Sanctity in America: St. Marianne Cope

Today, January 23, is the feast of St. Marianne Cope.

Maria Anna Barbara Koob was born on January 23, 1838 in Heppenheim in the Grand Duchy of Hesse (central Germany) to her parents, Peter and Maria.  The next year, her family immigrated to the United States and took up residents in Utica, NY.  Maria attended the parochial school at their parish, St. Joseph.  Because her father had become an invalid, Maria left school by the eighth grade to work in the textile mills of the city to help support her family.  When her father became a U. S. citizen, his entire family gained citizenship, according to the laws of the time.

Her father’s death in 1862 left Maria free to pursue her desire for a religion vocation.  She joined the Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis in Syracuse, NY.  After a year of novitiate, she was given the habit and a new name, Marianne.  Sr. Marianne first worked as a teacher and then principal of Catholic schools serving the German-speaking population.  She became a member of the governing council of her religious Order in 1870 and, as such, was instrumental in founding the first two Catholic hospitals in central New York.  The charters of these hospitals stipulated that they would serve all, regardless of creed or race.  In 1870, the Superior General of her Order selected her to govern St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse.

Cope was Superior General of her Order when, in 1883, she received a plea from King Kalakaua of Hawaii to assist in the care of leprosy sufferers in his island kingdom.  More than 50 other congregations had refused because of the fear of what was considered a highly contagious disease.  Mother Marianne responded with enthusiasm.  “I am hungry for the work,” she wrote, “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 November 8, 1883, Mother Marianne arrived in Honolulu with six of her sisters.  They were given charge of Kaka’ako Branch Hospital in Oahu.  A year later, she was asked to set up Malulani Hospital on Maui, but was called back to Oahu to deal with a government-appointed administrator who was abusing the leprosy patients.  The administrator was dismissed at Mother Marianne’s insistence and she was given charge of the hospital herself.  In 1885, Mother Marianne opened the Kapiolani Home on the grounds of a leprosy hospital for children of patient’s suffering leprosy.  She was awarded the Cross of a Companion of the Royal Order of Kapiolani by the king for the care of his people.  In 1887, the government asked her to open a new home for women and girls on the Kalaupapa peninsula of Molokai.  She accepted, though she knew this meant that she would likely never return to Syracuse.

Mother Marianne moved to Molokai in November, 1888 and assumed the care of Fr. Damien, who was dying.  She had met the already internationally famous priest shortly after her arrival in Hawaii.  She assumed many of his responsibilities during his final months, and when he died on April 15, 1889, the government gave her care of the boys on Kalaupapa, as well as the girls for whom she was already caring.  The Brothers of the Sacred Heart arrived in 1895 to assume care of the boys, and Mother Marianne and her sisters continued to care for the girls.

Mother Marianne Cope died on August 9, 1918 at the age of 80, of natural causes.  She was buried on the grounds of the Bishop Home for girls.  In 2005, her remains were reinterred on the grounds of her Orders mother house in Syracuse.

At her beatification Mass in 2005, Jose Saraiva Cardinal Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Saints’ Cause, said of Mother Marianne that she spoke, “the language of truth and love” and that, regarding the leprosy patients for whom she cared, “She saw in them the suffering face of Jesus.  Like the Good Samaritan, she became their mother.”  St. Marianne Cope was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.  She is the patron saint of those who suffer leprosy, the outcasts, those with HIV/AIDS, and the Hawaiian Islands.

St. Marianne Cope, pray for us!

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