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Models of Mercy — St. Marianne Cope

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By Melanie Williams (Jan 23, 2018)
The following is the latest in our series on the lives of the saints. They are models, par excellence, of how we should live our lives following in the footsteps of Christ. This month, we reflect on St. Marianne Cope (1838-1918), who gave up a comfortable life as the superior general of her religious community in New York to go to the leper colonies of Molokai. We celebrate her feast on January 23.


On Jan. 23, 1838, in what is today part of Western Germany, Barbara Koob was born. Just a year later, she and her family emigrated to the United States, where their name was officially changed to "Cope."

The Cope family settled in Utica, New York, where Barbara and her younger siblings attended a Catholic parish school. By the time Barbara was in eighth grade, her father had fallen ill and become an invalid. She dropped out of school and went to work in a factory to help support her family. When her father had died and her siblings had matured, Barbara was able to pursue her childhood dream to become a religious sister in the Sisters of St. Francis. She received the religious name "Marianne."

Her religious community gave her a teaching assignment at a school for German immigrant children where she later became the principal. Marianne devoted herself wholeheartedly to the formation of the young children, but God had even greater plans for her. Marianne was moved to the governing positions of her religious community and helped establish the first two Catholic hospitals in central New York state.

By 1883, Sr. Marianne had become Mother Marianne, the provincial superior of her order. The local people came to know and love her, although some criticized her for accepting "outcast" patients, such as alcoholics, into her hospitals.

That same year, Mother Marianne received a letter from the king of the Hawaiian Islands, pleading for help in managing their schools, hospitals, and treating lepers. Fifty other religious institutes had already declined to help. Mother Marianne was deeply touched by this cry for help. She replied to him, "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 Nov. 8, 1883, Mother Marianne arrived in Honolulu with six of her sisters. She was sent to the island of Oahu to manage a hospital that received patients suffering from Hansen's disease (leprosy) from all of the islands. Mother Marianne also established a home within the hospital compound for the healthy children of the patients, and a second hospital on the island of Maui. The most severe patients were sent to Molokai, where St. Damien de Veuster (1840-1889) was working. Mother Marianne met Fr. Damien in 1884 while he was still in good health.

By 1887, Fr. Damien was diagnosed with Hansen's disease and was made an outcast by the local churches and government. Mother Marianne welcomed him to the facilities her order managed, as well as the other clergy who had contracted the disease.

Later that year, a new government was established, and the officials decided to close the hospitals on the islands of Oahu and Maui. All leper patients, regardless of whether their cases were acute or severe, were to be confined to the island of Molokai. Without hesitation, Mother Marianne went with them. She arrived several months before Fr. Damien's death, and after his death, she and her sisters continued his work.

As she got older, her work only increased. Mother Marianne was managing multiple hospitals and became responsible for all of the orphans of those who had died from the disease.

Eventually the burdensome work took its toll on Mother Marianne's body. She was confined to a wheelchair but continued to work among the people. Miraculously, she never contracted Hansen's disease.

Mother Marianne never returned to New York. She passed away on Aug. 9, 1918, of natural causes and was buried at the bishop's home. After her beatification in 2005, her remains were moved to a shrine in Syracuse, New York. She was canonized in 2012.

The life and example of St. Marianne Cope is a reminder to always keep an open mind and heart, should God call you to something new — maybe even something drastically different than what you had imagined for your life. Don't be afraid to say "yes" to God. He will always take care of you.

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