August 10, 2018

Reflection / John F. Fink

Saint from America cheerfully served God and lepers

John F. FinkAn unfortunately little-known American saint, Marianne Cope, died 100 years ago on Aug. 9. She served the lepers on the island of Molokai in Hawaii for 35 years.

St. Damien de Veuster is far better known since he went to the leper colony on Molokai earlier. He contracted leprosy (Hansen’s disease) and died on April 15, 1889. He was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 11, 2009. A statue of him is in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

St. Marianne’s baptismal name was Barbara. Her family came to the United States from Heidelberg, Germany, when she was 1 year old and settled in Utica, N.Y. When she was 15, she felt called to religious life, but her family needed the wages she was earning in a factory. However, a month after her father died in 1862, when she was 24, she entered the Third Order of St. Francis, a religious community founded by Bishop John Neumann, another American saint.

She taught in elementary schools in northern New York and was involved in the decision to open hospitals in Utica and Syracuse. Then she was appointed chief administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse and later was elected provincial.

After Father Damien established his mission among the lepers on Molokai, a priest representing the vicar apostolic of Hawaii sent letters to more than 50 religious congregations, including Mother Marianne’s, seeking sisters to work on Molokai. Mother Marianne was the only one who replied, but she did so enthusiastically, saying, “My interest is awakened and I feel an irresistible force drawing me to follow this call.”

The priest traveled to Syracuse to meet with Mother Marianne and her sisters. When he described the needs of the lepers on Molokai, Mother Marianne became even more enthusiastic. She convinced the Father Provincial of the Franciscan community to allow six sisters to go to Hawaii.

The plan was for Mother Marianne to accompany them to Hawaii to establish the new ministry, but then to return to Syracuse to continue her work as provincial. They arrived in Hawaii in November of 1883.

Once in Hawaii, though, it became apparent that Mother Marianne was needed there. There was considerable work to be done to establish the sisters there, obtain governmental approval for their plans, and begin to implement them. She wrote back to Syracuse that she simply had to remain in Hawaii for an extended period of time.

Then, when Father Damien contracted terminal leprosy in 1884, there was no possibility that Mother Marianne would return to Syracuse.

The sisters began their work at Kakaako Branch Hospital, where 200 patients were crowded in rooms built to house 100. By 1888, Mother Marianne had opened three facilities: a general hospital on Maui, the Kapiolani Home for healthy girls of leprous parents on Oahu, and the C. R. Bishop Home for homeless women and girls with leprosy on the Kalaupapa peninsula at Molokai.

In 1888, the Hawaiian Board of Health required all lepers to be transferred to Molokai. Mother Marianne moved there but continued to care for her sisters’ spiritual needs in other parts of Hawaii. The sisters on Oahu continued to care for the children at Kapiolani Home.

After Father Damien’s death in 1889, Mother Marianne began to care for his boys as well as for her girls, as she had promised Father Damien she would do. She always insisted on strict sanitary procedures, and no sister ever contracted the highly contagious Hansen’s disease.

She had to worry about more than the health of the lepers. She insisted that the women on Molokai be protected from groups of drunken men who attacked those who had no police to guard them. There were also predators who awaited the girls and boys as they arrived in the settlement.

In 1902 Mother Marianne wrote to her nephew, Paul Cope, “I am working for God, and do so cheerfully. How many graces did he not shower down on me, from my birth till now.”

She was 80 when she died at Kalaupapa on Molokai 100 years ago. She is interred in the cathedral in Honolulu. Pope Benedict XVI canonized her on Oct. 21, 2012. Her feast day is on Jan. 23.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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