CNS Photo by Paul Finch, Catholic Sun
As a high school sophomore in New Jersey in 1940, Marie Gibson already knew what she wanted to do with her life.
She would be a religious sister, though she had not settled on a particular order. Then a library book caught her eye and her imagination. The book’s cover photograph was that of a 19th-century nun with eyes filled with kindness and beauty—“like the love of God shines.”
The story was about Mother Marianne Cope, a Sister of St. Francis from New York who devoted most of her adult life to caring for people with leprosy, quarantined on a tiny slip of land on the Hawaiian island of Molokai a half century earlier.
The story captured the young girl’s heart so strongly that she became fixed on becoming a Franciscan sister without ever meeting a single woman from the Order.
The universal Church is coming to recognize what the teenage Marie, now Franciscan Sister Olivia Gibson for 62 years, knew instinctively. Mother Marianne Cope of Molokai was beatified by Cardinal José Saraiva Martins in Rome on May 14.
“For her day, she was a real heroine in her field,” says Sister Olivia, who now lives in St. Francis Convent in Honolulu. Mother Marianne’s “field” was health care and hospital administration. In her day, there was no cure for leprosy, now called Hansen’s disease, after the Norwegian scientist Gerhard Hansen, who discovered its bacillus in 1873.
“But she wasn’t afraid of anything,” says Sister Olivia. “Her faith must have been as great as her will.”
Sister Olivia is not alone. Dozens of young women have given their lives to Christ as Franciscans after learning of the work of Mother Marianne.
Mother Marianne was born Barbara Koob in the German grand duchy of Hesse Darmstadt on January 23, 1838. Two years later, her parents, Barbara and Peter, took her and her four brothers and sisters to the United States and settled in the city of Utica in upstate New York.
Her parents eventually had 10 children. Young Barbara became a U.S. citizen with the rest of her siblings when her father was naturalized. She was just out of grade school when she went to work in a factory near her home to help support the family. The family eventually changed their surname to the Americanized Cope.
The young girl had longed to become a religious sister but waited nine years in order to help her parents care for the younger children. Only after the younger ones came of age did she feel free to enter the convent. She did so in 1862, joining the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis in Syracuse, New York, a month after the death of her father. She was 24 years old.
Life as a Sister of St. Francis
Barbara was invested on November 19, 1862, and took the name Mary Anna. She quickly became known as Sister Marianne, and a year later made her vows. Her biographer, Franciscan Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, described her as “a small, delicate woman” who was capable, intelligent, hard-working and kind. She spoke and wrote both English and German fluently.
Sister Marianne began her religious life as a schoolteacher, and from her earliest years she was given various positions of responsibility and authority.
Seven months after her final vows she was appointed to her Order’s governing council and was named deputy to the mother superior. Then, after several other assignments within her Order, in 1869 she was named superior at St. Teresa’s Convent.
Seven months later, in 1870, her career path changed from education to health when she was installed as nurse-administrator of the new St. Joseph Hospital in Syracuse. The hospital had just opened the previous May. The Franciscans had founded another hospital three years earlier—St. Elizabeth’s in Utica. Both institutions were unique for their time and place in that they were open to patients without regard for religion or race. They were also among the first 50 general hospitals in the country.
Sister Marianne served at St. Joseph for six years, making the hospital work in a city where no hospital had to that point been successful. There, motivated by her faith and abiding charity, Sister Marianne’s charisma, intelligence and leadership qualities thrived.
Not only was St. Joseph open to the public, Sister Marianne accepted patients such as alcoholics, who were rejected by other institutions on “moral” grounds. As a health-care administrator, she was creative as well as practical. She stressed hygiene and cleanliness long before their obvious benefits were scientifically proven. She was an advocate of patients’ rights well before such rights were considered fundamental.
Sister Marianne also accepted for clinical instruction at St. Joseph’s medical students from the newly created College of Physicians and Surgeons at Syracuse University.
According to Sister Mary Laurence, “she became well-known and loved in the central New York area for her kindness, wisdom and down-to-earth practicality,” all the while gaining the practical knowledge in hospital administration, nursing and pharmacy which she would put to good use in Hawaii.
In 1877, Sister Marianne was elected provincial superior and became Mother Marianne.
Serving in Hawaii
By 1864 in Hawaii, leprosy had become such a serious problem that the kingdom passed “isolation” laws. The disease, most likely introduced to the islands by Chinese immigrants, had spread quickly among a local population that had little or no immunity to exotic foreign viruses. The government, in a panic, was desperate to stop the disfiguring plague by any means possible. Police arrested and brought anyone suspected of having the disease to the Kalihi Hospital in Honolulu, established in 1865.
By January 6 of the following year, the first group of patients was dropped onto Molokai’s desolate peninsula of Kalaupapa, a geographical prison cut off from the rest of the island by towering cliffs and from the rest of the world by the vast Pacific Ocean.
In 1883, members of the Hawaii government began looking across the United States for a religious community to care for their citizen victims of leprosy. Of the dozens of religious superiors contacted, only Mother Marianne said yes.
In her letter accepting the request, she wrote, “I am hungry for the work...I am not afraid of any disease, hence it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned ‘lepers.’”
Traveling with six sisters, she arrived in Honolulu on November 8, 1883, on the S.S. Mariposa. She was 45. It had been her intention to help set up the Franciscan mission in Hawaii and then return to Syracuse. She did not know then that she would remain in Hawaii for the rest of her life.
Immediately assigned to the Kakaako Branch Hospital in Honolulu, Mother Marianne and her sisters quickly transformed a hopeless and dirty clinic and receiving station into a clean and orderly place for its more than 200 patients. The sisters also soon opened Kapiolani Home, a residence for the daughters of leprosy patients.
In her first five years in Hawaii, Mother Marianne also founded the Malulani General Hospital on Maui, and established St. Anthony School, Wailuku, in 1885. Later, in 1900, she would open St. Joseph School, Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Within two years of her arrival, Mother Marianne was honored with the Royal Medal of Kapiolani for her work at the Kakaako Branch Hospital.
In 1888, the Kakaako hospital was closed and all new Hansen’s disease patients were sent directly to Molokai. Mother Marianne and her sisters agreed to follow them.
At the time, about 1,000 patients were exiled on the small, inescapable peninsula. Under Molokai’s foreboding sea cliffs, Mother Marianne and her sisters soothed the bodies, minds and spirits of the residents of the isolated, four-mile-in-circumference settlement. Quickly assessing the needs of the patients, Mother Marianne soon opened C.R. Bishop Home for “unprotected” homeless women and girls.
Carrying the Torch
Meanwhile, Sacred Hearts Father Damien de Veuster, the famous Belgian priest who had transformed and brought dignity to the peninsula since his arrival there in 1873, had contracted leprosy. He died in 1889, six months after Mother Marianne’s arrival.
After Father Damien’s death, Mother Marianne became the settlement’s guiding force, considering it her duty to, in her words, “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.”
The Hawaiian government asked her to take over the Boys’ Home in Kalawao, a wet and windy area of the peninsula about two miles from the drier and sunnier Kalaupapa settlement. After building a new home for boys named after its prime benefactor, Henry Baldwin, she brought in the Sacred Hearts Brothers to run it and withdrew her sisters for work at Bishop Home.
A professional health practitioner who knew the medical value of hygiene, Mother Marianne never feared the fatal disease. She predicted that none of her sisters would ever contract it, and none ever has.
She cared not only for the physical and medical needs of the patients, but for their educational, social and cultural ones as well. She taught her patients sewing, needlework, crafts, landscaping and gardening. She and her sisters not only dressed sores, but also made dresses for the girls in the latest styles and helped them decorate their rooms.
After 30 years with her beloved patients, Mother Marianne died in Kalaupapa on August 9, 1918. She was buried in a grave a few yards from her convent.
A cure for Hansen’s disease would not be discovered for another 25 years or so after her death, and the law confining patients to Kalaupapa would not be lifted until 1969. Today Kalaupapa is home to only a handful of patients, all there by choice. The peninsula is managed by the U.S. National Park Service. Two Franciscan sisters still live in Bishop Home, carrying on Mother Marianne’s work.
Her Cause for Sainthood
Upon her death, newspapers in both Syracuse and Hawaii were already calling Mother Marianne a saint. Hopeful Franciscan sisters in both places began collecting data and testimony that would support future canonization. About 10 years after her death, L.V. Jacks wrote her first biography.
In 1973, Sister Mary Laurence of Syracuse was appointed collector of research for her sainthood cause, and three years later, Franciscan Father Ernesto Piacentini of Rome was named postulator.
Mother Marianne’s canonization cause officially started 23 years ago when Bishop John J. Scanlan established a diocesan commission to write a historical report on her life for submission to the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The report was accepted by the Vatican in 1983.
Sister Mary Laurence was named full-time director of Mother Marianne’s cause in 1977, and worked fervently in that regard. In addition to coauthoring a definitive biography with Hawaii historian O.A. Bushnell in 1980, she has also coauthored two other books on Mother Marianne.
After many years spent on the job, Sister Mary Laurence is considered the expert on the life of Mother Marianne. Her enthusiasm about her subject is intense and unwavering.
“She always did things with a spirit of joy,” Sister Mary Laurence says. “She did everything cheerfully. When they accepted the mission, she said, ‘We will do so cheerfully.’”
After much prayer and many volumes of evidence submitted, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints approved Mother Marianne’s cause in 1996.
Just last year, the late Pope John Paul II declared Mother Marianne “venerable,” a person of heroic virtue, the first major step toward sainthood.
For all of the Sisters of St. Francis, from Kalaupapa to Syracuse, the honor was a major victory. For Sister Frances Therese Souza, one of the two Franciscans still living in Bishop Home, the “venerable” declaration was especially meaningful—it was made on her birthday, April 19.
“I don’t get passionate about things, but I can tell you that I am very passionate about Mother Marianne,” she says. “I have been here energetically with her for 16 years and I feel we’re connected.”
The Next Step
To be declared “blessed,” or beatified, requires that a miracle—usually an unexplainable medical healing—be attributed to the candidate’s intercession.
On December 20, 2004, the Vatican approved a miracle attributed to Mother Marianne’s intercession. The miracle, a healing of a New York State girl, took place about 10 years ago. As the girl lay dying of multiple organ failure, prayers were said to Mother Marianne. The patient recovered quickly and completely. Now a healthy woman in her 20s, she planned to be present at the beatification ceremonies in Rome.
On February 12 this year, the beatification of Mother Marianne was scheduled. For Sister Mary Laurence, the announcement was beyond her hopes.
“I considered [Mother Marianne] being [named] venerable a tremendous success,” Sister Mary Laurence says. “[I] didn’t know if she would go any further in my lifetime. It is a special privilege.”
As a requirement of her beatification, Mother Marianne’s body was exhumed for identification from her grave in Kalaupapa. A second requirement is that a permanent and accessible shrine can be established in her honor.
The Sisters of St. Francis determined that the Syracuse motherhouse would be the best location for a shrine and transported her remains there in January. The sisters did not own the land where Mother Marianne had been buried in Kalaupapa, and with only a few patients left, the future of the place is in question.
The exhumation took almost a week, from January 21 to January 26. Vince Sava of the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu, and a Catholic with a personal interest in Mother Marianne, headed the volunteer team of forensic archaeologists.
After a bittersweet and emotional ceremony, complete with a procession and Mass attended by patients, National Park workers, sisters and guests, Mother Marianne’s remains were put on a plane and flown from Kalaupapa to Oahu.
Farewell ceremonies both on Molokai and in Honolulu were attended by hundreds of people. Bishop James M. Moynihan of Syracuse was among the many in that city welcoming her back home a week later.
Franciscan Sister in Hawaii Today
Mother Marianne’s legacy is still thriving in Hawaii where about 50 of her community’s sisters live and work. In the islands, Franciscan Sisters run two major acute-care hospitals, two hospices, numerous health facilities and clinics. They administer St. Francis School for girls in Honolulu, and Franciscans are principals at St. Michael Parish School in Wahiawa and St. Joseph School in Hilo.
Many of the sisters who were born and raised in Hawaii joined the Order through the inspiration of Mother Marianne.
“I’m always enthralled when I think of the women in our community and the one they all admired was Mother Marianne,” Sister Mary Laurence says. “They say that is how you can recognize a saint. We are all aspiring to be saints and the holiest are the ones we look up to as models.”
Sister Olivia, born and raised 5,000 miles from Hawaii, has been blessed with a gift she had never hoped to receive in her lifetime. She was able to meet her heroine on January 29, when Mother Marianne’s remains stayed overnight in the St. Francis Convent chapel in Honolulu.
“I can’t explain what it was, but she had just touched my life so much,” Sister Olivia says. “That weekend, when they brought her body, I was glad I got to go to chapel before anyone came. I just cried and cried—I couldn’t stop crying. It was just joy.”
More than 60 years ago, Sister Olivia had been so touched by the story of the valiant Mother Marianne that she left New Jersey to come to Oahu to make her final vows in a Honolulu convent. Those were the days when the only way to Hawaii was to take a train across the country and a slow-moving plane or steamer from California.
“When I was still in high school, I prayed every night to Mother Marianne that someday I would come to Hawaii,” she says. “I really wanted to go to Kalaupapa, but I never had the privilege of working there. That is what I had prayed for.
“There was something about her spirit that really touched me and I think it is touching the world now,” Sister Olivia says. “I think today we need that very much.”