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St. Marianne Cope, beloved Mother of Outcasts

by Delores Riley

Mother Marianne (formerly Barbara Cope) was born January 23, 1838 and baptized the following day in what is now Hessen, West Germany. She was the daughter of farmer, Peter Koob and Barbara Witzenbacher Koob, his second wife. Peter Koob’s first wife had nine children before she died, only two of whom reached adulthood. Peter and Barbara Koob had five children born in Germany, and five born in the United States. In 1839, the year following Barbara’s birth, the family emigrated to the United States to seek a new start in the land of opportunity.

The Koob family became naturalized citizens in the 1850’s and their name changed to Cope. They were members of St. Joseph’s Parish in Utica, N.Y. where the children, including Barbara, attended the parish school. Barbara wrote of experiencing a call to religious life at an early age. However, the desire to follow her vocation was delayed nine years because of family obligations. As the oldest child at home, and after completing an eighth grade education, she went to work in a factory to support the family when her father became an invalid. Only when her younger siblings could care for themselves did Barbara feel free to enter the convent. She did so one month after her father’s death in the summer of 1862. She was 24 years of age.

Barbara Cope entered the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, NY on Nov. 19, 1862 where she was given the name “Sister Marianne.” It was her desire to serve as a teacher but her many gifts and talents were soon recognized and early on she held several administrative positions in the congregation. Eventually, as a member of the governing boards of her religious community, she participated in the establishment of two of the first hospitals in the Central NY area, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica (1866) and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse (1869). Both hospitals begun by the Franciscan Sisters had unique charters for their time. They were dedicated to care for the sick without distinction as to a person’s nationality, religion or color. Her leadership in health care came about because of a need for someone with unique abilities and talents and her energies in this area seemed motivated by God alone.

St. Marianne was far ahead of her time in furthering patients rights. Often she was criticized for treating “outcast” patients such as those suffering from alcoholism. But soon she became known and loved in the central NY area for her kindness, wisdom and down to earth practicality. At the time when Mother Marianne was Mother General of her congregation, she received a letter from the faraway Sandwich Islands (now known as Hawaii) with a request for a capable leader to take charge of their hospitals and even their schools, if possible. “Have pity… on our poor sick, help us,” the letter stated. She gave her complete affirmation to this request and when she learned that the main work was to minister to people with Leprosy, she responded: “I am not afraid of any disease…”  to such a perilous invitation. Her devotion to St. Francis of Assisi confirmed her resolve that the call to Hawaii was God’s will. Mother Marianne, along with six volunteer sisters arrived at the harbor of Honolulu while the bells of Our Lady of Peace Cathedral rang out their welcome. Having accomplished much good in her first two years on the island, Mother Marianne was decorated by King Kalakaua of Hawaii with the medal of the Royal Order for the acts of benevolence to the suffering people of his Kingdom.

Mother Marianne met Fr. Damien for the first time in Jan. 1884 when in apparent good health, he came to Oahu to attend the opening and dedication of a chapel at the hospital she was to administer.  Two years later, Fr. Damien was diagnosed with Leprosy. Mother Marianne alone gave hospitality to the outcast priest upon hearing that his illness made him an unwelcome visitor to church and government leaders in Hawaii. She arranged for his care. Soon after, the situation for the care of Leprosy patients began to change Mother Marianne again responded to a plea for continued help with Leprosy patients. Her positive response would take her into a lifetime of exile together with those she served. We will cheerfully accept the work, she courageously responded to government officials.  Mother Marianne arrived at her exile location in Kalaupapa several months before Fr. Damien’s death. Although Mother Marianne was getting older, her workload only seemed to increase. Soon she was responsible for orphans of women who had contracted the disease as well as clergy who had contracted the disease while working with lepers. Eventually, Mother Marianne’s work became a burden on her frail body and she was confined to a wheelchair. Despite this limitation, she continued to work tirelessly. Many noticed that despite all her years of work she never contracted leprosy herself, which many regarded as a miracle in itself. Mother Marianne passed away on August 9, 1918. Two hundred and fifty pilgrims from Hawaii including 9 Kalaupapa patients traveled to Rome on Oct. 21, 2012 for her canonization and heard Pope Benedict XVI comment: “At a time when little could be done for those suffering from this terrible disease of Leprosy, Marianne Cope showed the highest love, courage and enthusiasm. She is a shining and energetic example of the best tradition of Catholic Nursing Sisters and of the spirit of her beloved St. Francis.”

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