The Life of Mother Cabrini
St. Frances Cabrini’s life began in northern Italy in 1850. As a young girl, Francesca Cabrini was enthralled by stories of missionaries. She loved playing by a river near her uncle’s house, filling paper boats with flowers – her “missionaries” — and sending them off down the river to China.
From a very young age Frances Cabrini knew she was called to be a religious. However, she was frequently sick. When she was old enough to enter a religious community, her requests to join were rejected. Disappointed but certain of her vocation, Frances received her teaching certificate. She taught in a nearby village school, and people soon noticed her ability to win over the children with love and kindness.
St. Frances Cabrini’s Early Religious Life
The town priest observed Frances Cabrini’s warmth, competence and faith. He mentioned the young schoolteacher’s unique qualities to the bishop of Piacenza. In 1874, the bishop asked Frances to become the administrator of an orphanage in Codogno. Frances’ organizational skills, tact, energy, and zeal were sorely needed there.
The orphanage was run by a fledgling religious community called the Sisters of Providence. Shortly after Francesca arrived, she joined the order. She took the name Saveria (Xavier) in honor of the great missionary who went to the Far East.
Though she was happy to finally enter religious life, this period of Frances Cabrini’s life was difficult. Her superior was jealous of and hostile toward the devout young nun. For six long years Frances Cabrini endured bullying and harassment. Her response was to draw closer to Jesus, to learn to trust Him more, and to draw all her consolation and comfort from Him.
“Give me the desire to humble myself for your love. Enlighten me how to do so when humiliating occasions present themselves. When I do not feel inclined to follow your holy inspirations, help me to do so.”
Under Francesca’s administration the House of Providence expanded. A Sunday school was added, as was adult education, work with local youth, and retreats for women.
Because of continued difficulties with the founders, the diocese dissolved the House of Providence in 1880. Francesca Cabrini was asked form a new religious order. Thus, at the age of 30, she set out to create the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Mother Cabrini’s Missionary Call
In the early years, the Missionary Sisters worked in northern Italy. But tiny Mother Cabrini – who stood barely 5 feet tall — was eager to spread the love of Jesus around the world. She still longed to go to China. Then a different opportunity presented itself.
In 1887 Mother Cabrini was approached by Bishop Giovanni Scalabrini. The bishop was deeply concerned about Italians who had emigrated to the Americas. In a single decade, nearly a million had fled poverty in southern Italy. Few had much education, and few possessed skills that allowed them to get good jobs. Instead of finding the better life they envisioned, they faced deep prejudice, poor wages, a padrone system of contract labor, and bad housing.
A report on emigrant conditions prepared for Pope Leo XIII described this environment as having “all the characteristics of a white slave trade.”2
In those days the U.S. was considered mission territory. There were few priests in the United States who spoke Italian. Bishop Scalabrini asked Mother Cabrini to go to New York to help.
St. Frances Cabrini Sets Sail
Mother Cabrini prayed about this deeply. Then she obtained an audience with Pope Leo XIII to seek his advice. The Pope told Mother Cabrini to go “not to the East, but to the West” to tend to the immigrants in the United States. So Mother Cabrini and six of her Missionary Sisters set off for New York City in 1889.
They found a mass of human misery: families crammed into foul tenements, parents working 12-hour days for meagre wages, and children who lacked food, supervision, and basic education.
Within days of her arrival, Mother Cabrini organized catechism classes and schooling for the children. She and the Sisters knocked door to door through rough neighborhoods, facing humiliating insults to gather funds to do their work. Their convent quickly became a haven for children from the notorious Five Points neighborhood. An orphanage was established, followed by parochial schools and a hospital.
The Mission Expands
Soon requests for Mother Cabrini’s help poured in from other cities in the United States, as well as from Europe and Central and South America. Renowned as a woman of deep faith, Mother Cabrini was also a shrewd businesswoman. Over the course of 34 years she established an astonishing 67 hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Her energy was fueled by an intense focus on serving Jesus in whatever he asked of her.
In Seattle in 1909 Mother Cabrini was granted citizenship in the United States. She died in Chicago on December 22, 1917 at the age of 67 of chronic endocarditis. She was canonized in 1946 by Pope Pius XII and became the first American citizen to be named a saint. Four years later she was given the title of Patroness of Immigrants.
In 1909 Mother Cabrini was granted citizenship in the United States. She died in Chicago on December 22, 1917 at the age of 67 of chronic endocarditis. She was canonized in 1946 by Pope Pius XII, becoming the first American citizen to be named a saint. Four years later she was given the title of Patroness of Immigrants.