Missionary Sending

American Eucharistic Witnesses: St. Marianne Cope’s Eucharistic Resilience

To help pave the way to the National Eucharistic Congress July 17–21, 2024, we are thrilled to present the American Eucharistic Witnesses. These are holy men and women who lived, loved, and served on the very soil upon which we now stand. They all testify—in unique and powerful ways—to what it means to encounter Jesus in the Eucharist and go on mission with him for the life of the world. Each month through July 2024, we will feature a new witness. Old and young, men and women, representing different cultural families and vocations, these men and women show us—in living color—what holiness looks like. We are also thrilled to partner with American artist Connor Miller, who is creating an original woodcut print of each witness to help us visually engage with this creative new series.

Marianne Cope woodcut print by Connor Miller

Imagine yourself, for a moment, as a woman in the nineteenth century being suddenly thrust into the complex and turbulent unrest of Hawaii to serve the poorest of the poor. The 1800s were marked by political upheaval, immigration, and economic rise and fall on the islands. By the end of the century, immigrants would be working on booming sugar plantations, and over 75% of all businesses would be controlled by American businessmen; the Hawaiian monarchy would be stripped of its power, and the U.S. Navy would have control of Pearl Harbor.

St. Marianne’s Early Years and Start of Religious Life

Mother Marianne was thrust into this complex and turbulent world. Though she possessed only an eighth-grade education, in Hawaii she became a Hawaii-cultured, self-educated individual undaunted by the various rifts in the Kingdom of Hawaii. She had an instant affinity to her new home and was touched by the welcome of King Kalākaua and the warm words of Queen Kapi‘olani: “I shall never forget you, and you are my sisters, and I shall always love you.”

Born in Germany in 1838 as Barbara, St. Marianne Cope’s family emigrated in 1839 to Utica, New York. She and her siblings attended the parish school at St. John’s Church, where she received the sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation. From a young age, as she developed a relationship with God, she sensed a call to religious life. But, by the time she was in eighth grade, her father had developed a debilitating disability. She became her family’s sole provider, working at a factory while caring for her ill father and younger siblings.

It was at this time that ten-year-old Barbara, listening to the voice of God with great openness, began a life that would be characterized by serving others. During these years of selfless service, her faith—undoubtedly centered upon her devotion to Christ in the Eucharist—sustained her. After her father’s death in 1862, her siblings were self-supportive, and she was finally able to answer the call to religious life. The same year, she entered the Sisters of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis in Syracuse, New York.

After a few years as a teacher and principal in newly established schools in the region, Sister Marianne helped open two hospitals in central New York. During the years that followed, Sister Marianne would help oversee important developments in the medical field through the hospital ministry her sisters oversaw, particularly in the area of hygiene and sanitation, which would bear great fruit in the years to come.

Mother Marianne Cope in Kalaupapa, 1899
Mother Marianne Cope in Kalaupapa, 1899

Called to Serve Lepers in Hawaii

In 1883, as the second Superior General of the Order, she received a letter from a priest serving in Hawaii, asking her to send her sisters to the Hawaiian Islands to care for those who suffered from leprosy. In her great faith and confidence, called by God to help in the islands, she wrote: “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’….” She prayed, “I hope his good heart (the Minister Provincial of the Order) will approve my wish to accept this work in the name of the great St. Francis...”1 who was not afraid of leprosy, and neither was she.

Arriving on the Hawaiian Islands on November 8, 1883, Mother Marianne and six other Sisters of St. Francis saw those with leprosy for the first time at the Kaka’ako Receiving Station on the island of O‘ahu. Going through the rooms that were infested with roaches, they saw that the patients were lying on dirty mats and rugs. Mother Marianne told her Sisters, “We have our work cut out for us.” Immediately the sisters began cleaning, bringing beauty and joy to the lives of the patients.

She asked to have a chapel built because she wanted to stay close to Jesus in the Eucharist. The Sisters’ day began at 4:30 in the morning. Kneeling in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, they prayed the community prayer, a half hour of private meditation, and other private prayers. Then Father Leonor, their chaplain, would arrive to say Mass. The Eucharist was central to their lives and the source of strength for the demanding work they did in the name of Jesus.

Queen Kapi‘olani asked Mother Marianne to open a hospital in Maui in January 1884; again, Mother Marianne said yes. When she arrived in Maui, she knelt in a local church, in the presence of our Blessed Savior in the Sacrament of Charity. No doubt she spiritually rested her tired, lonely heart on his bleeding side, and from there obtained that wonderful strength for which she was known so that she could continue the work God had called her to do. By April 1884, the hospital was staffed, supplies were in place, and Princess Lili‘uokalani named the hospital Malulani, “Under Heaven’s Protection.”

Mother Marianne Cope and other sisters at Kapiolani Home in Kaka‘ako for daughters of Hansen’s disease patients.
Mother Marianne Cope and other sisters at Kapiolani Home in Kaka‘ako for daughters of Hansen’s disease patients

Confidence and Self-Gift Flow from the Eucharist

From the Holy Eucharist, Mother’s confidence flowed. When one of the Sisters expressed her concern about contracting leprosy, Mother Marianne said: “You will never be a leper. You must believe me. Neither you nor any of our sisters will ever become a leper.” Without knowing how the disease was transmitted, she believed that God would take care of her sisters. To this day, none of the sisters—who have served in Hawaii for over 140 years—have contracted the disease.

In November 1888, Marianne moved to Kalaupapa with two other sisters. She cared for the dying Father Damien, SS.CC., promising him that she would care for the boys on Kalaupapa along with her responsibility of caring for the women and girls. Mother described the girls who had leprosy as being “cheerful as butterflies”! One day when the high winds came ripping through Kalaupapa, the sisters found Mother Marianne on the hill with the girls, flying paper balloons.

The girls often would watch her as she prayed before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  When the chapel was built in Kalaupapa, Mother Marianne instituted a beautiful Eucharistic practice: “From eight in the morning until four in the afternoon two devout girls kneel before the Blessed Sacrament covered with a long red cloak and thin white veil, they changed off every half hour at the sound of a little silver bell.”2

Mother Marianne, with an unconditional love of God and his people, a deep faith, and a total trust in God, served 35 years in Hawaii—30 of those years in Kalaupapa, ending with her death in 1918.

When we have been fed with the Body and Blood of the One who gave his life for us, pouring it out for our salvation, we naturally are drawn to pour out our own lives in service of our brothers and sisters, washing their feet, as it were, and breaking open our lives to serve the poor in self-donation. This is the Eucharistic key to Mother Marianne’s sanctity, a woman so completely in love with Jesus Christ, who though he was rich made himself poor to the point of giving himself completely for our salvation and remaining with us in the Eucharist under the appearance of a tiny white host.

1. Hanley & Bushnell, Pilgrimage and Exile,  page 72.

2. From the unpublished journals of Sister M. Leopodina Burns, who worked with Mother Marianne in Hawaii.