St. Marianne Cope
Barbara experienced 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 textile mill to support the family when her father became an invalid. Only when her nine younger siblings could care for themselves did Barbara feel free to enter the convent. One month after her father’s death in the summer of 1862, Barbara entered the Sisters of Saint Francis in Syracuse, N.Y. She was given the name Sister Marianne. She was 24 years of age.
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 New York area, St. Elizabeth Hospital in Utica (1866) and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse (1869). Both hospitals, unique in their time, were open to caring for the sick without distinction as to a person’s nationality, religion or color.
Sister Marianne began her career as administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y. in 1870 where she served as head administrator for six of the hospital’s first seven years.
St. Joseph’s, the first hospital opened to the public in the city of Syracuse, owes much to Sister Marianne for its establishment as well as its survival. Sister Marianne became an innovator in hospital management in order to provide better service to patients. Long before the importance of cleanliness measures was known or practiced in caring for the sick, she strictly advocated practices such as simply washing ones hands properly before ministering to the patients.
She was also far ahead of her time in furthering patients’ rights. Often she was criticized for treating “outcast” patients such as patients suffering from alcoholism, an affliction frowned upon for hospital admittance by the medical profession at that time. Unsurprisingly, she became known and loved in the central New York area for her kindness, wisdom and down to earth practicality.
In 1883, 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 to “. …Have pity…on our poor sick, help us” She gave her complete affirmation to the request when she learned that the main work was to minister to people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy). “I am not afraid of any disease…” was her response to such a perilous invitation.
Those early years in Hawaii were replete with trials and tribulations. In 1884, at the request of the government, she established Malulani Hospital, the first general hospital on the island of Maui. She was quickly called back to Oahu to deal with a government appointed administrator’s abuse of leprosy patients at Branch Hospital at Kaka´ako, an area adjoining Honolulu. Mother Marianne demanded the government to choose between the administrator’s removal or the sisters return to Syracuse. This demand resulted in her being given full charge of the overcrowded hospital.
As the work kept increasing, another pressing need was fulfilled a year later. In November 1885, after she convinced the government there was a vital need to save the homeless female children of patients with Hansen’s disease, the Kapiolani Home was opened.
St. Damien DeVeuster rightfully is viewed as the “Apostles to Lepers.” Yet, this good priest did not act alone particularly in regard to providing care, protection or shelter for people with Hansen’s disease. Besides her own agenda, Mother Marianne is known to have brought to fruition many programs Father Damien only envisioned.
Mother Marianne met Father Damien for the first time in January 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, in 1886, Father Damien was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease. 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 Honolulu.
Mother Marianne arrived at Kalaupapa several months before Father Damien’s death. With two youthful assistants she was able to console the ailing priest by assuring him that she would provide care for the patients at Boy’s Home at Kalawao, located at the opposite end of the settlement he established. Mother Marianne continued her work with the poorest of the poor until her death in 1918 due to natural causes.
The legacy of Mother Marianne continues its far-reaching effects in health care and education in many ways. The Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities are sponsors of St. Joseph Hospital Health Center in Syracuse, N.Y., St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Utica, N.Y. and St. Francis Hospital and Health Centers in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. In Hawaii, the sisters are well-known for founding St. Francis Hospital in 1927 which expanded into two medical centers. Following the transfer of these centers to Hawaii Medical Center in 2007, the sisters remain sponsors of St. Francis Healthcare System. Their focus, however, has shifted from acute care to meeting the growing needs of Hawaii’s senior adult population. At Kalaupapa, Molokai, the sisters maintain their comforting presence with a small group of people with Hansen’s disease who live there today.
• October 21, 2012, canonization of Mother Marianne Cope.