“People on Molokai laugh now—like other people in the world, laugh at the same things, the same dilemmas and jokes.” — Sr. Magdalene, Cope’s nurse
We of miniscule penances and negligible achievements envy Sr. Marianne Cope. We huddle close to security; she embarked on uncharted waters for a risky and unpredictable mission. We admire her clear call, when ours seem muddled, her brisk rolling-up of sleeves to scrub a filthy hospital, when we feel paralyzed by too many choices, “falling in love with her work” when sometimes we can barely drag ourselves to ours.
Born in Germany, Cope moved as an infant with her family to central New York. Joining the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse at the age of 24, she quickly became a leader in the community. After serving as a teacher and principal, she helped found and administer two hospitals. There, she instituted policies which seem common now but were revolutionary then: accepting patients regardless of race or creed, insisting on patients’ rights, treating “outcasts,” such as alcoholics rejected by other hospitals.
The medical protocols she developed there were transplanted to Hawaii when she cheerfully volunteered to serve those with Hansen’s disease. In 1883, the Hawaiian government was searching for someone to run the Kakaako Receiving Station for people suspected of having leprosy. More than 50 religious communities in the United States and Canada refused. Thirty-five Syracuse sisters volunteered immediately; six actually went. In her letter accepting the request, Cope 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.’”
Kalaupapa, Hawaii is a peninsula cut off from the mainland by high cliffs and from the rest of the world by the ocean. The sick were cruelly ostracized there, dropped off on the beach by boat, quarantined from their families because the disease was incurable and contagious. While St. Damien had first brought hope there in 1873, Sr. Marianne was able to assure him when he lay dying that his work would continue. Indeed, after his diagnosis with leprosy, the Church and the Government were afraid to welcome him. Only Cope offered hospitality, after hearing that his contagious condition had made him an outcast. He died in 1889, six months after her arrival, probably confident that the work he began would continue in good hands.
Beyond making the community clean and safe, Cope must’ve known like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, that “we are saved by beauty.” Artistry might seem the last thing anyone would worry about, overwhelmed by lepers’ needs. But Sr. Marianne proposed that large, wide-necked bottles, decorated with shells, would make beautiful altar vases.
Her artistry flourished—trimming hats for the girls, requesting the latest fashion magazines for their dressmaking, creating lovely bows. As Sister Antonia Brown wrote, “viewed from the back, one would think they were New Yorkers.”
What made St. Marianne tick? Most powerfully, in her own unique way, she followed One who, shortly after teaching the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, touched gritty reality. Approached by a leper, he stretched out his hand and cleansed him immediately (Mark 8:1-4). He also promised his friends, “whoever believes in me will do the works that I do and will do greater ones than these” (John 14: 12). As Cope wrote in 1905, the time to do good is short: “Let us make best use of the fleeting moments. They will not return.”
Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015, litpress.org, 1-800-858-5450