This year, the Catholic Church observes the centenary of the death of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. Conferences have been held in honor of the saint’s work, the Vatican released a stamp in her honor, and the religious sisters of the order founded by Mother Cabrini met at the saint’s national shrine in Chicago to hold their own celebrations.
What is it about this woman who, one hundred years after her death, still merits such attention and admiration? Who is Mother Frances Cabrini?
Pope Francis helps to answer this question. In a letter addressed to the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the occasion of their recent meeting in Chicago, the pontiff gave high praise to the beloved saint for her social and spiritual work among immigrants, the poor, and workers in dangerous situations.
At a time when our society is discussing and debating health care, social assistance and immigration, it could help us to look at this holy woman. When our country was in a similar transition in a different era, Mother Cabrini didn’t look around wondering who was going to do something. Rather, Mother rolled up her sleeves, stepped out, and began great work among those in need.
Born in 1850 in northern Italy, Frances was a premature child and had delicate health throughout her life. Her family owned a large cherry tree farm and, in spite of her frail constitution, she developed a strong work ethic, a tolerance for pain, and a keen sense of responsibility.
Frances wanted to join the convent, but had to wait due to her bad health. She took vows in 1877 at age 22, and worked in a local orphanage.
The orphanage closed in 1880 and Frances saw a broader need that was not being adequately recognized or served. And so, she felt called to start her own order. She founded the Missionary Sisters of the Heart of Jesus, and the young order’s first apostolate was to run orphanages and schools in Italy.
In 1889, however, Pope Leo XIII sent Mother Cabrini to New York City to assist the Italian immigrants there. She could not speak English, and had never been to the United States. She had a fear of water at a time when trans-Atlantic travel was solely by ship. Nevertheless, Frances allowed faith to overcome fear and service to outweigh linguistics. She rallied her sisters and headed to the New World.
When the missionary sisters arrived in New York, the immigrant community was suffering from the prejudices of the native-born Americans. Additionally, they were exploited by earlier immigrants who had settled and become accustomed to the American way of life.
Many immigrants worked in hazardous mills or sweatshops. Some were engaging in criminal activity. Among the immigrants, there was a strong sense of being unwanted and of being on their own. There were no advocates or government resources to help the new arrivals. Church and family life had to carry the weight of everything, and thus were stretched and suffered intensely.
When Mother Cabrini arrived in this world, it appeared that many in leadership did not want her help and some spoke ill of the new sisters who didn’t know English, who slept in a park, and who had to fend for themselves.
Mother didn’t care. What other people said of her and the sisters was none of their business. They just went to work. The sisters knocked on doors, begged for food, gave to others what they received, and labored to care for the sick, children and people in need.
St. Frances learned English, sought advocacy and assistance for the immigrants, and began to strengthen people to be good neighbors to one another. She showed the immigrants their responsibility to care for the needy and to give attention to those who were without help.
Endowed with great charm and keen administrative abilities, Mother Cabrini eventually established 67 institutions throughout the United States, including hospitals, orphanages and schools.
In all of these efforts, Mother Cabrini sought to live her faith and build up the common good. She desired to serve the sick and poor, the worker and the immigrant, the forgotten and the lonely. This is who Mother Cabrini was, and it was this personal narrative and fighting spirit that led her to oppose the status quo, seek goodness, and reach out to others.
In 1909, Mother Cabrini became a naturalized U.S. citizen. In this process, she contributed the best of her Catholic faith into strengthening the best strands of the American heritage, the strands that embrace the words etched on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free…”.
In 1946, Mother Frances Cabrini became the first U.S. citizen to be canonized. How appropriate that the first U.S. saint would be an immigrant. She is currently the only American depicted in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Her statue proudly stands in the vicinity of the basilica’s right transept.
As pointed out by Pope Francis, the life of Mother Cabrini can be a helpful contribution to our discussion on social questions. In each area, from health care to immigration, workers’ rights to the care of the poor, the saint sought to live – and to teach others to live – a spirit of selfless service, kindness, and warm welcome to all.