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Opinion
A new American saint

By Dwight G. Duncan
Posted: 12/23/2011

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On Dec. 19 in Rome, the Holy Father signed the decree recognizing the canonization miracle for Blessed Marianne Cope, the nun from Syracuse, N.Y., who responded to the call to care for the lepers in Hawaii, along with St. Damien of Molokai, and spent the last 30 years of her life in Molokai until her death in 1918.

In fact, Pope Benedict was the one who beatified Mother Marianne in May of 2005, in the first of his beatifications. Just recently, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the pope to make her feast day a memorial throughout the United States, as it is currently celebrated (as is typical for Blesseds) only in the dioceses of Hawaii and Syracuse, and in her religious congregation, the Sisters of St. Francis.

There is a wonderful biography of this luminous figure, entitled "Pilgrimage and Exile: Mother Marianne of Molokai," written by Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, O.S.F., and O.A. Bushnell (University of Hawaii Press 1991). It captures in careful detail the trials and tribulations endured by Mother Marianne in her life of cheerful self-giving.

For example, there was the time one of her sister nuns, the charming Sister Leopoldina, who spent her days cleaning and wrapping sores of those afflicted with leprosy, understandably panicked at the thought of herself becoming a leper, as had happened to Father Damien. "Mother, I asked, what will you do with me if I become a leper?" "You will never be a leper, I know," she said, "we are all exposed but God has called us for this work. If we are prudent and do our duty He will protect us...Remember you will never be a leper, nor will any Sister of our order."

Her biographers report, "Mother Marianne's prophecy has been fulfilled: not one of the scores of Franciscan sisters who have attended lepers in Hawaii has contracted leprosy."

Although she was born in Germany in 1838, she came to upstate New York with her family as an infant and was raised in Utica. She entered the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse in 1862 and quickly became a superior and eventually provincial in 1877. When, in 1883, she was invited (along with 50 other religious superiors) to come to Hawaii to nurse the leprosy patients, her religious congregation was the only one who accepted, sending a group of seven sisters, with her in charge. Initially tending lepers in a hospital in Honolulu, she and two other sisters arrived in Molokai in 1888, six months before the death of Father Damien from leprosy. Her virtues were every bit as heroic as St. Damien's, and she lived for another 30 years on the isolated island of Molokai until her death at age 80.

Since the time of her beatification in 2005, her remains are located in the chapel of the convent and motherhouse in Syracuse. I intend to visit there the first opportunity I have, as it is open for visitors on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. Check out www.blessedmariannecope.org for further information.

An amazing coincidence is that her biographer, Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, who also happened to be director of Mother Marianne's cause of canonization, died this past Dec. 2 at age 86, just days before the canonization miracle was approved. Her funeral was held in Syracuse on Dec. 7, the day after the approval, which also happened to be the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, another historical milestone for Hawaii. Before she died, she said, "My work is finished now." One can well imagine these two Sisters of St. Francis rejoicing in heaven together this Christmas.

As a Honolulu newspaper wrote in 1918 editorializing on the death of Mother Marianne: "Seldom has the opportunity come to a woman to devote every hour of 30 years to the mothering of people isolated by law from the rest of the world. She risked her own life in all that time, faced everything with unflinching courage and smiled sweetly through it all."

Blessed Marianne, pray for us.

Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.