Summary: Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first United States citizen to be canonised was born in Northern Italy. She wanted to be a missionary in China, her local Bishop Scalabrini wanted her to work locally but Pope Leo XIII directed her to work among Italian workers in the United States. There, despite many adversities, her deep trust in God gave her the strength to set up many schools, orphanages and hospitals. Today, her sisters, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, have centres today on six continents.
Patrick Duffy tells her story.
Born in Italy
Born in 1850, the youngest of thirteen children of an Italian farmer Agostino and her mother Stella; they lived at Sant’Angelo Lodigiano in the province of Lombardy, northern Italy. Francesca (her baptismal name) had a strict upbringing. When she was twenty, both her parents died. She qualified as a primary school teacher and wanted to join religious life, but the two orders she applied to rejected her. She was less than five feet in height!
Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart
She began charitable work with a team of young women at the House of Providence Orphanage in Cadogno, Italy, but this had to be closed down for lack of funds. In September 1877, she took religious vows and wanted to go as a missionary to China and added Xavier to her name. Seven of her companions at the orphanage joined her in the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. At the urging of Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini of Piacenza who had founded a missionary society of priests for Italian migrants and Pope Leo XIII, she went instead with six sisters to New York in 1889 to work with Italian immigrants living and working there.
Italian immigrants in New York
Here she met with many disappointments. Archbishop of New York Michael Corrigan was at first unsupportive and advised her to return home. However, she valiantly began teaching and caring for the sick and orphans. Bishop Scalabrini convinced Corrigan that her work deserved better support and at his request she undertook hospital work for the Italian sick poor in New York city. In 1890 she set up the novitiate and head house of her congregation in the USA at West Park on the River Hudson. She later travelled to Chicago and Seattle and established other hospitals there. Her sisters staffed a parish school and an orphanage for a colony of Italian immigrants working under harsh conditions in the mines in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and later in the Santa Monica Mountains in California.
Soon Mother Cabrini sought to extend her order’s missions to Latin America, at first in Nicaragua and later in Argentina, where she opened a school, Colegio Santa Rosa, at the invitation of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. She crossed the Atlantic to Italy nine times to find new recruits. Always a prolific writer, during her second voyage, she began the custom of writing letters to her sisters in the form of a travel diary. These letters are preserved today and are valuable as biographical documentation. She set up houses in France and Spain, aware that Italian Sisters alone could not be effective where other languages were spoken. In 1907 she became a citizen of the USA so she could have legal protection of all the properties her Order had there. There, despite many adversities, her deep trust in God gave her the strength to set up many schools, orphanages and hospitals. Her sisters, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, have centres today on all six continents.
Her death and legacy
When Mother Cabrini died on 22nd December 1917, 67 missions of the Institute had been established, ministries of healing, teaching, caring, giving and reaching out, in cities of the United States, Italy, France, England, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, and Nicaragua. In 1946, she became the first American citizen to be canonised. Pope Pius XII also declared her ‘patroness of immigrants.’
Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart
Her order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, is flourishing on six continents. Their work is in education, pastoral ministry, religious instruction and outreach to those in need spiritually and materially. For more, see www.mothercabrini.com