St. Marianne Cope: She opened up her heart and soul to the “lepers”

This American saint had a natural affinity for those considered marginalized and treated as outcasts


Maria Anna Barbara Koob was born on January 23, 1838, in Germany. The year after her birth her mom and dad emigrated to America, settling in Utica, New York. Devout Catholics, they joined St. Joseph’s Parish near their new home. They also changed their name to Cope to become more “American.” The years moved by and Maria’s mom gave birth to nine more children. Life was never dull in the Cope household.

Maria felt a call to the religious life when she was very young. However, as the oldest of 10 children, loyalty to family would take precedence over any personal ambitions she might have had. When her dad took ill and became an invalid, the eighth grader was forced to go work in a textile factory to help support the family. Maria continued working in the textile mill for almost 10 years.

Maria’s dad passed on in 1862 but by then some of her younger siblings were helping with the family’s daily life, including finances. Maria, at 25 years old, was finally able to pursue her dream. She entered the novitiate of the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, New York, and became Sister Marianne.

Sister Marianne had wanted to be a teacher but for some reason began doing administrative work. She quickly found herself appointed to the governing boards of her religious community and helped establish the first two hospitals in central New York State. This was followed by becoming the nurse-administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse.

Sister Marianne had outstanding organizational and leadership skills but she also possessed a deep and almost natural affinity for those considered marginalized and treated as outcasts. She was even criticized for her special devotion to those who needed help the most. It was also obvious to others that the Holy Spirit moved within her.

By 1883 she was the Provincial Mother in Syracuse and known as Mother Marianne Cope. One day she received an unexpected letter from a Catholic priest in Hawaii. He was asking for help in managing schools and hospitals in the Hawaiian Islands. The letter was also clear that the main focus of the work would be with leprosy patients. Mother Marianne’s life purpose had just been laid before her.

Filled instantly with an overwhelming desire to help those who were not only seriously ill but also marginalized and rejected, she wrote back, “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.” *

Today leprosy (Hansen’s disease) is readily curable. In 1980 there were more than 5 million cases worldwide. In 2012 that number was down to 189,000. In the past 20 years, 16 million people have been cured of this disease and only 200 cases are reported in the United States each year. But in 1883, when Mother Marianne and her followers arrived in Hawaii, that was not the case. Leprosy was widespread and dreaded as extremely contagious. People with Hansen’s disease were avoided and prohibited from many public places. When Mother Marianne and her six companion nuns arrived in Honolulu, they were directed to the Kaka’ako Branch Hospital in Oahu. This served as a receiving station for leprosy patients from all over the islands.

Within a year they had founded the Kapi’olani Home for the purpose of caring for the homeless children of Hansen disease patients. The most severe cases were sent to the island of Moloka’i and placed in the settlement known as Kalaupapa. This is where Father Damien was working. Sister Marianne met the renowned priest in 1884. He was still in good health.

Father Damien (now St. Damien of Moloka’i) was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease in 1886. When Mother Marianne heard that Father Damien’s presence was unwelcome in so many places she began to tend to him herself.

Things fell into place when a new government came into power in 1887. They asked Mother to please open a home for women and girls at Kalaupapa on Moloka’i. She joyfully embraced the request knowing that her prayers had once again been answered. In addition, she could now be closer to the withering Father Damien, whom she cared for until his death in April of 1889.

Mother Marianne and her assistants, Sister Leopoldina Burns and Sister Vincentia McCormick, opened Bishop House for women and girls and promised Father Damien they would run his Boy’s Home for him after he was gone. They did just that. She also taught her Sisters that their primary duty was “to make life as pleasant and as comfortable as possible for those of our fellow creatures whom God has chosen to afflict with this terrible disease…”.*

Mother Marianne passed away on August 9, 1918. She was canonized a saint on October 21, 2012, by Pope Benedict XVI.

St. Marianne Cope, please pray for us all.

*Both quotes were taken from the Official Vatican website: Biography; Marianne Cope