St. Marianne Cope’s love of and gift for creating beauty and cleanliness served to bring peace and joy to those around her throughout her life. She was born Barbara Koob in the year 1838 in West Germany. As a small child, her family immigrated to the United States and settled in Utica, New York, living a small-town parish life. When her father became ill, Barbara, the oldest child, sacrificed much to support her family. She left school in the eighth grade to work in a factory, and though she was attracted to religious life at a young age, she was forced to put off this desire until the age of 24, when she entered the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, New York, taking the religious name Sr. Marianne. Despite having only an eighth grade education, Sr. Marianne’s strength in administrative work became quickly apparent; she established two of the first hospitals in the central New York area. These hospitals were distinct from others during that time because they served all people, regardless of ethnicity, occupation, or ability to pay. She was met with resistance as she insisted that doctors wash their hands between patients, understanding innately the value of a clean environment.
In 1883, while serving as Superior General, Mother Marianne responded to a request from the Hawaiian Islands for sisters to minister to those affected by Hansen’s disease, or leprosy. The request was sent to 50 religious congregations; Mother Marianne alone responded to the plea. Initially intending to accompany six sisters to Hawaii and then return to New York, upon her arrival, Mother Marianne witnessed the devastating scene of large numbers of people suffering leprosy in impoverished conditions. With her heart moved, Mother Marianne remained in Hawaii and established the Island’s first hospital, where the sisters daily washed and wrapped the sores of the lepers. After a few years, she joined Fr. Damien at Molokai, an island in Hawaii where men, women, and children with leprosy were shipped to spend the rest of their lives, permanently separated from their families. On Molokai, Mother Marianne cared for Fr. Damien in the last months of his life as he succumbed to leprosy. Upon his death, she took charge of the home that he had established for men and boys, and created a separate camp for women and girls to protect them from sexual assaults.
Mother Marianne transformed life on Molokai for the people by introducing cleanliness, beauty, and recreation. Simple things such as fruit bearing trees, flowers, bright scarves, pretty dresses, and making beautiful crafts brought life and light to a once dark island. Her sanctity was simple – bringing sanitation, order, color, and purpose – to give life and dignity to those she served. Serving lepers on Molokai for over 30 years, her heroic efforts are found in the smallest details of lace and seashells, easily overlooked and nearly hidden. Mother Marianne herself has said, “What little good we can do in this world to help and comfort the suffering, we wish to do it quietly and so far as possible unnoticed and unknown.”
So great was Mother Marianne’s faith in God that, prior to leaving New York for Hawaii, she had made a promise to her sisters that none would contract leprosy if they accompanied her in this mission; Mother Marianne’s promise held true as none of her sisters ever contracted the disease. She told them, “May God give you health and strength so you will be able to lead little ones to Him and teach them to love God more than anything in this world.” Mother Marianne died in 1918 and was canonized in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. Her feast day is celebrated on her birthday, January 23.