I had a chance to visit my hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., last month, the first time in a number of years and the first time since two local women were named saints – St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a Native American born in upstate New York who died in Canada in 1680, and St. Marianne Cope, who worked with leprosy patients on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.
Growing up, even as a public-school kid, I heard stories of the work of the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, led by Mother Marianne, to minister to those afflicted with Hansen’s disease (leprosy), just as I was made aware of lives and brutal deaths of the North American Martyrs down the road in Auriesville, N.Y., and, not far away, of Kateri, “the lily of the Mohawks.”
But it was the stories of Mother Marianne and the other sisters who followed her to the settlement at Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai that filled me as a youngster with awe and admiration.
The fact that she entered the order and later professed her vows at the Church of the Assumption in Syracuse – where I attended Mass just after high school as a young adult and where I was married – gave me a greater sense of connection.
So when I went back to Syracuse to visit family members and attend my high-school reunion, I was drawn to go to visit the shrine and the museum devoted to her. On the north side of the city, not far from Assumption Church on the grounds of the motherhouse, the chapel shrine and the museum are simple, quiet, not maudlin. An intimate surrounding, the museum offered testimony of her work, that of the other religious who served there, the faith of those struggling with the disease, and the cause leading to her beatification and then canonization, a year ago next Monday, October 21. The desk where she worked for years and a relic of a tree she planted, of which they found roots growing in her coffin years later, were just two of the items on display.
She was a strong woman, to which I could relate being around strong women as mother and aunts. Originally a teacher and principal, she helped found two hospitals, both of which were open to the sick without regard for nationality, religion or color, and both existent today.
Mother Marianne was mother general of the congregation when she accepted the invitation to serve in Hawaii, an invitation rejected by many – I was told there 50 – other religious communities. “I am not afraid of any disease,” she said, in leading five other sisters as the community’s first presence there. She had a devotion to St. Francis of Assisi who cared deeply for the sick, including lepers.
She served there for decades and then asked to be buried there. The sisters still maintain a presence at Kalaupapa, serving a small group of people with Hansen’s disease who live there today, as well as sponsoring the St. Francis Healthcare System in New York.
Sister Marianne Cope and Kateri Tekakwitha are two of those featured as a daily source of inspiration in the beautiful Franciscan Media Books gift book, Sisterhood of Saints, which provides a reflection on the life of the saint, brief biographical information, her relevance for today, an inspirational quote and a daily challenge or note of the charism of the saint. There is also the new work from Servant Books on the more famous of these two “local saints,” Lily of the Mohawks: The Story of St. Kateri.
The quote from Sister Marianne points to how she was reflecting God’s love in all of her service. “Charity of the good knows no creed and is confined to no one place.”
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Photo top: A pilgrim holds a sign in recognition of St. Marianne Cope before the canonization Mass for seven new saints led by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Oct. 21, 2012. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)