St. Marianne Cope. (Photo courtesy Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities)
By Connie Berry | Sun contributing writer
Oct. 21 brings 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: Marianne Cope.
Her early years
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).
Barbara was the eldest child at home and she felt an obligation to care for her younger siblings. 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 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. Barbara was given the name Sister Marianne.
She served as a teacher and principal in schools in the area. Eventually, her role in her community’s administration led to her participation in the of founding both St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica. Sister 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 regard to patient care, would come to good use when she later served in Hawaii.
Called to serve
Mother Marianne was the superior of the congregation when, in 1883, she received a letter from Hawaii. The letter asked for the sisters to come provide nursing care on what was then the Sandwich Islands. The main work would be ministering to people with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy as it was known then. Saying she was “not afraid of any disease,” Mother Marianne was willing to accept the challenge from the beginning.
Thirty-five sisters volunteered to serve; six were chosen to go to Hawaii. Mother Marianne planned to accompany them to help them get settled.
Mother Marianne got as far as Buffalo before realizing that her purse — containing the tickets for passage — was left in Syracuse. She had to return to retrieve it and then continue the journey. The sisters spent weeks traveling across the country by train and then by steamer to Honolulu.
In 1884, at the government’s request, Mother Marianne established Malulani Hospital, the first general hospital on the island of Maui. She also was given charge of Branch Hospital on the island of Oahu. In 1885, Mother Marianne opened Kapiolani Home for the homeless female children of patients with Hansen’s disease.
Island of exile
Hansen’s disease had spread to the islands decades before. People wanted nothing to do with anyone associated with the disfiguring and contagious disease. In the 1860s, patients began to be exiled to Kalaupapa, a peninsula on the island of Molokai bordered by the Pacific Ocean and some of the highest ocean cliffs in the world. Patients — truly the outcasts of society — were sent to the island by boatloads, sometimes being shoved into the rough seas to make it ashore on their own.
St. Damien DeVeuster had arrived on Kalaupapa in 1873 and built many of the early accommodations for the patients. Mother Marianne first met Father Damien in January 1884 when he came to Oahu to attend the opening of a chapel at a hospital she oversaw. Father Damien was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease two years later, around the same time the new government in Hawaii reinstated the active exile of patients with the disease.
Someone was needed to care for the patients on Kalaupapa. Mother Marianne accepted the task, moving to Molokai in 1888.
Mother to outcasts
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 home for boys established by Father Damien. Mother Marianne succeeded Father Damien after his death in 1889, going on to oversee the construction of an entirely new home for boys, as well as another home for women and girls. The sisters also nurtured and raised the well children of those suffering from Hansen’s disease, providing them with a home, an education and instruction in the arts and music.
How much work went into caring for a sick population on a remote island can only be imagined. Mother Marianne oversaw the tasks of caring for patients, including the daily cleaning and dressing of sores. She kept charge of the books, recording supplies and costs. She provided for the spiritual needs of the sisters and the patients, and dealt with near-constant death and funeral arrangements. 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 Hansen’s disease. (Mother Marianne is said to have promised the sisters they would never contract the disease and none ever did.) 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.”
But Mother Marianne was able to maintain her sense of humor and irony. She wrote in her journal, after reporting that many of the sisters were ill or required rest that day, “Thank God I am feeling myself only oppressed.” Her diaries also describe excursions with the girls to gather flowers, shells and fruit. She noted some days the girls were “spirited” and wrote that they spent the day “cutting dresses” and made notes such as, “Our girls sang during Mass.”
Mother Marianne’s own health was good, except for a scary bout of pulmonary hemorrhaging 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, ultimately embracing death in 1918. 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.
Advancing the cause
The work of advancing Mother Marianne’s cause for sainthood began shortly after her death. The surviving members of her congregation realized Mother Marianne’s acceptance of her role and the peace with which she lived her life was already an example of heroic virtue, and they carefully collected many of her materials.
The steps to sainthood included much work by the diocese and the Sisters of St. Francis. In 1972, Mother Viola Kiernan, OSF, asked Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, OSF, to begin working on the cause for sainthood. Sister Mary Laurence later became the official cause director and served in that role until her death in 2011. The late Msgr. Michael Minehan, Father Clifford Auth, Father Joseph Zareski, Father Andrew Baranski, along with Father Timothy Elmer and assistant chancellor Danielle Cummings, also played important roles in the process. Retired Bishop James Moynihan convened the first Board of Inquiry in the case.
Mother Marianne’s cause proceeded in several stages. In 2003, theologians, cardinals and bishops at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared her heroically virtuous. In 2004, Pope John Paul II issued a decree naming her Venerable. That same year, a miracle attributed to Mother Marianne’s intercession — the inexplicable medical recovery of Syracuse teenager Kate Mahoney — was authenticated; Mother Marianne was beatified in 2005. In 2011, a second miracle — the inexplicable medical recovery of Sharon Smith of Chittenango — was ruled to be due to Bl. Marianne’s intercession and in December the Congregation for Causes of Saints affirmed Blessed Marianne for canonization.
Connie Berry is the former longtime editor of The Catholic Sun; she currently resides on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. A version of this article appeared in a previous edition of the Sun.