The legacy of St. Marianne Cope

This month marks the centenary of St. Marianne Cope’s death. Known for her work among the exiled lepers of Hawaii, she is, perhaps, one of the unsung American saints. But since she once wrote that she did her work “quietly and so far as possible unnoticed and unknown,” that probably would not bother her. Nonetheless, St. Marianne Cope remains a bright light, and her fascinating story and rich legacy is just as relevant for the Church today as it was 100 years ago.

Immigrant

Born Barbara Koob — her surname anglicized as “Cope” in America — St. Marianne and her family emigrated from Germany when she was a year old, in search of stability at a time of growing unrest in her homeland. The Copes were among the first wave of German immigrants to the United States, a number that amounted to around 6 million by World War I.

Her hardworking father obtained factory work quickly in the growing industrial town of Utica, New York, where they settled among other German immigrants. Making their family the first priority, St. Marianne’s parents taught their children the importance of serving family and the wider community.

Like the other first-generation German immigrants, most of the Cope children would have grown up bilingual, speaking both English and German, though they strove to blend into society. The foreign-born Cope children became American citizens when their father was granted naturalization.

Not much is known about St. Marianne’s family, although we know they were grounded in the Faith. While many children of that time were sent out from home to make money for the family, St. Marianne’s father instead sacrificed to support their education. And evidence shows St. Marianne did not waste the opportunity.

Delayed vocation

Around her eighth-grade year, St. Marianne took a job as a factory worker. While records are inconclusive, it’s assumed she worked in the enormous textile factory directly across from the family home. Though she had discerned a call to religious life, her job meant she needed to delay entrance into the convent.

St. Marianne took on this work willingly to help support her family after her father became incapacitated. She offered herself cheerfully for the good of her family, no doubt despite many difficulties attached to her status. This season of her life prepared her for a life of service.

By her father’s death in 1862, St. Marianne’s younger siblings were old enough to support themselves, and she knew her mother would be cared for lovingly by another sibling. St. Marianne joined the Third Order Sisters of St. Francis later that same year at age 24, when she officially became known as Sister Marianne.

Leadership

St. Marianne’s talents were recognized quickly by her fellow sisters. Within a few years of entering the convent, she rose to positions of leadership and authority within the congregation. A well-respected educator and administrator in Catholic schools, St. Marianne also served in a variety of leadership positions in her community and played a vital role in establishing two of the first hospitals in central New York.

For seven years, St. Marianne served as administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse. She showed herself to be a natural organizer as well as a well-educated and competent leader. St. Marianne was respected by all in the Church.

Shrine to St. Marianne Cope
While St. Marianne is buried in the cathedral of the diocese of Honolulu, many artifacts of her life can be found at the Shrine and Museum of St. Marianne Cope on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Hospital, which she founded in Syracuse, New York, including:

St. Marianne managed everything at the hospital. Responsible for all finances, from fundraising to balancing budgets, she also had to negotiate land purchases and supervise building projects. She made the care for all people her utmost priority. The reason the hospital existed was to care for all in the name of Christ, and she instructed no one to be turned away. In her own words, “The charity of the good knows no creed and is confined to no one place.”

To the peripheries

A similar philosophy guided her mission to Hawaii, where victims of leprosy were in great need of assistance. Though nearly 50 religious congregations had rejected the Hawaiian king’s plea for help, St. Marianne Cope — then mother provincial of her congregation — consented without hesitation. More astonishing, as provincial she could have sent any sisters, but chose to go herself.

She wrote: “I am hungry for the work and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen ones, whose privilege it will be to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the souls of the poor Islanders. ... I am not afraid of any disease, hence, it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned ‘lepers.’”

To accept this challenging mission meant going to the peripheries of human society — to dwell among the unwanted, the unclean, the unloved and to bring Christ’s love to them. Given the contagiousness of the flesh-eating disease, it is not difficult to understand why so many would turn down the opportunity to work amid such suffering. And yet, in light of our faith and the radical Gospel mandate to care for “the least of these,” one can comprehend why St. Marianne enthusiastically committed herself and six other sisters from her community to this work. They arrived in Hawaii in 1883.

Mother

At first, St. Marianne established hospitals and an orphanage for girls whose parents had leprosy. Within a few years, though, she traveled to Molokai island, the exiled home of leprosy victims where St. Damien had ministered. Just like St. Damien, she knew her trip to Molokai would be a one-way journey. With St. Damien’s death, St. Marianne thereafter took over his leadership of the island’s home for leprous boys and men.

In a bloodless way, St. Marianne lived according to Jesus’ teaching that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for others. With the love of a mother, she spent herself for the residents of Molokai, and truly became a mother to them. As she wrote, “My heart bled for the children and I was anxious and hungry to help put a little more sunshine into their dreary lives.”

As a woman of faith, St. Marianne accepted this work knowing that it was God’s will. In the midst of so much suffering and pain, she made it known that the lepers were God’s beloved children. She also had a contagious hope that taught those around her that suffering has value. “For us it is happiness to be able to comfort, in a measure, the poor exiles, and we rejoice that we are unworthy agents of our heavenly Father through whom He deigns to show His great love and mercy to the sufferers,” she wrote.

By laying down her life for others, St. Marianne became an icon of God’s love, especially for those on Molokai who suffered the absence of love by their exile and pain. She taught those around her to “creep down into the heart of Jesus. He alone can comfort you in your supreme hour of sorrow.”

“I do not think of reward; I am working for God, and do so cheerfully,” she wrote. By God’s grace, her faith was a font of hope in the midst of great desolation and darkness.

Saint

On Aug. 9, 1918, St. Marianne Cope died on Molokai of natural causes, having never contracted the symptoms of leprosy. She was memorialized by The Post Standard of Syracuse: “Mother Marianne’s name will live on as that of a woman whose noble self-sacrifice ranks with the death-defying devotion of the martyrs of old.”

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St. Marianne’s reputation for sanctity only grew following her death. After decades of informal work, her cause for sainthood was opened in 1980. Declared venerable in 2004 and beatified a year later, St. Marianne Cope was canonized in 2012. The saint’s remains were buried on the island and venerated there for decades, until her body was returned to Syracuse in 2005, to coincide with her beatification. In 2013, St. Marianne’s relics were returned to Hawaii, where they currently are enshrined in Honolulu’s Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace.

St. Marianne is a patroness for lepers, outcasts and those suffering from HIV/AIDS. And in a time when our faith is tested, especially by the sins of others, luminaries like St. Marianne shine brightly and give credibility to the Gospel.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of The Catholic Answer. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.