted in deep spiritual and emotional wounds. As their spiritual mother, Mother Marianne sought to draw out their humanity and affirm their inalienable dignity, even as their own people shunned them. She offered them training and classes that drew them into creative and productive work.
“At Kalaupapa, she incited an interest in color harmony, needlework and landscaping. For spiritual direction, the pastor of St. Francis Church was invited to give instructions to the patients at the home, and non-Catholics were free to see their pastors,” states the official biography.
“A beautiful aspect of her life, besides her courage and spirit of joy, was that she impressed everyone as a mother,” noted Sister Davilyn, who said that Mother Marianne took great care to help her patients dress in beautiful garments befitting their true dignity.
The author Robert Louis Stevenson, a contemporary of Mother Marianne, offered this verse acknowledging the sisters’ inspirational care for an afflicted people:
He marks the sisters on the painful shores.
And even a fool is silent and adores.
Mother Marianne died from natural causes in 1918, but her legacy in Hawaii continues. There are schools and hospice-care programs in various locations on the Hawaiian islands. At Kalaupapa, the sisters still care for a small number of patients who live voluntarily at the settlement.
About 40 years ago, the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse began exploring the possibility of promoting her canonization. Sister Mary Laurence Hanley made Mother Marianne’s cause her life’s work.
She authored a definitive biography, Pilgrimage and Exile, with O.A. Bushne and spent almost four decades researching her cause, visiting Hawaii to review old records and sharing Marianne’s life with interested Catholics.
Sister Mary died just days before the Vatican approved the second miracle in December.
“When the order began to review her life and the sisters realized the incredible work she had accomplished, many sisters were assigned to her, and when she passed away, the sisters continued to come so that her legacy lived on. Regarding her work in Hawaii: The order recognized that it was an extraordinary response to people in need and the call of the Gospel,” said Sister Patricia.
In 2003, theologians at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared her “heroically virtuous,” and the following year Pope John Paul II named her “Venerable.”
In 2005, the order celebrated her beatification, following the Vatican’s approval of a first miracle: the return to health of a young girl whose major organs shut down following cancer treatment. That same year, the order exhumed Marianne’s body and brought her remains back to St. Anthony Convent in Syracuse.
In November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to add her feast to the national calendar. The Dioceses of Honolulu and Syracuse already commemorate her on Jan. 23, her birthday, but the Vatican must still establish a date for the Church’s national calendar.
“We often hear of the miraculous activities of medieval saints that could fly, but, sometimes, God works in an ordinary way with extraordinary power,” said Jeannine Marino, a program specialist at the USCCB’s Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis.
Marino suggested that Blessed Marianne’s example offers a path for “embodying the New Evangelization: going forth, proclaiming the Gospel, and meeting people where they are — in a hospital, soup kitchen or classroom.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.