Area museum commemorates feast day of Catholic saint who had influence on SU, local community

Courtesy of Saint Marianne Cope Shrine and Museum

Saint Marianne Cope helped establish the Saint Joseph's Hospital Health Center in Syracuse in 1869. Friday marked the third feast day of Cope, who is best known for her work with lepers in Hawaii.

The United States claims just 11 Catholic saints out of a loosely estimated 10,000. Among these 11, one called central New York home.

“She walked these grounds,” Sister Jean Canora said of the saint who had belonged to the same Franciscan religious order in Syracuse. “And this was our day and age.”

Friday marked the third feast day of Saint Marianne Cope, who is best known for her work with Hawaiian leper communities. A feast day is a day associated with the celebration of a particular saint. Friday also marked the first feast day that the recently-named saint was recognized at Syracuse’s Saint Marianne Cope Shrine and Museum.

The museum, which opened in July, honored Cope through the opening of an exhibit highlighting prominent central New York women who have been influenced by her. That list includes U.S. Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-New York) and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, among others.

Through the museum, as well as the adjacent Saint Joseph’s Hospital Health Center that Cope helped establish in Syracuse in 1869, the Syracuse saint’s legacy and influence continue in the city where she lived and worked in the 1800s.


Cope’s legacy can further be traced to Upstate Medical University. With the intention to better train healthcare workers for St. Joseph’s, Cope helped bring the College of Physicians and Surgeons from Geneva to a young Syracuse University in the 1870s, according to her biography, “Pilgrimage and Exile: Mother Marianne of Molokai.” Upstate in turn absorbed SU’s College of Medicine in the 1950s.

Although the German-born Cope grew up in Utica and joined the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, she is especially known for her work in Hawaii in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There, she led fellow Franciscan nuns in bringing compassion and modern infection control methods to an otherwise neglected and misunderstood leper community.

“They were treated as patients or worse,” said Kristin Barrett-Anderson, operations manager of the St. Marianne Cope Shrine and Museum, explaining that individuals with leprosy — now known as Hansen’s Disease — were isolated in Hawaii’s Kalaupapa peninsula. Cope brought music, gardens, games and family back into the lives of her patients, Barrett-Anderson said.

Cope’s story is told on the walls of the North Townsend Street museum in Syracuse, which Barrett-Anderson said developed as a response to the decision of Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities to sell their Court Street residence and headquarters. The closure of this Court Street campus forced a new arrangement for Cope’s remains, which had been held in a shrine on the campus since her exhumation from Hawaii in 2005 as part of her canonization process.

Cope’s remains were sent back to Hawaii last year, while the Franciscan community in Syracuse refitted a former radiotherapy building on St. Joseph’s campus with a museum and shrine. St. Joseph’s is still sponsored by the Franciscan sisters.

In its first months, Barrett-Anderson said, the museum and shrine have served as a resource to educate the community about Cope and her work. Visitors range from tour groups to visitors to the nearby hospital, who might stumble onto the building spontaneously and spend a few minutes perusing Cope’s correspondences or reflecting at her shrine.

“Many people come looking for hope and healing,” Canora said, speaking especially of visitors from St. Joseph’s.

The two miracles attributed to Cope — which fulfilled one requirement on her path to sainthood that began shortly after she died of natural causes in 1918 — reflect her long-term involvement in medical fields as well. Both miracles took place at Syracuse hospitals, Canora said, explaining that terminally ill patients recovered after prayers for Cope to intercede.

One of these patients, who was 14 years old when the miracle took place in 1992, is still alive today.

Canora said she also takes Cope’s story out to the community, speaking at several local Catholic schools, for example. When speaking with young students preparing for confirmation — a Catholic rite that asks individuals to take on the name of a saint whom they admire — she said she encourages young women to choose Marianne.

“This is a saint in their lifetime,” Canora said, contrasting this to an arguably less relatable 16th century European saint.

In the Cope’s Franciscan community in Syracuse, too, her legacy continues even as the sisters no longer need to follow in her literal path of caring for those with Hansen’s Disease.

“Her virtues are still Franciscan virtues,” Canora said. “The message is the same: follow the needs of the times.”

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