Saint Marianne of Molokai and the Leper Colonies of Hawaii

Profiles in Nursing

Saint Marianne of Molokai and the Leper Colonies of Hawaii

Marianne Cope, OSF 1838-1918

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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With their dedication to service and penchant for self-sacrifice, you could say that all nurses are saints, but only a few of us have actually been canonized by the Catholic Church. One of those few is Marianne Cope, a sister of the Order of Saint Francis who dedicated much of her life to caring for the sufferers of Hansen’s disease, commonly known as leprosy.

Patients’ Rights Movement

Mary Ann Barbara Koob was born in 1838 in Heppenheim, Germany, but her family emigrated to the U.S. when she was a baby, anglicizing their name to Cope.

In 1862, Cope became a sister of the Third Order of Saint Francis in Syracuse, N.Y., taking the name Marianne. Her skills and drive soon earned her a seat on her order’s governing council, where she helped found two Catholic hospitals, St. Elizabeth Hospital in Utica, N.Y., and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse, both of which remain open today.

As the supervisor of St. Joseph’s, Cope built relationships with nearby medical schools, ensured that the hospital would provide care to all who needed it and instituted rigorous hygienic practices that dramatically reduced morbidity rates. In 2012, Sister Patricia Burkard, a former general minister of Cope’s order, told CNN that Cope “was a wonderful hospital administrator [who] really started the patients’ rights movement and truly changed how people cared for the sick.”

The King of Hawaii’s Request

In 1883, Cope was named mother superior of her congregation. Soon after, she received a letter from King Kaläkaua of Hawaii, asking for help in caring for the sufferers of Hansen’s disease.

Hansen’s was not well understood at the time. While people understood that the disease was contagious, some erroneously believed it was an STD. More than 50 religious orders had already declined to help, but Cope was not intimidated by the danger of the disease or its social stigma. She and six sisters of her congregation set out for Honolulu and began work at Kaka‘ako Branch Hospital, the receiving station for Hansen’s disease patients from all over the islands.

Conditions at Kaka‘ako were filthy, but Cope soon brought about great improvements. She went on to establish and oversee other medical facilities, earning her the Cross of a Companion of the Royal Order of Kapiolani from the king.

In Hawaii, the most severe cases of leprosy were exiled for life to the settlement of Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka’i. In 1888, Cope and two of the sisters agreed to go to Kalaupapa to set up a home for girls. The sisters also took over running the home for boys in Kalawao and cared for its founder, Father Damien, who had himself contracted the disease.

Although Cope could not cure the exiled patients, she made every effort to improve their care and restore their dignity, providing proper clothing and housing, teaching classes and bringing beauty through gardens and landscaping. Despite constant direct contact with sufferers, neither Cope nor the sisters under her direction ever contracted leprosy.


Cope originally expected to remain in Hawaii for a few months and then return to Syracuse, but she spent the rest of her life on the islands. Although she frequently worked 18- to 20-hour days and later suffered from tuberculosis, she lived to be 80. In 2012, she was canonized a saint by Pope Benedict XVI. Patricia Burkhard told CNN that Cope “would not let people’s fear determine what she did or how people should be treated.”   

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN,  is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience. 


Leprosy: The Exile Disease

by Aaron Severson

Although leprosy is now very rare in the United States and is considered an outpatient condition, most of us still readily understand the phrase “shunned like a leper.” For thousands of years, the customary response to leprosy was to exile sufferers for life.

References to leprosy in the Bible and other ancient texts actually describe an assortment of skin conditions, some bearing little resemblance to what’s now called Hansen’s disease, a bacterial infection that attacks the skin, eyes and nervous system. Many cultures regarded sufferers of these diseases as physically or morally unclean. Many U.S. states and territories even stripped lepers of legal rights.

Colonies of exiled lepers have existed for millennia. Some were organized along monastic lines, but many sufferers lived in squalor or developed their own peculiar societies. The few outsiders who attempted to improve conditions in these colonies often found little support from church or state officials.

The bacterial cause of Hansen’s disease was first identified in 1873, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that effective treatments became available. Sufferers didn’t regain their rights until much later. Even when the leper colonies and hospitals began to close, some sufferers chose to remain, having lost all connection to the outside world after a lifetime of isolation.

Aaron Severson is the associate editor of Working Nurse


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