Born in Germany, Marianne and her parents immigrated to the United States, settling in New York, when she was one year-old. Her father was in poor health, so Marianne went to work at an early age in a textile factory to support her family. But at 24, with her siblings able to support themselves, Marianne was finally free to pursue a religious vocation—joining the Franciscans.
She began as a teacher, and later a principal for schools in the region with a large German-speaking population. But by 1870, she’d moved into the field of health care, and had helped found the first two Catholic hospitals in central New York—with missions to offer medical care to anyone, regardless of race or creed.
Sister Marianne had become Mother Marianne, as the Superior General of her congregation in 1883, when she received a desperate plea from King Kalakaua of Hawaii for help in caring for the large number of patients suffering with Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy. Over 50 congregations had already refused his request, but not Cope. By December of that year she and six sisters had sailed to Honolulu, and were working at the receiving station for all leprosy patients from the islands. The most severe cases were then shipped to the island of Molokai.
Although she’d only planned on staying a year, it was determined by authorities that Mother Cope’s leadership was necessary for the success of the mission. Within two years the King had bestowed on Cope the highest award given by the government for service to humanity.
But in 1887, a new government changed the policy toward leprosy patients and the hospital in Oahu was closed. Forced exile to Molokai became the accepted practice, and authorities begged Mother Marianne to open a home for girls and women on Molokai. Although this full immersion in a leprosy colony almost certainly meant that Cope would never be allowed to return to America, and her home, she accepted the invitation. There she took over the ministerial duties and administrative responsibilities of Father Damien, the future saint who by then had contracted leprosy and was dying.
And for the final thirty years of her life, Mother Marianne Cope ministered to the lepers on Molokai, running a hospital, a boys and girls home, and a school with her sisters. She died of natural causes at the age of 80, having never contracted leprosy herself despite decades of direct contact with the disease. This servant to the untouchables was canonized as a saint on October 21, 2012.
Marianne Cope is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.