According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2447, “The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities.”
All of the saints performed great works of caring for the poor. “The corporal works of mercy consist especially of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God,” the Catechism states.
I knew little about Saint Marianne Cope, but Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI describes her best. In his 2005 Beatification Address for her, he declared, “The generosity of Mother Marianne was, humanly speaking, exemplary… All that she achieved was inspired by her personal love of the Lord, which she in turn expressed through her love of those abandoned and rejected by society in a most wretched way.”
During Cope’s canonization on October 21st, 2012, Benedict XVI said, “She is a shining and energetic example of the best of the tradition of Catholic nursing sisters and of the spirit of her beloved Saint Francis.”
Learning about Marianne Cope has renewed my passion for serving others and for performing corporeal works of mercy with Jesus at the heart of my intentions.
Heart of a Healer
Born in 1838 in Germany, Cope’s family immigrated to the United States early in her childhood. Living in industrial city of Utica, New York the saint’s family held factory jobs for a living.
Even Marianne worked to help support her family. When she was in 8th grade her father, Peter, became seriously ill. Because Marianne was the oldest child, she left school to work in a textile mill to help provide for her family. This early experience proved a foreshadowing pattern of serving others for this saint.
In 1862, Peter Cope passed away. Since her younger siblings were then able to take care of themselves, it was at this point Marianne pursued her vocation to the religious life.
From Average Administrator to Extraordinary
Cope became a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse, New York. Here Marianne served as teacher and principal. In 1870, Marianne was selected to be a governing council of her religious order.
From 1870 to 1877, Marianne Cope acted as hospital administrator. The saint was frequently criticized for bringing in alcoholics and other “outcast patients.” Her kind and loving approach to such patients earned Marianne love and admiration by the people of New York.
Love Amid Leprosy
Mother Cope’s contribution to the medical field would have landed her in the hospital hall of fame. But, God had other plans for her; more extraordinary plans!
In 1883, Cope received a petition from King Kalākaua of Hawaii to minister to people suffering from leprosy. Yes, you read right. Leprosy. The same disease that plagued the world in biblical times was now in the Kingdom.
Over 50 religious congregations rejected Kalākaua’s plead for aid. Thought to be highly contagious, leprosy incited fear and judgment into people’s hearts. Not Saint Marianne Cope. Confidently and joyfully she wrote back to the king, “I am not afraid of any disease, hence it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned lepers.”
It took a special person to build and sustain healthcare facilities for the lepers. Combining her hospital administration experience with her loving demeanor, Cope cared for both the physical and spiritual side of the lepers’ experience.
In 1887 the saint moved to the Kalaupapa peninsula of Molokai. Initially, she planned to remain in Hawaii for a few years. God had different plans. A year later Mother Marianne met and cared for the legendary future saint, Fr. Damien. Although she only knew him for a couple years before his death in 1889, it was a providential meeting.
Imagine the incredible grace it was for both Fr. Damien and Mother Marianne. To be cared for and to care. Remember Jesus tells us in Matthew 25:40, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Be Merciful Too
Let us too live out the Gospel mission like St. Marianne Cope. No, you may not be a called to help minister to people with contagious diseases, but we are called to love and take care of the sick, poor, the weary, and the disenfranchised. Reach out to a friend who is feeling isolated this winter. Offer to bring warm soup to a sick neighbor.
Words from St. Marianne Cope
“My heart bled for the children and I was anxious and hungry to help put a little more sunshine into their dreary lives.”
“We bring no gift to Your Majesty except our service in behalf of your suffering people, whose infirmity we bear in our hearts.”
“We were not only willing but anxious to go and care for the poor outcasts.”
Find more words from St. Marianne and learn more about here through the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neuman Communities at SaintMarianneCope.com.
image: Father Damien on funeral bier with Mother Marianne Cope and Sister Leopoldina Burns by his side on Monday April 15, 1889, the day of his death. Presumably photographed by Dr. Sydney B. Swift. / Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)