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St Marianne Cope: Help of the Apostle to the Lepers

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Estimated reading time: 2 mins


Meryl Streep observed of the Catholic sisters who shaped the education systems of America: “The responsibility they had at that time was just incredible… Think about it: this was like running a major business corporation. And at the time you just couldn’t find a woman running a whole corporation out there in the lay world.”

This observation also applies to the sisters who built healthcare systems, like Mother Marianne Cope. In 1840, when she was an infant, her family arrived in the countryside of New York from Germany. When she was 14, her father was stricken ill and, as the eldest, she had to do factory work in order to support her family of ten, setting aside for a time her dreams of entering the religious life.

A decade later, her father passed away. By that time, Marianne’s siblings were old enough to support themselves, so she was finally able to fulfil her heart’s longing to join the Franciscan Sisters on 19 Nov 1862.

Sr Marianne joined the order intending to dedicate her life to teaching. She did teach for a time, and was appointed principal. However, her life took an unexpected turn. She helped establish two of the first hospitals in Central New York, serving at St Joseph’s Hospital from 1870. Unusual for the time, the hospitals served the sick of all races and creeds. She was censured for making treatment available to socially-unacceptable people like alcoholics. However, people soon began to appreciate her compassion and sensibility.

One day in 1883, Mother Marianne received a letter from a priest asking for help in Hawaii, especially with lepers. Although there was much work to be done in New York for the immigrant communities, she answered the plea to succour the most outcast of all.

Mother Marianne and six sisters cared for 200 leprosy patients and their offspring. When St Damien of Molokai, the Apostle to the Lepers, contracted leprosy himself, Mother Marianne was the only one who welcomed him; church and government officials shunned him. She promised to continue his life’s work.

Let us learn to be as selfless and adventurous as Mother Marianne Cope, going wherever we are called, to do the work only we can do.