An American health care pioneer will receive the Roman Catholic Church's highest honor this weekend.
On Sunday, Mother Marianne Cope -- along with another North American, Kateri Tekakwitha -- will become a saint, a designation so difficult to achieve that only 10 other Americans have been canonized before her.
Saint Marianne Cope, as she will soon be known, may be best remembered for her work with patients suffering from Hansen's disease -- or lepers, as they were called at the time.
In Hawaii in the late 1800s, people were so afraid of the disease that even those with simple, unrelated rashes were often banished to the remote island of Molokai. They remained at this leper colony for the rest of their lives, far away from family and friends. Their children became orphans.
An island priest who was worried about this health crisis wrote to nearly 50 different religious congregations asking for help. But the work was perceived as so dangerous that only Mother Marianne responded. Before she made her long journey to the remote islands, though, she radically changed medical practices on the mainland.
'A wonderful hospital administrator'
Mother Marianne opened and operated some of the first general hospitals in the United States, St. Elizabeth Hospital in Utica, New York, in 1866 and St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center in Syracuse, New York, in 1869. Both are still in operation today.
At that time, hospitals had a bad reputation. Doctors had limited medical knowledge and even less understanding of how diseases spread. Most patients who turned to hospitals for help never left them alive.
Mother Marianne started to change that, first by instituting cleanliness standards. The simple act of hand-washing between patient visits cut the spread of disease significantly. Word of her facility's success spread quickly, according to Sister Patricia Burkard.
"She was a wonderful hospital administrator and really started the patients' rights movement and truly changed how people cared for the sick," said Burkard, who until recently held the same office Mother Marianne did as head of her religious congregation, now known as the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Neumann Communities.
Leaders at the College of Medicine in Geneva, New York, heard about Mother Marianne's success and decided to relocate to her area.
It became Syracuse University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, and its students went on to perfect their skills at Mother Marianne's hospitals. That meant her patients had access to some of the top medical minds in the country and some of the most cutting-edge treatments.
The addition of student doctors also gave Mother Marianne's patients an unheard of choice. They were asked if they wanted to be seen by a student or cared for by someone with more experience.
Mother Marianne made sure the medical facilities welcomed all people regardless of race, creed or economic standing. That was many decades before desegregated hospitals. She even weathered criticism for caring for alcoholics. She treated their problem -- which was seen by many experts as a moral failing unworthy of help -- like a disease.
"She was clearly far ahead of the times," Burkard said.
Travels to Hawaii
In 1883, Mother Marianne left those hospitals in good hands, Burkard said, and traveled with six sisters to Hawaii. When they arrived in Hawaii, church bells rang and a gathered crowd cheered to welcome them.
Within a year, she established the first general hospital on Maui. The facility was so successful that King Kalakaua honored her with the medal of the Royal Order of Kapiolani. She also opened the Kapiolani Home, which cared for the many female orphans of patients with Hansen's disease.
At the government's request, she took over another badly run medical facility in Honolulu. The hospital, which was supposed to house only 100 patients, housed 200. Its deplorable conditions were described in a diary kept by one of her fellow Franciscans and quoted in a book about Mother Marianne's life, "A Song of Pilgrimage and Exile."
"Fat bedbugs nested in the cracks (of walls). Brown stains upon walls, floors, and bedding showed where their blood-filled bodies had been crushed by desperate patients. Straw mattresses, each more or less covered by a dirty blanket, lay upon the unswept floor. ... Blankets, mattresses, clothing, and patients all supported an ineradicable population of lice," wrote Sister Leopoldina Burns.
"When she got to Honolulu, it was roll up the sleeves and clean the places up," Burkard said. "That was the story wherever they went. The sisters came in with their bucket brigade. They brought order, and I guess a lot of TLC to people no one else wanted to help."
Mother Marianne's efforts were so successful her patients were allowed to remain on the main islands, but in 1887 a new government took charge. Its officials decided to close the Oahu hospital and reinforce the old banishment policy. Mother Marianne decided to follow them to Molokai, even though it meant she'd never return.
On the island of Molokai
On the island, Father Damien DeVeuster, whom the Catholic Church named a saint in 2009, had established a medical facility known as the Apostle of the Lepers. By the time Mother Marianne arrived, he was dying from Hansen's disease.
At his request, she told him she would care for his patients. Upon his death, she took over his facility that cared for men and boys and established a separate enterprise to treat girls and women.