On January 23, Franciscans honor the memory of St. Marianne Cope, the first American Franciscan woman to be canonized.
Barbara Cope was born in 1838 to Peter and Barbara Koob of Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany. Two years later the family emigrated to the United States and settled in Utica, New York, where the name was eventually Anglicized to Cope.
When her father became an invalid, Barbara, 14, as the eldest child at home, went to work in a textile factory to support her family. Upon her father’s death in 1862 and the younger children now being old enough to work themselves, Barbara joined the Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis in Syracuse, New York, with the name Marianne.
Some of the exhibits at Saint Marianne Cope Shrine and Museum in Syracuse, NY
After profession the next year, Marianne began teaching in the congregation’s parish schools. She held the post of superior in several places and was twice the novice mistress of her congregation. A natural leader, in 1870 she founded the first public hospital in Syracuse, St. Joseph’s, which she directed for seven years. Elected general superior in 1877, Mother Marianne was unanimously reelected in 1881.
Two years later the Hawaiian government was searching for someone to staff a receiving station for people suspected of having leprosy. More than 50 religious communities in the United States and Canada were approached. When the request was put to the Syracuse sisters, 35 of them volunteered immediately. Marianne wrote at the time: “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.’”
On October 22, 1883, Mother Marianne and six other sisters left for Hawaii where they took charge of the Kakaako Receiving Station outside Honolulu; they also opened a hospital and a school for girls on the island of Maui. In 1888, Mother Marianne and two sisters went to Moloka'i—the leper “colony” where afflicted people were forcibly segregated. There they opened a home for “unprotected women and girls” in Kalaupapa. On Moloka'i she also took charge of the home that Saint Damien de Veuster had established there for men and boys. Mother Marianne changed life on Moloka'i by introducing cleanliness, pride, and fun to the colony.
Sister Marianne at Father Damien Veuster's funeral bier in 1889
Mother Marianne continued her work on Moloka'i faithfully until the end of her life. Despite her long exposure to leprosy (now called Hansen’s disease), she never contracted it. She died on August 9, 1918, and was beatified in 2005 and canonized seven years later.
Sister Marianne (in wheelchair) with other sisters and residents only a few days before her death in 1917 at Kalaupapa Home on Moloka'i.
The noted poet, Robert Louis Stevenson, visited Hawaii in 1889; impressed by Sister Marianne and her sisters, he penned the following lines:
“To the Reverend Sister Marianne,
Matron of the Bishop Home, Kalaupapa.
“To see the infinite pity of this place,
The mangled limb, the devastated face,
The innocent sufferers smiling at the rod,
A fool were tempted to deny his God.
He sees, and shrinks; but if he look again,
Lo, beauty springing from the breasts of pain!
He marks the sisters on the painful shores,
And even a fool is silent and adores.”
For more background on the historical and social context of Hansen's disease in Hawaii, see https://www.nps.gov/kala/learn/historyculture/a-brief-history-of-kalaupapa.htm.
For more information on the St Marianne Cope Shrine and Museum in Syracuse, see https://www.saintmarianne.org.
Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor.