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The Sister who cared for lepers after a request from a king

St Marianne Cope is pictured in a photograph from around 1883 (Photo: CNS)

Marianne Cope (1838-1918) was canonised in 2012 in recognition of her work with lepers in Hawaii.

Originally Barbara Koob, she was born on January 23 into a farmer’s large family at Happenheim, Hesse, now in Germany. The next year, 1839, her father emigrated to America. The family settled at Utica in the state of New York, where five more Koob children swiftly appeared.

Barbara, educated at the local parish school in Utica, early felt a religious vocation.

Her father, however, became an invalid, so for some years she had to work in a factory to help keep the wolf from the door.

A month after Peter Koob died in 1862, with her younger siblings now able to fend for themselves, she entered a Franciscan convent in Syracuse, assuming Marianne as her name in religion.

After taking her vows she began teaching in schools for immigrant (mainly German) children. Her intelligence, strength of character and drive meant that she was soon involved in other activities, notably directing the opening of two Catholic hospitals, St Elizabeth’s, Utica (1866), and St Joseph’s, Syracuse (1869).

In charge of administration at St Joseph’s, Sister Marianne insisted on the highest standards of hygiene, and stood up for patients’ rights, regardless of race, religion or moral failing.

By 1883 she was superior general of her convent. But when Marianne Cope received a letter from King Kalakaua in Hawaii, asking for help in caring for lepers, she did not hesitate. “I am hungry for the work,” she wrote back. “I am not afraid of any disease.”

When the ship carrying Mother Marianne and six other nuns arrived in Honolulu, the bells rang out. At first she managed a hospital on the island of O’ahu, where lepers were sent for assessment. Then in 1884 she established a hospital on another island, Maui.

Soon, though, she was summoned back to O’ahu, to deal with a government-appointed administrator who had been maltreating the lepers. If the man was not sacked immediately, she declared, she would return to Syracuse. This threat carried the day, and Mother Marianne took over the hospital in O’ahu.

Thanks to her vision the treatment of lepers began to improve, so that few were now sent to the settlement on the island of Molokai as hopeless cases.

In 1887, however, a new government closed the hospital on O’ahu, and ordained that lepers would now be sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula on Molokai. Mother Marianne readily acceded to requests that she should take charge and spent the rest of her life in the work.

As well as ministering to the sick, she organised facilities and education for the healthy children of lepers. Apparently immune to the disease herself, she remained dynamic to the end, if latterly confined to a wheelchair.