Saint Damien of Molokai's patients had been living in rudimentary huts. They dressed in rags. Mother Marianne wanted to improve their lives.
She raised money and started programs that gave the ill population a much more dignified life. She set up classes for patients. She worked to beautify the environment with gardens and landscaping. Patients got proper clothes, music and religious counseling. She couldn't cure them, but she could make their lives better.
Mother Marianne died on August 9, 1918, at the age of 80. Incredibly, to this day none of the Franciscan sisters have ever contracted Hansen's disease.
Almost immediately the sisters started organizing her case for sainthood. To become a saint, a person must meet a strict set of religious and otherworldly requirements. Once a person dies, this kind of local effort must be made on their behalf.
The sisters gathered all of Mother Marianne's written work and correspondence. They took testimony from people who knew her. This evidence of her holiness had to be presented to a local council, which made a recommendation that she was worthy of consideration to the Vatican. There, a team of nine theologians pored over the documents.
The theologians voted in her favor, and then the Pope John Paul II named her a "Servant of God, Venerable." This is the honorific after which most cases for sainthood stop.
To become a saint, it's not enough to do good deeds. People must pray to the person under consideration, and the Church must establish that in doing so those prayers resulted in not one, but two verifiable miracles.
"A miracle is some extraordinary fact, especially in the medical field -- a cure that nobody expected and suddenly, against all expectations, this person is cured," said Father Peter Gumpel, a priest who has scrutinized hundreds of sainthood cases in his nearly 50 years as a "devil's advocate," or someone at the Vatican who examines the case made on behalf of a potential saint.
"Miracles are still required because the Church has to be absolutely sure what we are doing in canonizing someone conforms to the will of God," he said. "To do this, we ask for a sign from God."
After a case is made that a miracle has occurred, a team of doctors must verify that there is no medical explanation for the cure. Then the case goes to a second group of doctors who consult for the Vatican, who go over those same records and must make the same determination. The process then starts over again once a second miracle occurs.
Many of these cases take hundreds of years. Mother Marianne's got through in record time.
Mother Marianne's miracles
Mother Marianne's first official miracle came in 1992. That's when Syracuse resident Kate Mahoney recovered after her doctors had given up hope.
The then-14-year-old had a near-fatal reaction to the chemotherapy she received to treat ovarian cancer. In December of that year, she was admitted to the hospital suffering from severe abdominal pain.
Doctors performed surgery to remove an internal buildup of fluid. During the surgery, she suffered a serious hemorrhagic shock followed by cardiac arrest. Many of her vital organs shut down. Machines kept her alive when her heart, kidney and lungs stopped working.
According to the medical file submitted to the Vatican, three doctors determined Mahoney's body was in the process of overall deterioration. They thought she would die.
It was around then that friends reached out to Sister Mary Laurence Hanley. Hanley was the director of the Cause of Mother Marianne and the person who put her case for sainthood together.
The sister visited the sick girl. She prayed for Mother Marianne's help, enlisting others to do the same. She touched Mahoney with a relic from the soon-to-be-saint.
That week, Mahoney showed signs of improvement. By the next week, her medical records show doctors recording their "surprise" that her vital organs started to work again "for some unknown reason." Eventually local and Vatican doctors determined there was no medical explanation for her full recovery.
In 2005 Pope Benedict XVI agreed that Mahoney had experienced a miracle. Mother Marianne was beatified, one step away from sainthood.
It was in that same year that the second miracle happened.
Sharon Smith, then 58, was admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center in Syracuse. She says she had been at home and fainted.
"I woke up two and a half months later in the hospital," Smith said.
Her doctors told her she had developed a severe inflammation that was killing her pancreas and was spreading to other vital organs. Several surgeries did little to help. Her doctor consulted several experts. None could remember anyone recovering from similar cases. The doctor told Smith there was little they could do for her.
"When I heard that, I started thinking about my time in the Navy," the Gulf War veteran said. "I thought, 'I have led an interesting life. I have great friends. I have some wonderful memories. Lord, if you have to take me, at least I have these.'"