(CNN) -- An American health care pioneer on Sunday received the Roman Catholic Church's highest honor.
Mother Marianne Cope -- along with another North American, Kateri Tekakwitha -- became a saint, a designation so difficult to achieve that only 10 other Americans have been canonized before her.
Saint Marianne Cope 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.
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.'"
Smith mentally prepared for death.
"But for some reason He was nice enough to leave me here," she said, laughing.
Smith says the doctors did what they could to keep her comfortable. They even tried surgery to repair a huge hole that had opened between her stomach and intestine, but it didn't work. That's when the Franciscan sisters stepped in.
"My friend was sitting in the waiting room with my longtime roommate Pat while I was in surgery," Smith said. "The doctor came in to tell them, 'She is not going to breathe on her own again.' My roommate came in and said goodbye, and then my other friend came in and told her that this lady in the waiting room gave her a prayer card with Mother Marianne on it and suggested they pray for her help.
"They did, and I woke up. I started breathing on my own," Smith said.
The nuns paid regular visits to Smith, who is not Catholic. They kept her company. They prayed with her. They brought her communion. Then Sister Michaeleen Cabral pinned a small plastic bag on Smith's hospital gown. Inside was dirt from around Mother Marianne's grave -- known in the church as a relic.
"When they pinned that relic on me, I started feeling a little better," Smith said. "A little while later, when I opened my eyes, my doctor started pulling out my tubes.
"When he started pulling out the last one, I said to myself, 'This is it.' But instead he said, 'Now I want you to order a sandwich.' I didn't think I heard him right. I hadn't eaten in nine months. I said, 'Are you kidding me?' But he said, 'No, order anything you want to eat. I don't know what happened, but the hole I couldn't fix between your stomach and intestine has healed itself. Your inflammation is gone. You're better.'"
Mother Marianne had helped one last patient.
Smith finally left the hospital in January of 2006. "I had never heard of Mother Marianne before this, but all those prayers with the help of God and Mother Marianne's intercession, I survived," Smith said. "I'm still flabbergasted."
'You are our miracle'
To give back to the sisters who helped her, Smith started regularly volunteering at Francis House, a medical facility the sisters run to care for the terminally ill. Smith spends much of her time there cleaning rooms and visiting patients.
As she walked out of a patient's room one day, she ran into the nun who used to bring her communion at the hospital.
"She said, 'Oh my God, are you the girl I saw in the hospital who was so sick?'" Smith said. "I thought Sister Michaeleen was going to pass out.
"She told me, 'You've got to see Sister Mary Laurence. You are our miracle. I know you are.' They dragged me up to Sister Mary Laurence, who was amazed. They thought they had their miracle."
And so it was, the Catholic Church concluded. After multiple doctors examined her medical records and could find no other explanation, the case went on to Pope Benedict XVI. In December 2011 he announced Mother Marianne would become a saint.
This weekend, Mahoney and Smith are both at the Vatican for the canonization service. Smith was to present Pope Benedict XVI with a cross that contains a dirt relic from Mother Marianne's grave. To this day, Smith wonders why she has been chosen to be a part of something so big.
"I can't imagine that someone like me would experience a miracle. I'm an ordinary person," Smith said. "But the sisters explained that's who God and the saints use."
Sister Burkard is at the Vatican, as well.
"Every time I think about the large banner with her image that will hang on the Vatican for the ceremony, I get chills," she said.
"People tend to think of saints as these very special otherworldly people, but so much of (Mother Marianne's) life parallels so many other good people we know today," Burkard said.
"She probably could have done anything with her natural talents for leadership and organization, but she chose to make the world a better place. She would not let people's fear determine what she did or how people should be treated.
"She is a wonderful example for these difficult times. She gave people that others feared hope. She restored their dignity. That is the path she chose to walk."