St. Marianne Cope’s feast day is January 23.
All around you, wherever you live, there are quiet heroes. I’m sure you could come up with your own personal list: A mother struggling to maximize the potential of a child with autism, a husband tenderly caring for a dependent and querulous wife with Alzheimer’s disease. Or perhaps you know people whose love for Christ moves them to do something out of the ordinary—say, a gifted scientist who leaves a lucrative corporate job to teach in an inner-city school.
Their heroism often goes unnoticed. “What a shame,” others may say of them. “What a wasted life.” And yet, not only does the Spirit call these people to their hidden, humble service: He equips them for it by forming in them the often ordinary looking virtues that the job demands. Such is the case with Mother Marianne Cope.
Joy in an Unlikely Place. Who was Mother Marianne? Although the church gave her the title “Saint” in 2012, this quietly heroic woman is still relatively unknown.
How about Saint Damien of Molokai? Now there’s a more familiar name! If I tell you that Mother Marianne came to Molokai five months before Damien died of leprosy, and that she devoted herself to carrying on his work, you may get a clearer picture. If I tell you further that she was already fifty years old when she waded ashore on Molokai and that she lived there for thirty more years, in contrast to Damien’s sixteen, you can easily imagine the courage, perseverance, and love she must have possessed.
Yet those who knew Mother Marianne best seldom chose words like “grit” to describe her. Instead, they were struck by her joyful spirit and her ability to bring beauty and hope to forgotten people in desolate circumstances.
In a 1893 letter, her superior, Fr. Francis Neubauer, commented to Mother Marianne on the “melancholic spirit” he had noticed while in Molokai: “The surroundings are certainly not encouraging, the life too monotonous, the climate too depressing. . . . In you alone I observed that happy cheerful disposition to make it serene and happy for every one and every where, by every word and every step.”
Progressing in Patience. What was the secret of Mother Marianne’s joy? How did she remain close to the Lord? Unfortunately, we can only guess. A very private person, Mother Marianne kept meticulous records of medicines and expenses, but said very little about the life of prayer that sustained her. Nor can we learn much about the challenges and temptations that assailed her faith, although she hints at them when she counsels patience in a letter to her nephew and charity to a religious sister experiencing difficulty in a relationship.
From what we know of her life, though, she never lacked opportunities to develop the cheerfulness and patience for which she came to be known. Born Barbara Koob in 1838, she immigrated from Germany with her parents in 1840; they settled in Utica, New York. After perhaps no more than five years of formal schooling, she began working in a factory to help support her family. She felt a call to religious life as a teenager but had to wait nine long years before being able to enter the Sisters of St. Francis.
Barbara was given the religious name Mary—like all sisters in this order at the time—and the second name Anna, but eventually everyone called her Marianne. (Meanwhile, her family name had been Americanized to Cope.) Proving herself very capable, the young sister was entrusted with greater and greater responsibilities, from teaching to hospital work, to administration. She soon became known for her deep love for others and, in her hospital positions, for her insistence that all patients be treated with respect.
“I Am Not Afraid.” By 1883, Mother Marianne was supervising nine schools, two hospitals, and the sisters in her region. It was during this busy period that she received a letter from Fr. Leonor Foesnel that would radically change her life. Fr. Leonor’s mission: recruiting American sisters to take charge of hospitals and schools in the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). Of the fifty letters he sent out, only the one to Mother Marianne garnered a query. Evidently, his call for missionaries to one of the West’s farthest outposts had struck a chord in her heart.
Fr. Leonor replied enthusiastically, promising that all the sisters’ expenses would be paid if they came to work in this tropical paradise. As in his first letter, he carefully avoided mentioning leprosy. Mother Marianne wasn’t so diplomatic: “I am hungry for the work and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen ones. . . . I am not afraid of any disease, hence it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned ‘lepers.’”
It took a bit of time to secure the necessary permission from her superiors, but in the fall of 1883, Marianne finally set sail with six companions. She promised to return as soon as the work was established. In fact, she never came back.
No Tropical Paradise! In Honolulu, after more delays, the sisters set to work at the Kakaako hospital compound. This was a receiving station where Hawaiians suspected of having Hansen’s disease were sent before being deported to the island of Molokai. It was a filthy, depressing, lawless place, headed by a tyrannical administrator and a physician who shunned the patients.
The sisters cheerfully began cleaning up the dining room and wards, gently bathing wounds, and establishing order. As always, Mother Marianne insisted on treating each patient with dignity and did not shrink from personal contact. No matter how busy she was, Sr. Leopoldina recalled, “she would never allow any of the lepers to be sent away if they asked to speak to her.” She took precautions like frequent hand-washing and having a sister who didn’t nurse lepers prepare the sisters’ food, but she also trusted in God. She promised one nervous sister, “You will never be a leper, nor will any sister of our order.” In fact, no Sister of St. Francis has ever contracted Hansen’s disease.
Early in 1886, Fr. Damien DeVeuster came to Kakaako to try a new treatment for the leprosy that was by then ravaging his own body. He urged Mother Marianne to come share his work among the lepers exiled to Molokai. This had long been on her heart—we are “not only willing, but anxious to go,” she told the bishop—but again, it took time.
Mission to Molokai. Mother Marianne’s desire was fulfilled on November 13, 1888, as she and two sisters set out for this new work. It was no small task. They would be caring for a thousand lepers in a bleak settlement isolated from the rest of the world by a steep cliff and the raging sea. Mother Marianne was so ill, possibly from pulmonary tuberculosis, that she had trouble getting downstairs to board the ship to Molokai. As usual, she was also violently seasick during the trip.
Later, writing about the difficulties involved, she allowed that the going had been rough. “In the beginning of all institutions there are many hardships, but I think there are few places where they have so little help as we have had, not only in the beginning but for many years. Blessed be God in all his ways.”
Sr. Leopoldina described Molokai as “the most sad and dreary place one could ever imagine.” Nonetheless, said Mother Marianne, their mission was “to make life as pleasant and as comfortable as possible” for the outcasts who had been sent there to die. She brought beauty as well as order into the settlement, planting fragrant flowers under her sisters’ windows and sewing colorful garments for the girls. With her landscaping skills, she worked to transform the barrenness and bring a sign of hope.
Love Is Patient. Besides the challenges of caring for the sick and all their needs, Mother Marianne was responsible for schools and hospitals and their workers on three other islands. She had to be submissive to her religious superiors, who were often distant and uninformed; to keep detailed records; and to placate the Board of Health, the royal family, and government officials. Yet in all her dealings, her sisters described her as “kind” but “firm.” There were never enough workers, and some who thought the work would be romantic left after a short time. Some opposed Mother Marianne and tried to stir up discontent among the sisters, but she remained patient and tried to pastor each one individually without jeopardizing the work.
Mother Marianne also had to be patient with the limitations of her own health. Around the turn of the century, she was up all night spitting blood; the sisters learned of her distress only when they gathered her laundry. Toward the end of her long life, she also experienced heart and kidney failure and was confined to a wheelchair.
True to character, however, Mother Marianne remained cheerful and attentive to others even in her final illness. She wouldn’t let Sr. Leopoldina keep vigil at her bedside: “If you cannot rest nights, how can you do justice in your work with the lepers?” Although she was unable to eat, she insisted on being wheeled to the dining room to join her sisters.
Marianne Cope died on August 9, 1918, surrounded by praying sisters. On her coffin, the lepers she loved used white flowers to spell out one simple word: “Mother.” It spoke volumes about how they had experienced her loving care for them.
The Gift of Good Cheer. Did patience and cheerfulness come easily to Mother Marianne, or was it a struggle? Who can say? She herself wrote simply, “I am working for God and do so cheerfully.”
Whatever was going on inside her, this is what people saw and experienced. Refreshing, life-giving, and rather ordinary-looking, this purposeful cheerfulness was a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in her life.
Many people have been inspired by Mother Marianne’s example, beginning in Hawaii, where about fifty members of her order still work as teachers, nurses, and administrators. She is a dramatic example of what God can do, if we step out and respond when he calls us to love.
Sometimes now, when I face the call to cheerful self-sacrifice, I too think of Mother Marianne. In my own life circumstances, I take courage from her long, happy life of self-giving. Her example gives us all hope, and we can count on her prayers in our own struggles to find and follow God’s will.
Jill Boughton lives in South Bend, Indiana, and is a frequent contributor to The Word Among Us magazine.