First American Saint
“Although her constitution was very frail, her spirit was endowed with such singular strength that, knowing the will of God in her regard, she permitted nothing to impede her from accomplishing what seemed beyond the strength of a woman.”
The first American citizen to be canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church was born on July 15, 1850 in Saint Angelo Lodigiano, in the Lombardy region of a then disunited Italy. One of 13 children, Francesca Cabrini was born to her mother, who was then 52 years old, two months premature, and it was touch and go for a while as to whether the new baby would live. Her health would be precarious all of her life, which, considering what she accomplished, should be a standing rebuke to those of us blessed with good health.
She studied for five years at a school run by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart. Her hearts desire was to be a missionary. When she applied to enter a convent at age 18, however, she was turned down due to her health. Nothing daunted, she returned to her home to help her parents on their farm. A terrible small pox epidemic took the lives of her parents and almost took hers, but she was nursed back to health by her sister Rosa. Almost miraculously she suffered no disfigurement from the small pox.
Taking a job as a substitute teacher at a nearby village, she taught with such skill and with such obvious love and concern for her pupils, that the rector of her parish, Father Antonio Serrati, who was to become a lifelong friend and advisor of hers, placed her in charge of an orphanage for girls in the parish, the House of Providence. She was twenty-four at the time and she was presented with no easy task. The orphanage was known as the House of Providence. It had been set up by two well-meaning, but incompetent, laywomen, and it was badly organized and visibly failing. In six years Francesca turned it around, winning the affection of the young girls in the orphanage through the care she showed to them. While at the orphanage she took vows as a nun, and seven of her girls followed her example and became nuns and helped her run the orphanage. Here for the first time we see the managerial skill with which Mother Cabrini, as she became universally known, was so gifted.
The House of Providence was ultimately dissolved due to the increasingly erratic behavior of the foundress, and Mother Cabrini and her seven nuns were contacted by the Bishop of Lodi. He wished her to found a new order of missionary nuns. Her heart’s desire offered to her, Mother Cabrini gratefully accepted. Her new order was situated at an abandoned Franciscan friary located in Cadogna, Italy, the same town where the House of Providence had been located. Mother Cabrini and her nuns opened an orphanage and a school. Her new order, Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart had two patrons chosen by her: Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Francis Xavier, the great saint to Asia. When she became a nun, Mother Cabrini had chosen as her name Francesca Xavier Cabrini, and her choice of the Apostle of the Indies as one of her Order’s patrons indicated that her eye was still on the East.
Always practical minded, Mother Cabrini designed a simple habit for her nuns, with their rosaries carried in their pockets, as her nuns were going to be kept busy during the day. One example of this was when she expanded the building of her Order as she attracted many new postulants. Lacking the funds to have the work she used her nuns to do the construction project! This shocked some of the local townspeople but the work got done. Within seven years her new Order had seven schools and orphanages scattered throughout northern Italy, and Mother Cabrini and her Order began to come to the attention of the Vatican.
In September 1887 she traveled to Rome. She received Vatican approval for her order, which hitherto had existed only at the level of her diocese, and met with, and was blessed, by Pope Leo XIII, who approved her plans to open a school in Rome. Not bad for a sickly peasant girl of 37. After the school in Rome was up and running she sought permission from the Pope to go to Asia to begin her life’s goal of being a missionary. Mindful of the millions of Italians emigrating to America and who desperately needed missionaries from Italy, Pope Leo told her “Not to the East but to the West”.
Ever obedient, and mindful that the need of the Italian immigrants to America was indeed great, Mother Cabrini struck up a correspondence with Archbishop Corrigan of New York. The Archbishop said that she and nuns from her Order would be welcomed and that he would provide a building for them. So with that Mother Cabrini and seven of her sisters embarked for the New World.
On March 31, 1889 they arrived in New York City and were initially dismayed that the Archbishop had failed to find them a building. However, Mother Cabrini was always up to a challenge. She and her seven young nuns went to work with a will. A wealthy Italian woman donated a building for their first orphanage. The need was great and the orphanage was quickly filled with orphans. The nuns quickly became a familiar sight on Mulberry Street in Little Italy in New York City as they collected funds for the orphans. (Mother Cabrini was never shy about asking the fortunate to help those who needed help.)
With the orphanage up and running, Mother Cabrini returned to Italy in July to raise funds for the operation of the Order in the Americas. She reported to Pope Leo and raised funds from wealthy Italian women. The next year she arrived back in New York City with reinforcing nuns from her Order and funds to purchase West Park on the banks of the Hudson outside of New York City, which in years to come her Order would use as free summer vacation site for the children of New York’s slums. As if this was not sufficient work for her, she went to Nicaragua in 1882 to establish a girl’s school in Granada. On her way back to New York City in New Orleans and began preparatory work for a mission there. After arriving in New York City she chose some of her nuns to travel back to New Orleans. Lacking money for train fare, they literally begged for tickets. Arriving back in the Crescent City, Mother Cabrini quickly established a school that became a focal point for Italian Americans throughout New Orleans.
In 1892 the Order established its first hospital. Taking advantage of all the hoopla on the 400th anniversary of Columbus sailing to America, Mother Cabrini called it Columbus Hospital, dedicated to treating the poor of New York City.
It would take much longer than a blog post to outline all of Mother Cabrini’s ceaseless efforts. She constantly was in movement as she established missions, schools and orphanages throughout the United States and South America, and shuttled frequently to Italy to raise funds, supervise the activities of the Order in Europe as it expanded throughout that continent, and choose nuns to go back with her to the Americas. Overcoming a childhood fear of water, she would make the Atlantic crossing more than 30 times.
In Seattle in 1909 Mother Cabrini swore allegiance to the United States and became an American citizen. Her ceaseless round of global activities and good works did not end until she departed this vale of tears which occurred in Chicago of a heart attack on December 22, 1917. Appropriately enough this took place while she and some of her nuns were planning a children’s Christmas party. She was canonized by Pope Pius XII on July 7, 1946. She is the patron saint of immigrants. Her feast day is November 13. Mother Cabrini had been born prematurely and she died prematurely, for 67 years, considering all the good she did in this world, was simply not enough.