Mother Marianne Cope: Mother to the lepers

Rev. Robert Brucciani

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 look 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.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Kalawao, Molokai, 22 May 1889

From 1884 until her death in 1918, Mother Marianne of the Sisters of St. Francis gave herself entirely to caring for the lepers of Hawaii—first near the capital, Honolulu, then for 35 years in Molokai. She was a witness to the sacredness of life by being a mother to the world's most abandoned, helpless and suffering souls—caring for them while they yet lived and preparing them for their eternal home in heaven.

Early life

Barbara Koob (now officially "Cope") was born on 23 January 1838 in Hesse, West Germany. She was one of 10 children born to Peter Koob, a farmer, and Barbara Witzenbacher Koob. The year after Barbara's birth, the family moved to the United States. The Koob family found a home in Utica, in New York State, where they became members of St. Joseph's Parish and where the children attended the parish school.

Sisters of St Francis

Although Barbara felt called to the religious life at an early age, her vocation was delayed for nine years on account of her mother's early death. As the oldest child at home, she went to work in a factory at 14 years old, when her father became ill, in order to support her family.

Finally, in the summer of 1862 at the age of 24, Barbara entered the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, N.Y. On 19 November 1862 she received the religious habit and the name "Sr. Marianne", and the following year she made her religious profession and began serving as a teacher and principal in several elementary schools in New York State.

She joined the order in Syracuse with the intention of teaching, but her life soon became a series of administrative appointments on account of her singular talent for organisation.

Providence sends a visitor

As a member of the governing boards of her Religious Community in the 1860s, she participated in the establishment of two of the first hospitals in the central New York area.

In 1870, she began a new ministry as a nurse-administrator at St. Joseph's in Syracuse, N.Y., where she served as head administrator for six years.

Although Mother Marianne was often criticised for accepting "outcast" patients, such as alcoholics, for treatment, she became well known and loved in the central New York area for her kindness, wisdom and down-to-earth practicality.

In 1883, Mother Marianne, now the Provincial Mother in Syracuse, received a letter from an emissary of the Hawaiian government, a Catholic priest named Fr. Leonor Fouesnel, asking for help in managing hospitals and schools in the Hawaiian Islands, and mainly to work with leprosy patients. The letter touched Mother Marianne's heart and she enthusiastically responded: "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'".

A mother to the lepers

She and six other Sisters of St. Francis arrived in Honolulu in November 1883. With Mother Marianne as superior, their main task was to manage the Kakaako Branch Hospital on Oahu, which served as a receiving station for patients with Hansen's disease (the medical name for leprosy) gathered from all over the islands.

The Sisters quickly set to work cleaning the hospital and tending to its 200 patients. By 1885, they had made major improvements to the living conditions and treatment of the patients.

In November of that year, they also founded the Kapiolani Home inside the hospital compound, established to care for the healthy daughters of Hansen's disease patients at Kakaako and Kalawao. The unusual decision to open a home for healthy children on leprosy hospital premises was made because only the Sisters would care for those so closely related to people with the dreaded disease.

Fr. Damien and Mother Marianne

Mother Marianne met Fr. Damien de Veuster (now known as the "Apostle to Lepers") for the first time in January 1884, when he was in apparent good health. Two years later, in 1886, after he had been diagnosed with Hansen's disease, Mother Marianne alone gave hospitality to the outcast priest upon hearing that his illness made him an unwelcome visitor to Church and Government leaders in Honolulu.

In 1887, when a new Government took charge in Hawaii, its officials decided to close the Oahu Hospital and receiving station and to reinforce the former alienation policy which forbade lepers to leave their leper colony. The unanswered question, however: If no-one could leave a leper colony then who would stay there to care for the sick on the Kalaupapa Peninsula on the island of Molokai?

In 1888, Mother Marianne again responded to the plea for help and said, "We will cheerfully accept the work…" She arrived in Kalaupapa several months before Fr Damien's death together with Sr. Leopoldina Burns and Sr. Vincentia McCormick, and was able to console the ailing priest by assuring him that she would provide care for the patients at the Boys' Home at Kalawao that he had founded.

Robert Louis Stevenson

The famous writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, had heard about Fr. Damien's and Mother Marianne's work on Molokai and decided to visit for a week in 1889 (he arrived just after Fr. Damien's death).

He called at the Bishop Home each day, beginning with the morning of 23 May. He enjoyed talking with the sisters, taking lunch or tea with them, questioning Mother Marianne about life in the Settlement. During that first visit he offered to teach the girls how to play croquet, using a set he had sent to the Bishop Home from Honolulu a week or two before. His jester’s antics, and the long hours of instruction, entertained the girls but endangered his own delicate health and caused Mother Marianne considerable anxiety. She seems to have recognised immediately that he too suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis. When she cautioned him, urging him to rest, he simply laughed and went right on playing, sometimes for three hours at a time. He wanted to make the girls laugh, he said, to forget for a while the pain and the loneliness in which they lived. And they, knowing nothing at all about him except that he was a very kind and a very funny man, were delighted with this comical haole [white man], who showed no fear of their disease, no disgust at their ugliness.

He presented Mother Marianne a poem and later composed the famous Father Damien: An Open Letter to the Reverend Doctor Hyde of Honolulu from Robert Louis Stevenson which defended Fr. Damien and the work at Molokai against the calumnious accusations of a most unfortunate Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu. (He really picked the wrong person to calumniate!)

Hope for the hopeless

Together, the three Sisters ran The Bishop Home for 103 Girls and the Home for Boys as well as being responsible for (Kapiolani Home for the healthy children of lepers, and the Malulani Branch Hospital on the island of Maui. The workload was extreme and the burden at times seemed overwhelming. In moments of despair, Sr. Leopoldina reflected: "How long, O Lord, must I see only those who are sick and covered with leprosy?" The sisters spent hours each day cleaning and bandaging rotting wounds, teaching, feeding, mothering and encouraging to sanctity the thousands of souls who lived out their suffering on the prison peninsula.

On average, once the disease manifested itself, a leper would live no longer than four years, but Mother Marianne's invaluable example of never-failing optimism, serenity and trust in God inspired hope in those around her. She gave her beloved lepers a hope for a better life in heaven and she gave hope to her sisters whom no one would blame if they had moments of discouragement. She taught her Sisters that “God giveth life; He will take it away in His own good time. Meanwhile it is our duty to make life as pleasant and as comfortable as possible for those of our fellow-creatures whom He has chosen to afflict."

Old age

Mother Marianne remained at least nominal superior of the Bishop Home and the various works of the Sisters of St. Francis in Hawaii until her death. Her love for her sisters and for her leper children never diminished and was reciprocated—so much so that what had been a prison of immorality, suffering and death was transformed into an oasis of charity.

As her health declined, she was confined to the convent of the Bishop Home, but rejoiced in the presence of her precious children. Here is one account:

Sister Leopoldina described that occasion: ‘One bright day we had the men carry her in her big wheel chair, how happy she looked when we placed her in the shade of the old kamane tree, that she had planted so many years ago, the Sisters were standing back of her chair, and her poor little leper girls nestled at her feet her dear face was filled with joy. She reached her thin feeble hand to the little ones, they moved closer to her, but did not touch her hand, as they know unclean! unclean! Mother let her hand drop on the arm of the chair and her eyes rested lovingly on her little outcasts.

Here is another extract from the memoirs of one of the sisters which shows how charity begets charity:

The sisters and patients made a novena for Mother to her dear patron St. Anne.... On the eve of her feast, she was too ill to go to the front verandah to be with them. She did not want to disappoint them and was quite relieved when Sr. Benedicta suggested her going to her cell and the girls would sing outside near her window, while she was resting. This they did and dear Mother enjoyed it more than I can say. They did sing sweetly, God has given them music as a gift. One piece was particularly touching: a duet sung by Teresa and Little Emma Kia. Emma is blind and has not a finger left but she accompanied the song on the autoharp and played wonderfully by tying a little stick to her poor stumps. It was pathetic to see them. Teresa did not show the sickness much but our dear little saintly Emma was too sad a sight to describe. Though she had neither eyes nor fingers her voice was clear and sweet.


Mother Marianne never returned to Syracuse. She died peacefully—conscious to the end—surrounded by her sisters at the Bishop Home after having received the Last Rites on 9 August 1918 and was buried on the grounds of the Bishop Home that she had founded 35 years before.

She was declared Venerable in 2004, beatified in 2005 and canonised in 2012.

Her life touches even the hardest of hearts because hers is a story of the love of life—not just earthly life—but life as being made by God, redeemed by God and destined to be united to Him for all eternity.


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