Saints for Today: Marianne Cope, Religious (1838-1918)


Feast Day: January 23

Baptized Barbara, Marianne Cope was less than two years old when her immigrant family came to America. She left school after the eighth grade to work in a mill and at twenty-four she entered the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis in Syracuse, New York, taking the name Marianne. She soon demonstrated outstanding administrative ability coupled with great compassion and by 1883, was made Mother Provincial (chief executive officer) of the congregation and responsible for their remarkable and expanding hospital system. In secular terms, Marianne was at the peak of her career, but she gave it up to work with leprosy patients.

The Kingdom of Hawaii was battling an epidemic of leprosy in 1883. The Hawaiian government banished confirmed cases of leprosy to the island of Molokai. The government sought aid from Catholic religious orders of women to help care for the afflicted members of their territory. An appeal was made to more than fifty religious communities before reaching the Sisters of Syracuse. Mother Marianne with six other Sisters from the young congregation answered the missionary call to help care for the lepers and assist Father (Saint) Damien, who was already there, yet dying of leprosy. She responded as a true daughter of St. Francis to the request to begin a home for “unprotected women and girls” on Molokai; she announced that the sisters “cheerfully will undertake the work.” She was intending to return eventually to her own duties as leader of the community in Syracuse once the mission was well established. She never carried out this intention. Instead, she was to spend her life working among the lepers of Molokai for the remaining thirty-five years of her life.

Marianne Cope brought joy to the despised lepers of Hawaii. In her first five years in Hawaii, Mother Marianne built a hospital and a children’s home. With a woman’s genius, she turned a barren windswept island into a garden. Author Robert Louis Stevenson visited Molokai and was so impressed with Marianne’s work that he dedicated a poem to her:

To see the infinite pity of this place,
The mangled limb, the devastated face,
The innocent sufferers smiling at the rod,
A fool were tempted to deny his God.
He sees, and shrinks; but if he looks again,
Lo, beauty springing from the breast of pain!
He marks the sisters on the painful shores,
And even a fool is silent and adores.

After visiting a boys’ house, Mother Marianne declared that she was “anxious to help put a little more sunshine into their dreary lives.” She revolutionized life on Molokai, bringing cleanliness, pride, and even fun to the colony. After twenty years among the lepers, she could write to her nephew:

“I do not think of reward. I am working for God, and do so cheerfully. How many graces did He not shower down on me, from my birth till now. Should I live a thousand years I could not in ever so small a degree thank Him for His gifts and blessings—I do not expect a high place in heaven—I shall be thankful for a little corner where I may love God for all eternity.”


Ball, Ann. “Modern Saints-Their Lives and Faces.” Rockford: Tan Books & Publishers, 1990.
Ball, Ann. “The Saints’ Guide to Joy That Never Fades.” Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 2001.
Gallick, Sarah. “The Big Book of Women Saints.” New York, NY: HarperOne, 2007.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


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