Saint Marianne Cope’s Legacy in Hawaii

Note:  Today we do not refer to Hansen’s disease as leprosy or those who have Hansen’s disease as lepers; however, those are the terms that were used in Mother Marianne’s time and so will be used in this story.


Hungry for the Work

Mother Marianne Cope. formerly Barbara Koob whose last name was later changed to Cope, was born in Germany in 1838 and migrated with her family to Utica, New York, in 1840.  She joined the Sisters of St. Francis in 1862.

 A letter dated May 28, 1883, would change her life.  It was a letter written by an emissary for the Hawaiian government, requesting that nursing Sisters take charge of the hospitals there.  Although more than 50 religious congregations had already declined, Mother Marianne wrote to Father Leonor: “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.” 

Mother Marianne and six sisters boarded an express train and, after six days and five nights in a railroad coach, they arrived in San Francisco.  Five days later they boarded the steamship Mariposa for the 2,200-mile sea voyage to Hawaii.  Seasickness kept Mother Marianne miserable in her bunk for the seven days of their voyage and afflicted her on every later trip from island to island.

The Sisters were horrified when they viewed the Branch Hospital in Kakaako, Oahu, where Hawaiians suspected of having leprosy were detained until a clear diagnosis could be made.  There were 200 patients in a facility built for 100 but the worst problems were the filth, swarms of flies, and the stench of open, untreated sores.  The Sisters were shocked to realize that patients were thrown together regardless of age, gender or stage of illness.   Nonetheless, Mother pinned back her wide outer sleeves, rolled up the inner ones and got to work.

The Path of Sacrifice for Hawaii’s People

In 1887, a new government took charge in Hawaii and its officials decided to close the Oahu hospital and to reinforce the former alienation policy.  Mother Marianne again responded to the plea for help coming from the new government.  Her response would take her into a lifetime of exile together with those she served.  By accepting the challenge she knew she would never be able to return home to see her beloved family and friends but once again she followed the path of sacrifice.

mosaic of Mother MarianneLife at Kalaupapa was not easy.  At first it seemed exciting and a real challenge but day by day the drudgery, the sameness, the fear of the disease and the sadness of death preyed upon the Sisters’ nerves. The Sisters worried about contracting leprosy; however, Mother Marianne said “…remember you will never be a leper, nor will any Sister of our Order.”  This prophecy has been fulfilled.  Through all these years, not one of the many Franciscan Sisters who worked with the lepers has ever contracted leprosy.

A Love that Impelled Her

Mother Marianne passed away on August 9, 1918, but her legacy reaches wherever the Sisters of St. Francis have served.  They share the love that impelled her, and her life sparked their zeal in many places and ministries.  She set the course for the Franciscan healthcare system which follows her example, emphasizing service to the needy and providing “a place where poor folk get good care,” to quote a Honolulu native.

When someone commented once after a visit to the leper colony that it would be a mercy to put an end to such a hopeless and miserable life, Mother Marianne responded by saying: “God giveth life; He will take it away in His own good time.  In the meantime, it is our duty to make life as pleasant and as comfortable as possible for those of our fellow-creatures whom God has chosen to afflict.”   With that commitment and believing that God will provide, the Sisters have taken risks, creating programs to meet special needs in Hawaii, including St. Francis Healthcare System.

Merriam Websters Online Dictionary defines heroic as exhibiting or marked by courage and daring; supremely noble or self sacrificing.  This clearly defines Saint Marianne.  However, if anyone had called her heroic, she would have been either amused or amazed.  To her, Christ had paid her the compliment of calling her to serve Him.  She felt it was little enough to say “Thank you” by caring for his afflicted ones.


The Quiet Flame by Eva Betz

I Am Hungry For The Work  by Sister Frances Ann Thom, OSF

Mother Marianne of Molokai, Valiant Women of Hawaii

Mother Marianne of Molokai by L.V. Jacks