In addition to her being one of the Franciscan Sisters that taught in the school I attended in junior high and living not more than two hours from me, even though much earlier in time, my two favorite facts about Sister Marianne Cope, known as Mother Marianne of Molokai, are more miraculous. First, the bishop from Hawaii wrote to over 50 religious communities to ask for Sisters to come and care for those afflicted with Hansen’s disease, then called leprosy, and all declined except Mother Marianne and her Sisters. Secondly (a fact that was not included in the short biography today from the Franciscan Media), Mother Marianne promised those Sisters willing to volunteer for this mission that none of them would ever contract the disease – and none of them ever did! Their willingness was blessed “a hundredfold!” May the same be true of her Sisters today.
Today I honor a woman and a religious community that I have revered since I was 13 years old. When my father was transferred from Boston, MA to Syracuse, NY for work, it seemed as if we had moved to the end of the world. Actually it was only eight hours by train from all those relatives left behind. For the family of Barbara Cope, as she was known then, the trip in 1840 was longer: from Germany to Utica, NY when Barbara was only two years old. When she was 24 years old she entered the religious order of St. Francis in Syracuse, about two miles down the road from where I found myself in 1960 at St. Daniel’s School, being taught by the descendants of those very same Sisters of St. Francis.
I have spoken about Mother Marianne (her given name in the religious order) on this date, her feast day, in previous years as she is now a canonized saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Her whole life was extraordinary but two things stand out today for me in the saint-of-the-day reflection at http://www.franciscanmedia.org. First, generous response to a call. More than 50 religious communities in the United States and Canada were asked to send Sisters to minister to the lepers (victims of Hansen’s Disease). When the request was put to the Syracuse Franciscans, 35 Sisters volunteered immediately – including their superior, Mother Marianne. Secondly, as is often the case, little things make a difference. When Mother Marianne took over, the commentary says, she “changed life on Molokai by introducing cleanliness, pride and fun to the colony. Bright scarves and pretty dresses for the women were part of her approach.”
There are many stories attached to the life of this brilliant, generous woman. The stories and the gifts live on in her Sisters, ministering among us in the spirit of aloha. For all of them, and for that joyous spirit that welcomed me so warmly in 7th grade, I shall be forever grateful. Happy Feast Day, Sisters!
Several years ago I watched a DVD about Church history where theologian Rev. Michael Himes made a statement that remains with me. He said that one of the reasons that Christianity has endured is the doctrine of the communion of saints. It is remarkable, he continued, that we are able to have “conversations” with people who lived in the 1300s, the first millennium and even the first century of the Christian era – as well as from our own time. That being true, we can find out what it has been like over the period of 2,000+ years for human beings like us to journey toward the God of Jesus Christ. The stories of “the great ones” are mixed in with some who are obscure but sometimes very engaging. And occasionally there is a named saint from a place close to us whether we live in Assisi in Italy (St. Francis) or Syracuse, NY/Molokai, Hawaii (St. Marianne Cope). Whether or not we are prone toward deep devotion to saints, I believe there is a sense of continuity in reflecting on their lives.
Today is the feast of St. Cecilia who lived in the 3rd century and was martyred in Rome for her faith, as were many people in that time of persecution. The stunning thing for those of us who are well aware of St. Cecilia as the patron of musicians is that very little is known of her although she is remembered as one of the most famous of the martyrs of her time. Perhaps that is because “singing before the Lord” is one of the most joyful of all spiritual practices. There will be many music festivals today at Christian churches and much fanfare as churches celebrate the feast of Christ the King this weekend. I, for one, am always grateful for good liturgical music (and any other good music as well…) and will sing my best at any opportunity today to give thanks for all the musical “saints” in my life!