A sign posted in the driveway of St. Mary of the Angels Convent in Williamsville declares: “We have a saint!”
It isn’t a reference to Father Nelson H. Baker, who still has significant hurdles to leap before the Vatican recognizes him as a saint.
Instead, the sign alludes to Marianne Cope, a 19th century nun who built hospitals in Central New York and tended to leprosy patients in Hawaii.
Cope was credited with facilitating two separate miracle cures from heaven, leading to her canonization in October.
She’s also the inspiration for a robust new cottage industry of all things St. Marianne – conceived and fueled by some of the Franciscan sisters from Williamsville.
Statues, icons, medals, coffee mugs, posters and even children’s books – they’re all part of a new nationwide marketing and merchandising effort aimed at capitalizing on the country’s most recently canonized saint.
The sisters say they’re responding to market demand at a time when interest in Cope is surging. They also hope to raise greater awareness of her and her accomplishments.
“Making her known was an important part of all of this because her story is wonderful, but people don’t know a lot about her,” said Sister Patricia Burkard, who served as general minister of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities.
Proceeds from the sales will help pay for ministries of the sisters, a new museum in Syracuse dedicated to St. Marianne and their own health care.
Cope is a household name in the Syracuse area – in much the same way that Baker is recognized here.
Since St. Marianne did most of her good works in Hawaii and Syracuse before dying in 1918, she was not especially well known in Western New York or other parts of the country.
The Franciscan nuns in Williamsville like to tell the story of Cope’s brief stop in Buffalo. She was on a train trip to Chicago with other sisters, headed to Hawaii where they would care for leprosy patients living in isolation.
But Cope realized some time into the trip that she did not have her purse with her. She got off the train at Buffalo, went back to Syracuse for the purse and then caught another train, meeting up with the group in Chicago.
Even the Williamsville sisters are relatively new to the Cope story.
In 2005, the Williamsville congregation – in an effort to confront its dwindling membership and bolster resources – merged with Franciscan orders in Hastings-on-Hudson and Syracuse. Another group of sisters from Millvale, Pa., joined the group in 2007.
Many of the Williamsville sisters have since learned as much as they could about Cope and are eager to spread the word.
Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement last December that a second miracle had been attributed to Cope gave the sisters nine months to prepare for the canonization.
Sister Fran Gangloff went to work on a booklet of prayer poems celebrating the legacy of the nun, as well as two books on her life and works.
Sister Marcia Klawon, of Williamsville, came out of retirement to paint an acrylic-on-wood icon of St. Marianne.
Burkard and Sister Marian Rose Mansius, who also served in a leadership post, helped craft guidelines for the marketing and merchandising of dozens of original items, which are available in the gift shop of the St. Mary of the Angels Convent on Reist Street in Williamsville and online through a website that went live in September.
Sales have been “tremendous” so far, said Gregory J. Griffin, director of mission advancement, who was hired by the sisters more than two years ago, in part to help prepare for fundraising opportunities that might accompany the canonization.
The Franciscan sisters spent 37 years promoting Cope’s cause in Rome – a tedious, sometimes mysterious and often costly process. They were responsible for paying for such things as canon lawyers, travel expenses, translators, printing of prayer cards and other materials, as well as the costs the canonization ceremony itself.
And while the sisters did not provide a tally, those expenses have been estimated to run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for other canonization efforts.
Anticipating demand for items bearing St. Marianne’s image, the sisters also spent heavily to produce a variety of memorabilia, including museum-quality posters, photographs and calendars.
“People like to feel connected to her somehow,” said Gangloff.
The sisters carefully considered exactly what they would – and wouldn’t – sell. They asked themselves: Would St. Marianne approve?
Potential items ran the gamut, including a scented soap bar and a computer mouse pad – both featuring St. Marianne’s image. But lacking the kind of keepsake quality the sisters sought, the soap and mouse pad were quickly ruled out, Griffin said.
Ultimately, the sisters relied on the creative talents within their community for many of the items, including Klawon’s icons and Gangloff’s writings and photographs.
“We’re very proud of that,” Burkard said.
A prolific writer and researcher, Gangloff jumped at the opportunity to write about an American saint so close to Western New York.
“There’s only 12 saints from all of United States history, and two of them were just added,” Gangloff. The other is St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
The sisters also protected their investment through legal means.
“This is a business venture, so we copyrighted and trademarked several of the images of St. Marianne,” said Griffin.
The sisters hope to recoup their merchandise costs within a year or so.
“There’s no doubt there is a risk involved with this proposition,” Griffin said.
But there’s also been plenty of interest from around the country to suggest the risk will pay off. Online orders have come from as far away as Texas, Minnesota, Alabama and Florida.
The sisters already have been in contact with Buffalo-based Hadley Exhibits, which installed professional museum layouts and displays for the revamped Father Nelson H. Baker Museum in Our Lady of Victory Basilica, to help with the planned museum in Syracuse.
Buffalo, of course, is still waiting for the requisite Vatican-approved miracles Father Baker will need for canonization.
But with the Oct. 21 elevation of St. Marianne and St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who was born in the Mohawk Valley and became the first Native American to be canonized, already there is talk of a potential New York State “saint trail” along the Thruway.
American Catholics no longer have to look abroad for spiritual role models, Burkard said.
“Our own country now is old enough to have raised up its own saints,” she said.