The Catholic Defender: Saint Marianne Cope
St. Marianne Cope was born Barbara Koob on Jan. 23, 1838, in Hessen, West Germany. A year after she was born, the family immigrated to Utica, N.Y., where the surname Koob became Cope. Barbara became a U.S. citizen when her father was naturalized.
J.F. Bowler, a leading Catholic laywoman at the time, who said Mother Marianne “risked her own life … faced everything with unflinching courage and smiled sweetly throughout it all. … She was a heroine in her life; she is a martyr in death.”
Though leprosy scared off most people in 19th-century Hawaii, that disease sparked great generosity in the woman who came to be known as Mother Marianne of Molokai. Her courage helped tremendously to improve the lives of its victims in Hawaii, a territory annexed to the United States during her lifetime (1898).
Mother Marianne’s generosity and courage were celebrated at her May 14, 2005, beatification in Rome. She was a woman who spoke “the language of truth and love” to the world, said Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes. Cardinal Martins, who presided at the beatification Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, called her life “a wonderful work of divine grace.” Speaking of her special love for persons suffering from leprosy, he said, “She saw in them the suffering face of Jesus. Like the Good Samaritan, she became their mother.”
Her father died in 1862, and this along with her siblings maturity, permitted her to leave the factory to pursue a religious life. She became a novitiate of the Sisters of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis based in Syracuse, New York. She took the name Marianne when she completed her formation.
Marianne held the post of superior in several places and was twice the novice mistress of her congregation. A natural leader, three different times she was superior of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse, where she learned much that would be useful during her years in Hawaii.
Cope also helped direct the opening of the first two Catholic hospitals in central New York. She arranged for students from the Geneva Medical College in New York to work at the hospital, but also stipulated that patients should be able to refuse treatment by them. It was one of the first times in history that the right of a patient to refuse treatment was recognized.
Elected provincial in 1877, Mother Marianne was unanimously re-elected in 1881. Two years later the Hawaiian government was searching for someone to run the Kakaako Receiving Station for people suspected of having leprosy.
More than 50 religious communities in the United States and Canada were asked. When the request was put to the Syracuse sisters, 35 of them volunteered immediately.
On October 22, 1883, Mother Marianne and six other sisters left for Hawaii where they took charge of the Kakaako Receiving Station outside Honolulu; on the island of Maui they also opened a hospital and a school for girls.
She joined the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1862 taking the religious name Marianne.
Mother Marianne, as she was then known, left Syracuse with six sisters to attend to the sick, and arrived on November 8,1883.
In 1888, Mother Marianne and two sisters went to Molokai to open a home for “unprotected women and girls” there. The Hawaiian government was quite hesitant to send women for this difficult assignment; they need not have worried about Mother Marianne! On Molokai she took charge of the home that Saint Damien de Veuster had established for men and boys. Mother Marianne changed life on Molokai by introducing cleanliness, pride, and fun to the colony. Bright scarves and pretty dresses for the women were part of her approach.
Awarded the Royal Order of Kapiolani by the Hawaiian government and celebrated in a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, Mother Marianne continued her work faithfully. Her sisters have attracted vocations among the Hawaiian people and still work on Molokai.
Once arrived, Mother Marianne managed a hospital on the island of O'ahu, where victims of leprosy were sent for triage. The most severe patients were sent to the island of Moloka'i.
Eventually, Mother Marianne's work became a burden on her frail body and she was confined to a wheelchair. Despite this limitation, she continued to work tirelessly. Many noticed that despite all her years of work she never contracted leprosy herself, which many regarded as a miracle in itself.
The “heroine” nun went to her heavenly reward peacefully in her convent bed in Kalaupapa, as her fellow Franciscan sisters prayed quietly around her. She was 80 and a Sister of St. Francis for 56 years. She had served Hawaii’s suffering Hansen’s disease patients for 35 years.
In reporting her death the next day, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin described Mother Marianne as “one of the best known and best loved Catholic Sisters in the islands.”
Mother Marianne died on August 9, 1918, was beatified in 2005, and canonized seven years later.
The Aug. 11, 1918, Honolulu Advertiser wrote, “Throughout the Islands, the memory of Mother Marianne is revered, particularly among the Hawaiians in whose cause she was shown such martyr-like devotion. Those who have met the sweet delicate little woman, whose face was almost spirituelle, have always been impressed with her intellectual qualities, for she was a woman of splendid accomplishments, and had fine executive ability. She impressed everyone as a real ‘mother’ to those who stood so sorely in need of ‘mothering.’”
In the Aug. 18 Post-Standard newspaper of Syracuse, N.Y., the city from which St. Marianne had come, Fred D. Dutcher predicted: “When the role of the saints is called, Mother Marianne will be there to answer, ‘Here.’” Her name “will live as that of a woman whose noble self-sacrifice ranks with the death-defying devotion of the martyrs of old.”
Her biography, “Pilgrimage and Exile,” by Franciscan Sister Mary Laurence Hanley and historian O.A. Bushnell, describes the decline of her final years.
“Her body, so overworked for God’s sake, so generously offered to Lady Poverty’s rule, so relentlessly chastened at humility’s orders, broke at last. Her heart and kidneys began to fail more than three years before she died. Like St. Francis, — who neglected his body with even fiercer distain — she, too, suffered from dropsy.”
Dropsy is an old term for edema, the swelling of the body’s tissues from the accumulation of excess water.
Pope Benedict XVI canonized Blessed Marianne in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Oct. 21, 2012.
In 2004, Vatican officials ruled that a miraculous recovery involving a 14-year-old Syracuse girl in 1993 was the result of Mother Marianne's intercession. The girl, Kate Mahoney, nearly died from complications after cancer surgery at Crouse Hospital.
The Vatican's Congregation for the Causes for Saints confirmed the unanimous ruling of the medical board that a medical miracle occurred as the result of prayers seeking the intercession of Mother Marianne on the patient's behalf.
The case involves the healing of a woman who was ill with a fatal health condition.
A group of cardinals and bishops confirmed a Vatican medical board's finding that there is no medical explanation for a second miracle attributed to Blessed Mother Marianne Cope, known for her work with patients with leprosy in Hawaii.
With the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, Mother Marianne would become a saint, considered the church's spiritual role models.