January 22, 2017

Optional Memorial of Saint Marianne Cope, "Beloved Mother of Outcasts"

St. Marianne Cope

Saint Marianne Cope of Molokaʻi's feast day is January 23rd. Although St. Damien De Veuster has rightly been called the "Apostle to the Lepers" in Hawaii, he would be the first to acknowledge the invaluable help of a most kind, but seemingly unstoppable Sister of St. Francis named Mother Marianne Cope. It was she who, in the last years of the dying priest’s life, not only remained his friend, but assured him that the work he had begun for the lepers of Hawaii would continue long after his death. Mother Marianne was born to Peter and Barbara Cope in Hessen-Darmstadt, Germany, in 1838. She emigrated with her parents to the United States two years later, where they would eventually settle in Utica, N.Y.

Although she knew at an early age that she had a vocation to the religious life, Barbara delayed entering the convent because she was needed at home; her father had become an invalid, and in order to support her parents and siblings, she went to work in a nearby factory after completing the eighth grade. Barbara stayed at the factory until she was 24.  By then, her brothers and sisters were able to care for themselves, and in the summer of 1862, her father died of his infirmity. One month later, Barbara joined the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis in Syracuse, N.Y., and from then on became known as Sister Marianne.

Her natural talent for leadership soon became apparent.She was appointed superior of her order several times and in various places, and served twice as novice mistress for the younger sisters. She was elected provincial of the order in 1877, and then unanimously re-elected to that position in 1881. But the service that was to prove most valuable to Mother Marianne in her eventual work in Hawaii was her affiliation with St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse; she would serve at the latter three times as its nurse-administrator. Both hospitals were begun in the 1860s by the Sisters of St. Francis and were among the first 60 registered hospitals to exist in the United States. The charters that the sisters drew up for their institutions were unusual for their time in that they admitted all patients, regardless of nationality, religion or color. Mother Marianne’s own insistence on cleanliness and patients’ rights were not the norm in hospitals at the time, and she was often criticized for taking particular care of outcasts, especially alcoholics.

In 1883, the Hawaiian government put out a call to 50 religious communities in the United States and Canada, seeking someone who would run the Kakaako Receiving Station for people diagnosed with leprosy. By October of that year, Mother Marianne and six of her sisters had left for Hawaii and the ministry which would end up encompassing the rest of Mother Marianne’s life. In 1884, she met Father Damien De Veuster; when he was later diagnosed with leprosy in 1886, she was, at first, the only friend who continued to offer him support, arranging for his care and making sure that he was well treated.

A few months before his death in 1889, Mother Marianne promised Father Damien that she would continue the work he started, a promise that she kept with the same energy, commitment and caring that she brought to every other aspect of her vocation. Mother Marianne spent the rest of her life serving the lepers of Hawaii, dying of natural causes in 1918. Her influence on the people there was celebrated in a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, who had observed her work some 30 years previously and was very impressed by both her and the other sisters. "Beauty springing from the breast of pain," he wrote. "He marks the sisters on the painful shores. And even a fool is silent and adores."

Saint Marianne was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, and canonized by the same on October 21, 2012, together with Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century Mohawk Indian convert from North America. Marianne of Molokaʻi is the patron saint of lepers, outcasts, HIV/AIDS patients and Hawaiʻi. St. Marianne, on this your feast day, help us reach out to those who are disfigured by sin, the imperfect and the lacking. Let us care for the sick and the suffering. Let us comfort those who are broken, whether in body or in spirit. May we follow your example of selfless love in the imitation of Christ, every day without ceasing.

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