Bl. Mother Marianne Cope’s cause for sainthood continues

By Connie Berry
SUN editor

At a time when “Just sit there and look pretty” might describe the popular concept of women in U.S. society, Mother Marianne far exceeded those expectations. In her lifetime she managed to accomplish so much when the odds were seldom in her favor. She overcame them with her determination to truly live out the charism of St. Francis, and she impacted the lives of countless people — mostly those who were suffering.

The work documenting her cause for sainthood began with the Sisters of St. Francis. Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, OSF, director of Mother Marianne’s cause since 1977, said Mother Margaret Haskin, superior of Syracuse’s Sisters of St. Francis in the 1920s, asked the sisters who had known and worked with her to write down their memories of Mother Marianne, who died in 1918. Mother Margaret anticipated there would eventually be a cause for sainthood. The sisters complied with her wishes and there are several documents describing Mother Marianne’s heroic virtue and her humility. These documents  were used during the compilation of the biography published in 1980 by Sister Mary Laurence and O.A. Bushnell, A Song of Pilgrimage and Exile. Many of these documents can be viewed at the Blessed Marianne Cope Museum at the Franciscan motherhouse in Syracuse.

The museum holds many artifacts, including a scrapbook kept by Mother Marianne. Sister Mary Laurence explained that since there were not many books in circulation at the time, people kept their own scrapbooks filled with poems, newspaper clippings, prayers and sayings. A testimony as to what Mother Marianne may have thought of the role of women at the time can be found in a clipping she kept in her scrapbook.

It is titled “Woman — Her Influence” and reads in part:

“From time immemorial, when the energies of man have been ready to sink beneath the obstacles of prejudice and pride, while engaged in fulfilling the lofty aspirations of philanthropy, woman’s influence and prayers have sustained him in his course and urged him to nobler efforts. It is her sympathy that softens the cruel action of the reason of proud man, who would not stoop to consider the frailties of human nature.”

Mother Marianne’s work was and is well known in Hawaii where the sisters still serve today. The combined efforts of the diocese in Hawaii and the Syracuse Diocese have helped to move her cause along.

Mother Marianne’s cause officially opened in 1983 after Pope John Paul II issued new guidelines for canonization. By that time, her definitive biography, A Song of Pilgrimage and Exile, had been completed and was presented to the Congregation for Causes of Saints at the Vatican. Another biography was published in 1935 and although it was not entirely accurate, Sister Mary Laurence said that many of the sisters read the book and were inspired by Mother Marianne through its pages.

Today, Mother Marianne’s cause for sainthood is still in the works. Sister Mary Laurence explained that now Blessed Mother Marianne Cope needs only one verified miracle to be considered for canonization. There are only four other Americans who currently hold this status of “Blessed” in the church. The other four are Kateri Tekakwitha, Father Junipero Serra, Father Francis Xavier Seelos and Carlos Rodriguez. According to Sister Mary Laurence, “Blessed or beatification means that the person’s heroic virtue was studied by numerous historians and theologians and affirmed at the Vatican and after this honor was established, a miracle was affirmed to the credit of the person’s intercession.”

The Syracuse Diocese is fortunate to have had such an exceptional and extraordinary woman living and working here. Sister Grace Ann Dillenschneider, OSF,  who has much experience with cause proceedings, has accepted the position of Diocesan Postulator working with Vatican officials regarding the cause. Cases that may prove to be miracles with intercessory prayers to Mother Marianne are all investigated and researched thoroughly. While the sisters still wait for a second miracle to be affirmed, Sister Grace Anne assured The Catholic SUN that when and if that does happen, the sisters will “Shout it with great joy from the rooftops.”

Born Barbara Koob in what is now West Germany on Jan. 23, 1838, Mother Marianne came from a family of more than a dozen children. Her father was married twice and his second wife, also Barbara, was Mother Marianne’s mother. Only two children from his first marriage survived to adulthood. The family emigrated to the U.S. settling in Utica not long after Barbara’s birth. The family attended St. Joseph’s Church and Barbara received First Communion and confirmation at the same time in 1848.

They lived in a house on Schuyler Street and although they were not wealthy, neither were they destitute. The children likely attended public school until the parish school was built, and then finished their education at the Catholic school. They stayed in school until they were old enough to find work, and then they brought their wages home. Barbara may have wanted to enter the convent earlier than she did. Her father was ill and Barbara continued working to help support the family until he died. She finally entered the convent of the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse a month after his death in November of 1862. She was 24 years old. Sister Mary Laurence noted in her biography that Mother Marianne’s natural ability to guide was likely first nurtured while growing up in her Utica household.

Judging from her letters and her command of the English language, it appears she was very intelligent and able to demonstrate a keen understanding of administrative duties. She became Sister Marianne after her profession and initially she served as a teacher and principal at Catholic schools. Her biographical information notes that Sister Marianne had wanted to be an educator. However, it wasn’t very long after joining the young order in Syracuse that her skills as a leader came to light.

Both St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse were founded in the 1860s by the Sisters of St. Francis while Sister Marianne was on the governing board of the order. The two Franciscan hospitals were unique for the time; both were open to patients regardless of their nationality, religion or color. Mother Marianne was administrator six of the first seven years of St. Joseph’s Hospital’s existence. It was Mother Marianne who insisted on cleanliness while treating the patients, a practice she would carry with her later to Hawaii.

No hospital had survived in the city of Syracuse before the sisters founded St. Joseph’s. The hospital played a significant role in bringing young medical students to the area. The website,, describes Mother Marianne’s hand in bringing the students to Syracuse:

“It was during her time of leadership that the College of Medicine in Geneva, N.Y. moved to the fledging Syracuse University to become the College of Physicians and Surgeons, thus starting a new arena of medicine for the upstate centralized New York area. No small reason for this new choice of location for an established college to move to Syracuse was that Mother Marianne had accepted the medical students for clinical instruction at St. Joseph’s. Far ahead of her time in furthering patents’ rights, she stated in a letter of negotiations with the Medical College that it was the right of the patient in each and every case to decide whether or not he or she wished to be brought before medical students.”

It was common for provencial superiors to be referred to as “Mother” rathe
r than “Sister” and Mother Marianne was named superior in 1877. Although she would sign official documents “Mother Marianne Cope,” other historic materials indicate she may have preferred “Sister Marianne.” The people who came in contact with her referred to her as Mother Marianne and it was her popular name.

Mother Marianne was superior general of the Franciscan sisters in Syracuse when she got a letter asking the sisters to come to Hawaii and help those suffering from Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy. By that time she had already served as administrator at St. Joseph’s and as leader of her order. Her response to the letter’s request, one that many other religious communities had already declined, was yes. Mother Marianne would write, “I am not afraid of any disease… .” There were 35 volunteers from the sisters, six were chosen and Mother Marianne traveled to Hawaii with them as their leader. She would never return to Syracuse.

Once in Hawaii, the sisters faced more than a few obstacles. Hawaii would not become a U.S. state until the 1950s. It was a kingdom when the sisters arrived in 1883. Mother Marianne would have to work closely with the government in setting up and administering the hospitals and homes where she and her sisters would care for those with leprosy. Her ability to communicate and facilitate those relationships is also a credit to her character.

One incident that is documented in her biography is the establishment of Malulani Hosptial on the Island of Maui. Mother Marianne was asked by the government to set up this hospital in 1884. However, she was called back to the hospital she had served in Oahu where she had to deal with a government appointed official’s abuse of the leprosy patients at an affiliated hospital at Kakaako. Mother Marianne demanded that government officials choose between the abusive administrator’s dismissal or the sisters’ return to Syracuse. The result was Mother Marianne being put in charge of that overcrowded hospital. In 1885 she established a home for the healthy daughters of leprosy patients on the grounds of the hospital. Not only were the sisters caring for those with leprosy, but also their families.

The Franciscan sisters’ first mission then was to work at the hospitals in Hawaii caring for the lepers. At that time Father Damien De Veuster was caring for the men and boys who suffered from leprosy in isolation on the Island of Molokai. He first met Mother Marianne when he visited Oahu in January 1884 to attend the dedication of the chapel at the hospital. However, when the government of Hawaii changed its position on the treatment of those with leprosy with new government policies in 1887, they reverted back to previous policy and the patients were to be kept separate on the island of Molokai. They closed the hospital in Oahu and sent the exiles to the Kalaupapa peninsula on the Island of Molokai. By that time, Father Damien was sick with leprosy himself and he was anxious for the sisters to come to the island.

Mother Marianne was asked by the government to administer a home for girls on Molokai that had been built with funds from a substantial donation. She accepted the position and took with her to Molokai Sister Leopoldina Burns and Sister Vincentia McCormick and they arrived at Kalaupapa in 1888. They ran the home for girls, Bishop Home, and until 1895 they managed the Home for Boys at Kalawao, founded by Father Damien for boys and young men.

All the documents from the time and recollections of the sisters who worked with Mother Marianne indicate her generosity and her love for those left in her care. She would do whatever she could to improve their condition. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for her to grow the plants and flowers that would decorate their quarters. Mother Marianne would sew dresses and make bows and other little decorations for the girls.

Mother Marianne wrote in 1889, “My heart bled for the children and I was anxious and hungry to help put a little more sunshine into their dreary lives.”

The substantial artifacts, the biography, the journals and other documents paint a vivid picture of Mother Marianne for anyone interested in learning more about her. The cause is still open and still in progress. The Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse celebrate 150 years of service to the diocese this year. Blessed Marianne’s cause for sainthood does not receive funds from the church and has relied on loyal volunteers and donations. The Blessed Marianne Shrine and Museum at the St. Anthony Motherhouse on Court Street offer a window into her extraordinary life. The Franciscan sisters have organized a fund where donations can be specified to benefit Mother Marianne’s cause for sainthood. The address is Sisters of St. Francis, 1024 Court St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13208-1799.

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