24 Aug Mother Cabrini: A Most Astonishing Woman
Today is the feast day of Saint Frances Cabrini. Ora pro nobis.
By Ed Masters
Maria Francesca Cabrini was born on July 15, 1850 – one of eleven children – to a cherry farmer, Agostino Cabrini and his wife, Stella Oldini. Both had great faith and piety, though only four of their children survived beyond their teenage years. Maria Francesa herself was born two months prematurely; she would suffer with frail health for her entire life.
Maria Francesca Cabrini, aged 10
The woman who was to become the first US saint was born in the remote village of Sant’Angelo (“Holy Angel”) Lombardy, then part of the Austrian Empire. Given the name of the town she was born in, it seems that she was destined for a life doing notable deeds for the Church.
As a child, Maria Francesca dreamt of being a missionary to China and the East, inspired as she was by her family’s reading of the Annals of the Propagation of the Faith. One family story relates how she gave up eating sweets because she knew that in China she would not have access to them. By age 18, she had earned a teacher’s certificate; her parents died the following year. Francesca then sought to enter two Orders with Chinese missionary houses but was rejected because of her poor health. So she spent the next ten years teaching and directing a school for orphans, satisfying her zeal for the Faith by giving Catechism instructions and visiting the poor. She also did heroic work as a nurse during a smallpox epidemic in 1872.
In 1874, Francesca went to the House of Providence in Codogno, a badly-managed orphanage, as the Bishop wished its staff to become a religious community. This enabled her to take her religious vows in 1877; she took the name Xavier after that great Apostle of the Indies, St. Francis Xavier. After six years of hard work and fierce opposition from its foundress, Antonia Tondini, the Bishop of Todi closed the orphanage but invited Frances to found a new institution. Moving into an abandoned Franciscan friary at Codogno with seven new sisters, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. She dedicated her Congregation to the education of girls and care of poor children in schools and hospitals.
This brought her to the attention of both Bishop Giovanni Scalabrini of Piacenza and Pope Leo XIII. In 1888 Mother Cabrini’s Institute received the approval of the Holy See. However, both Bishop Scalabrini and Pope Leo XIII told her not to go to the East as she had planned, but to the West. These greatly respected prelates wanted Mother Cabrini to work with the Italian immigrants in New York.
“Renounce yourselves entirely if you wish to enjoy peace…she who is not holy will make no one holy.”
Francesca Cabrini arrived in New York City on March 31, 1889, where she met with Archbishop Corrigan. Though she spoke no English, she nevertheless convinced him of the importance of this work. By that July everything was already in order in New York; by then she had founded an orphanage and a free school where the poorest Italians lived. In time the orphanage had over 400 orphans, maintained by alms that the Sisters received by begging in the streets of NYC every day; this because they didn’t receive enough help from other religious congregations and wealthy donors.
For the next 27 years Francesca Cabrini traveled extensively, repeatedly facing and conquering her fear of crossing the ocean. In a rapid few years, Mother Cabrini’s sisters spread all over the United States. In 1892, they opened their first hospital, Columbus Hospital in New York City; sadly this facility was closed after 110 years in 2002. She also founded an orphanage in West Park, New York. In Chicago, the Sisters of her Congregation opened up Columbus Extension Hospital (later renamed St. Cabrini’s Hospital) in the heart of the Italian neighborhood on the city’s west side.
Before he died in 1903, Pope Leo XIII counted her among his favorites. Whenever Francesca made the long, wearying journey to Rome, the old pontiff would wait restlessly to greet her.
“Cabrini!” he would exclaim with a twinkle in his eye upon catching sight of her diminutive figure in black bonnet and habit. The young nun and the old pope would then talk intensely about her journeys, her missions and the needs of the thousands in the New World who relied on her and the Church.
“Mother Cabrini is a woman of fine understanding and great holiness…she is a Saint,” the pope told the Vatican staff.
Her work proved him to be prescient. In the next few decades, Francesca Cabrini’s Congregation spread to Central and South America as well as Italy, France, and England. By the time her work was over, this astonishing woman had founded more than fifty hospitals, schools, orphanages, convents and other foundations. Literally hundreds of thousands of poor Catholics of every nationality and background would find care, support and education from Mother Cabrini’s sisters over the ensuing century. Mother Cabrini was naturalized as an American citizen in 1909 in Seattle, Washington.
When she wasn’t busy accomplishing the deeds that would one day result in her becoming famous throughout the Catholic world, Mother Cabrini spent much of her time in prayer, dedicating her work to the glory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Her letters to her nuns are filled with motherly advice to those with whom she worked and those who would come long after she was gone. “Renounce yourselves entirely if you wish to enjoy peace…she who is not holy will make no one holy.”
Pope Leo XIII counted her among his favorites. Whenever Francesca made the long, wearying journey to Rome, the old pontiff would wait restlessly to greet her.
Mother Cabrini died of malaria at the age of 67 on December 22, 1917. True to form, she was working in Chicago’s Columbus Hospital, preparing Christmas presents and candy for 500 children. Her body was buried, as per her wishes, on the grounds of the first orphanage she founded in West Park, New York.
“Cabrini!” Pope Leo XIII would exclaim with a twinkle in his eye upon catching sight of her diminutive figure in black bonnet and habit. The young nun and the old pope would then talk intensely about her journeys, her missions and the needs of the thousands in the New World who relied on her and the Church.
In 1931 her body was exhumed as part of the canonization process and was found to be partially incorrupt. Her body now rests under the high altar in the chapel of Mother Cabrini High School in the northernmost part of Manhattan. She was beatified by Pope Pius XI on November 13, 1938. Her beatification miracle involved the restoring of a child’s eyesight, blinded as the result of too much silver nitrate applied to the eyes.
Maria Francesca Cabrini was canonized by Pope Pius XII on July 7, 1946. Her canonization miracle involved the healing of a terminally ill nun.
The Saint is the Patroness of immigrants, emigrants, orphans, hospital administrators and against malaria. Her Feast Day is December 22 on the Traditional Calendar and November 13 on the New Calendar.