Pure Passion

Photo by Kimberly Cook

Photo by Kimberly Cook

Sister Rose Ann Renna holds hands with Saint Marianne Cope, tying the past to the present with  hope and healing

by Tami Scott

With one hand open, palm up and reaching out in front of her, a life-sized statue of Saint Marianne Cope can be seen outside the chapel at the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities. The sculpture’s inviting stance resonates with the real woman who lived a long, sacred life more than a century ago. Rather than being perched on a pedestal, Mother Marianne stands firmly on the ground.

“You can walk right up to her and talk to her,” said Sister Rose Ann Renna, who favors this shrine due to its fitting nature. In 1902, as Mother Marianne’s 64th birthday was approaching, she wrote a letter to her nephew from Kalaupapa, on Molokai in Hawaii. In it, she wrote, “I do not expect a high place in heaven — I shall be thankful for a little corner where I may love God for all eternity.”

“I think we honor [her] by not having her on a pedestal. She was with the people her entire life,” Sister Renna said. “What a life, what a life. She’s pretty amazing.”

Sister Renna tells the story of her most beloved and recently named saint in such a gentle tone, that anyone who hears her speak of Mother Marianne can immediately identify the love she carries in her heart for this holy woman. In fact, during a recent talk held at the motherhouse in Syracuse, one woman declared Sister Renna to be in love with her. Sister Renna’s response? An enthusiastic, “Yes, I am!”

“I’m so passionate about spreading the word of this wonderful lady,” she said. On Oct. 21, her loyalty was rewarded when she was blessed to witness Pope Benedict XVI — who recently resigned due to poor health — canonize Mother Marianne in Italy.

While Mother Marianne spent the latter years of her life caring for lepers on the island of Molokai, her compassionate beginnings happened right here in Central New York. Born in what is now Hessen, Germany, on Jan. 23, 1838, Barbara Koob (her birth name) emigrated with her family to the United States when she was a child of just a year. She lived with her family and was raised in Utica before joining the Syracuse-based Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in 1862 at age 24. The young, tenderhearted woman had expressed an interest in religious life at an even earlier age but delayed her vocation nine years due to family obligations. By the time she turned 31, she had already helped establish two of the first 50 hospitals in the United States: St. Elizabeth’s in Utica and St. Joseph’s in Syracuse. “She was a leader,” Sister Renna said proudly.

“There is so much about Mother Marianne that is focused on Hawaii, but this woman is a saver, a healer in CNY. She didn’t go to Hawaii until she was [in her 40s]. When you think of the role of women at that time, which was so subservient …[and] the lifespan that people had … she lived a long life …,” Sister Renna said.

Celebrated as the “Mother of Outcasts,” Saint Marianne dedicated her life to serving the afflicted. Her hospitals helped every single soul who came through  their doors, which very often meant care was provided sans payment.

“We had a hospital that accepted all people and by all, I mean there was no discrimination—religion, race, the homeless, unwed mothers, alcoholics … Mother Marianne welcomed all of them,” Sister Renna said. “The inherent reverence she had for people and their dignity—that was uppermost.”

Because patients were inclined to barter for their care with a bag of beans, a sack of flour or even chickens, doctors were scarce. So scarce, in fact, that the nuns came up with a clever plan to pull in the local physicians. When a new patient was being admitted, the nuns would ring a bell outside the hospital to alert all the neighborhood children what was happening. The first child who made it back to the hospital with a doctor got a quarter. “That’s one of my all-time favorite stories,” Sister Renna said. “How creative! Can’t you see this doctor saying, ‘but I’m not gonna get paid!’”

In just two years time, however, Mother Marianne, who served seven years as the hospital’s head administrator (1870 to 1877), vastly improved the hospital’s outlook by advocating for and succeeding in establishing a medical school at Syracuse University (which moved to Upstate Medical University around 1950). The effort was mutually beneficial; students got to practice real-life medicine and patients received treatment and care.

It wasn’t until the early 1880s when Mother Marianne, along with six sisters, committed themselves to the drawn out and often difficult journey to the Hawaiian islands — according to records, Mother Marianne was sick the entire time. There they spent the rest of their lives tending to those with Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy. “There was no cure, and the Hawaiian government was shipping [the lepers] to the island of Molokai. They were separated from their families for the rest of their lives,” said Sister Renna, adding that the scare was so spectacular, people with unknown skin conditions at the time, such as eczema or acne, were being incorrectly diagnosed as having the incurable disease. “What she brought to that island was beauty. They planted trees and flowers and she insisted on law and order. She had them living. They were living until they died.” A seamstress from years back, Mother Marianne even requested fashion magazines be sent to the island so she could make the girls and women dresses. “She said at least they will feel beautiful on some parts of their body,” Sister Renna said.

In 1954, Sister Renna entered the same order as Mother Marianne’s, taking her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at the young age of 17. She attributes her calling to a “very thin, folding door” which separated the nuns’ dining room from a parlor where she would wait until they were finished eating to visit with them. “I’d listen to them and think, ‘I wanna live the way they do,’ because they were so good to each other; they joked with each other; they listened to each other.” Though she didn’t know who St. Francis was at the time — nor Mother Marianne — she did recognize her experience with the sisters as one of joy and love.

As a long-time employee of St. Joseph’s Hospital, Sister Renna, formerly the vice president of mission services, now educates students of nursing in ethics, compassion and spirituality. Her mission is simple: to inspire the virtues that Mother Marianne so demonstrably lived out in her lifetime.

One of the biggest tasks her department took on a few years ago was interviewing 1,500 employees, volunteers and students to rewrite the mission statement. It went from 83 to 14 simple, prophetic words: “We are passionate healers dedicated to honoring the sacred in our sisters and brothers.”

“That’s all we need,” Sister Renna said. “We are passionate healers. It’s not something we’ve lost, it’s something we have to continue. That’s what people need the most, anyway. We can’t cure them, but we can heal them.”

When asked what she believes she and Mother Marianne might have the most in common, she responded with one word: passion. “That woman saying to me, ‘you’re in love with her!’ Yeah, I love her passion. I love that she could prove what a woman could do and it just inspires me. I’m 75 years old and I’ve never lost my passion — well, I take that back, there were times …. [but] I can’t even tell you what a privilege it is I consider to be able to talk about her.”

Journey to Sainthood

The sisters of St. Francis began collecting materials soon after Mother Marianne Cope’s death for her eventual canonization.

Oct. 24, 2003: theologians, cardinals and bishops at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared her heroically virtuous.

Dec. 3, 2004: after receiving the unanimous affirmation of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Pope John Paul II ordered a decree to be issued authenticating a miracle attributed to Mother Marianne’s intercession.

May 14, 2005: Venerable Marianne Cope was beatified. Another verified miracle happening after her status of Blessed would lead to her canonization.

June 16, 2011: Vatican Medical Board rules unanimously that a second miracle case is an inexplicable medical recovery.

Oct. 8, 2011: theologians rule unanimously that the second miracle case was due to the intercession of Blessed Marianne Cope.

Dec. 6, 2011:  the Congregation for Causes of Saints affirms Blessed Marianne for canonization.

2011: Pope Benedict XVI affirms Blessed Marianne for canonization.

Oct. 21, 2012: s canonization of Mother Marianne Cope.

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