Bl. Marianne Cope proclaimed a saint by Pope Benedict XVI
By Connie Berry
This year will bring the canonization of a woman whose life can be described as nothing less than extraordinary — a woman who was a leader within the Diocese of Syracuse and beyond.
On Dec. 6 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes for Saints ruled a second miracle attributed to Bl. Marianne Cope was an unexplainable medical recovery. Then, on Dec. 19, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed the Franciscan nun a saint. Now the sisters and the rest of the world are waiting for an announcement as to when her canonization in Rome will take place. Sadly, the director of Bl. Marianne’s cause for sainthood, Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, OSF, passed away just days before the Dec. 6 decision. Nearly everyone familiar with the cause would agree that Sister Mary Laurence will now finally be near the woman whose life she researched with painstaking fidelity.
Sainthood within the Catholic tradition dates back to the martyrs of the church. Holding up those whose sanctity and virtue is considered heroic has taken place since the death of Christ. In a nation as young as the U.S., only a handful of saints have been canonized. The recent announcement regarding both Bl. Marianne and Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha means Upstate New York will soon be in an elite group. Including these two women, there are only now a dozen saints who were either born in or served significantly in the U.S.
Bl. Marianne Cope was born Barbara Koob in Germany on Jan. 23, 1838. Her family emigrated to the U.S. the following year, settling in Utica where they were members of St. Joseph’s Church, now St. Joseph’s-St. Patrick’s. As was typical at the time, she remained with her family working in a factory to help support them after her father became ill. Barbara was the eldest child at home and she felt an obligation to care for her younger siblings. She was able to enter the Sisters of St. Francis community based in Syracuse on Nov. 19, 1862. The order had been founded in Syracuse in 1855 with the support and guidance of then bishop of Philadelphia, St. John Neumann.
Interestingly, Bl. Marianne wanted to be a teacher instead of working in a hospital. She began serving as a teacher and school principal before her role in her community’s administration led to her being part of founding both St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica. Bl. Marianne served as administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital for six years. Her talent as a hospital administrator, as well as her knowledge of the significance of sanitation and hygiene in regards to patient care, would come to good use later when she served in Hawaii.
In 1883, Mother Marianne was the superior of the congregation when she was approached by an emissary from Hawaii who asked for the sisters to come and provide nursing care on what was then the Sandwich Islands. She was willing to accept the challenge from the beginning. Six sisters were chosen from 35 volunteers to go to Hawaii and serve. Mother Marianne planned to accompany them to help them get settled.
Mother Marianne got as far as Buffalo before realizing that her purse with the tickets for passage was left in Syracuse. She had to return to retrieve it and then continue the journey. The year being 1883, the sisters spent weeks traveling by train and then steamer to Honolulu. They were welcomed warmly there and began to go about the business of cleaning up the horrendous conditions those suffering from Hanson’s disease, or leprosy, were living in at the leper hospital there. What she encountered on her arrival is well documented in her biography, A Song of Pilgrimage and Exile: The Life and Spirit of Mother Marianne of Molokai. The sisters worked diligently to make a decent environment for those who were suffering from the disease. Leprosy had spread to the islands decades before and people wanted nothing to do with anyone associated with the disfiguring and contagious disease. They were truly the outcasts of society. They were left to die at the hospital.
Exiling lepers to the peninsula of Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai began in the 1860s. St. Damien DeVeuster arrived in 1873 and built many of the early accommodations for the patients there. At this time the situation was grave, with patients sent to the island by boatloads sometimes being shoved out of boats and into the rough seas to make it ashore on their own. Mother Marianne met Father Damien for the first time in January of 1884 when he came to attend the opening of a chapel at a hospital she was in charge of. He was diagnosed with leprosy two years later, around the same time the new government in Hawaii reinstated the exile of lepers. They needed someone to care for them on Kalaupapa. Mother Marianne’s work had already been recognized by government officials who were grateful for the sisters’ presence. It wasn’t until 1888 that the sisters moved to Kalaupapa, a peninsula on Molokai surrounded on three sides by the Pacific and the other side by some of the highest ocean cliffs in the world.
Mother Marianne’s capable hands carried out this new work with the same efficiency as her previous endeavors. She and the sisters cared for the patients at the Boys’ Home established by Father Damien, who died in 1889. Under Mother Marianne’s guidance, a new home was built and then another home for women and girls. The sisters nurtured and raised the well children of those suffering from leprosy. They provided not only a home, but education and instruction in the arts and music. Mother Marianne was also gifted in the area of gardening, planting flowers for the patients to enjoy and seeing that the girls sewed from patterns copying the latest fashions sent to her from the mainland. Mother Marianne and the sisters saw to it that the patients were provided with what little comforts were possible given their situation.
Mother Marianne’s biography describes a 1889 visit from famed writer Robert Louis Stevenson. The girls at Bishop Home had no idea who he was and only recognized him as a funny man who taught them how to play croquet. He would later write of his week-long visit to Kalaupapa. After he left, Stevenson sent a beautiful piano to the girls so they might always enjoy music. One of Mother Marianne’s dearest sisters, Sister Leopoldina Burns, mentioned afterward, “There was always music….The girls had beautiful vocies, so that the Bishop Home was a pleasant place.”
Her diaries contain excerpts describing the weather on the peninsula and excursions with the girls to pick flowers, shells and fruit. She noted some days the girls were “spirited” and that they spent the day “cutting dresses” and wrote notes such as “our girls sang during Mass.” On March 4, 1900 she wrote after a visit with some other sisters who had come from far away, “This is indeed a sad and lonely day. How painful it is to be this separated.”
Mother Marianne was able to maintain her sense of humor and irony as another passage in her journal notes after reporting that many of the sisters were ill or required rest that day, “Thank God I am feeling myself only oppressed.” Neither did she suffer fools gladly. Mother Marianne enjoyed the love and respect of the sisters on Molokai; some of them documented their memories of her after her death. On page 353 of Sister Mary Laurence’s biography of Mother Marianne, she wrote:
“The testimonies of Sister Leopoldina, Sister Antonia, and others help to explain how Mother won their love and loyalty. ‘To make the Sisters happy was her aim,’ said Sister Antonia…. ‘No one dare say a word against the Sisters. One visiting priest tried to find fault with some of the Sisters on one of the other Islands. She answered, ‘It is too bad that God did not make a model and have all the Sisters made after it.’ He said no more.” Conversely, the same rule applied if the sisters tried to criticize.
Today, how much work went into caring for a leper population living on a remote island can only be imagined. A journal entry on Feb. 18, 1900 describes a particularly difficult night with one of the patients, Magdalena, suffering through childbirth. The doctor could not come for her because he was busy tending his own brother that night. The sisters made her as comfortable as they could but Mother Marianne wrote, “…came to help Magdalena through her confinement late …. Magdalena suffered much … child was dead when it came into the world.” Mother Marianne and the sisters must have been surrounded by suffering almost constantly.
Mother Marianne not only faced overseeing daily tasks of cleaning sores and dressing them, but she also kept charge of the books, recording the supplies and costs. There were the spiritual needs of the sisters and the patients and the constant death and funeral arrangements to be taken care. There was the fact that she and the sisters were running a home for young girls who undoubtedly ran into mischief involving the boys on the island. And a constant source of anxiety must have come from the sisters wondering in the secret depths of their hearts if they, too, would someday contract leprosy.
Taking proper care to abate the spread of the disease was essential. Mother Marianne is said to have promised the sisters they would never contract the disease and none of them ever did. Her own health was good except for a scary bout of pulmonary hemorrhaging while in her early 60s. Not one to take to her bed, Mother Marianne knew she must rest when this happened. The sisters took care of her and Mother Marianne improved, although she would never travel off the island again. She lived nearly 20 years more. Accounts from the surviving sisters describe Mother Marianne as peaceful at the end of her life. She was conscious almost to the very end, they remembered. Many of them wrote that they still felt her presence after she was gone.
Editor’s note: The writer is grateful for the biographical information available and insight of the Sisters of the St. Francis, and the assistance of Darlene Yamrose, assistant to the late Sister Mary Laurence Hanley.