Following God’s Call: Marianne Cope

New saint ‘filled the weary heart with new life.’


In Oct. 21, World Mission Sunday, the Church will canonize two new American saints: Blesseds Marianne Cope (1838-1918) and Kateri Tekakwitha. Blessed Marianne will be canonized because of her heroic work with the lepers of Molokai, Hawaii, continuing the mission that Belgian priest St. Father Damien De Veuster had begun.

It all began with a letter: In 1803, Hawaiian missionary priest Father Leonor Fouesnel was desperate for nurses in Hawaii. He appealed to more than 50 superiors of religious orders in Canada and the United States. "Have pity on our poor sick," he pleaded. Only one superior responded to his cry: Sister Marianne Cope, the provincial superior of the Order of St. Francis in Syracuse, N.Y.

"My interest is awakened, and I feel an irresistible force driving me to follow this call," she replied. The missionary priest withheld one vital aspect of the mission: The sisters would be working with lepers. He feared that they would change their minds once they discovered the truth, but he needn’t have worried: Sister Marianne embraced the call with even more enthusiasm. "I am hungry for the work," she replied, "and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen ones whose privilege it will be to sacrifice oneself for the salvation of the poor islanders. It would be my greatest delight to minister to the abandoned lepers."

Born in Germany in 1838, Marianne’s family moved to Utica, N.Y., when she was a toddler. Although she was a clever student, she had to leave school after the eighth grade to work in a factory to help support her younger siblings. She felt an early call to religious life, but she had to wait nine long years before she could realize her dream: In 1862, she joined the new Franciscan religious order (which had only been in existence for five years). She was elected provincial superior 15 years later. By then, the order included 62 sisters, nine schools and two hospitals (the first hospitals to be built in central New York state). After working as a teacher, principal and nurse, the eminently capable Sister Marianne became the director of the Syracuse hospital. A gifted and kind administrator, she was known for her ability to "smooth the way and soothe the ego."

But on Oct. 22, 1883, Sister Marianne and six other sisters set out for Hawaii. They would eventually settle at the leper colony on the island of Molokai, which was established by a 1865 governmental decree.

Walter Murray Gibson, Hawaii’s minister of health, was smitten with "these angels of mercy." "He fell in love with the kindly sisters," said one observer. To be more specific, the widowed Gibson fell in love with one particular sister more than all the others: Sister Marianne. After his death, his diary revealed that he had a crush on the beautiful and charming mother superior.

At the colony, Father Damien had been in charge of the males at Molokai, and Sister Marianne was placed in charge of the girls and the women. She not only continued his work — she added a few flourishes of her own: "Life is to be lived, even in the face of death," she often said. She wanted to bring dignity and joy to their lives, as well as beauty.

But first things first: The sisters were appalled by the squalor in this "compound of sorrows," so, "armed with brooms, mops and brushes," this "typhoon of clean" got to work. They also planted trees, flowers and shrubbery. In a short while, the manicured lawns and the cottages seemed to gleam in the blazing sun. The place was transformed.

And color was everywhere. Sister Marianne loved colorful things — the more vibrant, the better. With Sister Marianne at the helm, the female lepers were all dressed in the latest fashions. Who supplied the women with these colorful creations? Sister Marianne, with the help of some of the sisters. Sister Marianne was a talented fashion designer and a seamstress. The sisters also enjoyed making small gifts for the boys and girls. Sports, music and education were also emphasized.

Sister Marianne spent the rest of her life in Molokai. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson visited the colony in 1889. So impressed was he with Sister Marianne that he wrote a poem about her.

Sister Marianne died at the age of 80. She was beatified by Pope Benedict in 2005 at his first beatification ceremony.

Sister Leopoldina, who worked alongside Sister Marianne for 35 years, spoke about her superior this way: "The presence of Sister Marianne filled the weary heart with new life."

Next issue: St. Kateri feature.

Mary Hansen writes from

North Bay, Ontario.