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St. Frances Xavier Cabrini - Giving Without Reserve

Nov 12, 2021 by

The first time I remember learning about Mother Cabrini, I was in second grade. In my Faith Formation class, we each chose a saint and wrote a report for All Saints Day. There was no internet in the early 1970’s, so we did things the old way. We had a set of encyclopedias that had first belonged to my aunt, uncle, and cousins, so a lot of the pictures were already cut out!

I borrowed my mother’s white missal for my assignment. Hard to believe I still remember the moment. How the colored ribbons dangled out of the well-used book my mother loved. It was beautiful and mysterious, the fine paper crisp at my fingertips.

When my mother showed me how to flip through it to find my patroness, Mother Cabrini, the relationship of a lifetime began. I have many beloved friends among the saints. They each become dear to me as they accompany me through the stages, joys, and sorrows of my life. But none has been there as steadily, as constantly, and as quietly as Mother Cabrini.

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They say we don’t choose our patron saints; they choose us. I like to think of Mother choosing this little Italian second-grader whose great-grandparents all immigrated to America. My middle name is Frances, after my beloved grandmother, and St. Frances, so the three of us share a name, and a history.

Mother Cabrini Serving the Immigrants in America - Photo Credit

Patroness of Immigrants

Patron Saint of Immigrants, Mother Cabrini helped many Italians like my own ancestors, who came to the new world in search of a new life. A century after her death, her legacy of love and giving without reserve lives on. I like to think she’s always watching over me. I talk to her almost every day, and on some, I keep her quite busy.

You would be hard pressed to find many Italians whose ancestors came to America in the 19th and 20th Centuries who don’t love and revere Mother Cabrini. She came to the United States as an immigrant herself, at the urging of Pope Leo XIII, who was known as “The Working Man’s Pope.”

Mother Cabrini was a teacher who formed her own Order with seven young women and the dream of being a missionary to China, not America.

During an audience with the Holy Father to discuss her new Order, he told her to go “not to the east, but to the west,” to serve the millions of Italian immigrants trying to make better lives in America. They needed basic education, healthcare, and a way to practice their Faith.

Mother made approximately thirty transatlantic trips, which was remarkable for that day and time, especially given that she was terrified of water after almost drowning in a canal when she was seven. Even more amazing is that she was scheduled to depart aboard the R.M.S Titanic for one of her return trips to New York, but Divine Intervention spared her life. She decided to return to New York a few days earlier, departing from Naples instead of London.

A true missionary, she would not be deterred and did not fear the unknown, for she constantly saw herself residing in the Sacred Heart.

“I will go anywhere and do anything in order to communicate the love of Jesus,” she said.

Italian Immigrants Arriving in America - Photo Credit

A Missionary Life

This amazing and determined woman was the youngest of thirteen children. She dreamed of joining the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, but they denied her application because of frail health. No matter. Francesca would not yield.

She founded her own order, the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She had a love for the poor and marginalized, the orphaned, and those in need. Her deepest desire was that they know the Heart of Jesus as she did. For about ten years, her Order served communities throughout Italy, building schools, orphanages, and a hospital.

In obedience to the Holy Father, she and her Sisters traveled to America in 1889. Their journals describe the terrors of a perilous journey, constant sea-sickness and illness, and conditions no better than a stable, for the 1500 immigrants traveling together to New York. On this ship they began their missionary work.

Arriving in 1890 and speaking no English, Mother Cabrini found the city unwelcoming, dirty, and chaotic. The Archbishop was not ready to receive the Sisters, but Mother refused to return to Italy. She had a job to do, and with missionary zeal, she began.

From Italy to America

The sisters stayed in the Italian ghetto, remaining hopeful. They spoke no English but begged door to door in the neighborhoods of the Lower West Side, collecting supplies and food. They worked doggedly among the poor and suffering, going where they were needed, and doing whatever was required in the moment.

It was not long before donors began to come forward, and the Countess of Cesnola gifted the Sisters valuable property on 59th Street in New York City. This became an orphanage and their living quarters. Within two years they opened a hospital on East 19th Street, and secured land for another orphanage in upstate Westpark, New York.

Mother was incredibly prayerful and resourceful. She constantly found the right people, resources, labor, and support she required. She was known as a shrewd business woman, in a time when there were not many women in business. As a woman and Italian immigrant, Mother was subjected to discrimination and difficulties, but persevered. She trusted the Sacred Heart completely.

Shrewd in Business and Sacrificial in Charity

Once when purchasing land for a hospital in Chicago, she suspected she was being cheated. She doubted the accuracy of the measurements for the plot. In the middle of the night, she and her Sisters tied their shoe strings together to make a tape measure. In the cover of darkness, they secretly visited the property, measuring it themselves with their shoestring-tape measure. Mother was right. The contract was adjusted and her land properly documented and valued.

Success in New York eventually brought the Sisters to Chicago, where fellow immigrants were in need of education, health care, and a way to practice their Faith. Mother saw to all of the immigrants' needs in each of her missionary cities, often starting without a stipend or funding.

Her efforts became well-known among the Italians. Most of the immigrants worked on railroads, in mines, in factories, at farm labor, and in other manual jobs. Where they settled, Mother followed to serve their physical and spiritual needs.

Mother and Her Spiritual Daughters in New York - Photo Credit

America's First Saint

In 1909, Mother Cabrini became an American. She received her citizenship, and would later be declared America’s first saint.

The Sisters eventually changed the lives of those in New York, Chicago, Seattle, California, Denver, and New Orleans. They entered places where immigrants were regarded with prejudice, fear, and disdain, and brought the love of God through the Sacred Heart for consolation.

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At the time of her death, North America, South America, Central America, England, France, Spain, and Italy were all part of St. Frances’ Xavier Cabrini’s legacy.

In all of these places, her foundation built hospitals, schools, orphanages, chapels, and in many, convents. She founded sixty-seven institutions in the US from New York to California - one for each year of her life on earth.

Mother's Land in Colorado, Now the site of the Cabrini Shrine - Photo

Mother Cabrini's Land and miraculous spring in Colorado, now the site of a shrine.

Wellspring of Love

Mother loved the mountains of Colorado. An area west of Denver held a special attraction for her. She purchased 500 acres from the town of Golden, starting a working farm for the Sisters, who planted and raised animals there. It was also used for The Queen of Heaven Orphanage for young girls.

There was no known source of water on this large plot, and it had to be carried by the nuns from a small creek situated at the base of the mountain. Eventually the nuns complained that there was no water to be had.

“Lift that rock over there and start to dig. You will find water fresh enough to drink and clean enough to wash.”

As her daughters followed her instructions, a spring miraculously appeared beneath the rock. A century later, it still flows. A grotto was built on the site in 1929 and a shrine exists there today. I have a small bottle of the holy water from Mother’s spring, and I treasure it. It reminds me of the many blessings she called forth by trusting in God. Like her miraculous spring, she gave without reserve.

Columbus Hospital in Chicago founded by Mother and the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart -Photo Credit

Columbus Hospital in Chigago, founded by Mother and the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart

Woman of Miracles

Mother worked tirelessly for the Lord despite suffering from frail health for her entire life. She died on December 22, 1917, at her own hospital in Chicago. She succumbed to complications from malaria while preparing Christmas candy for the children. So many immigrants had known and loved her that they were constantly seeking her intercession.

On March 14, 1921, Peter Smith was born in Mother’s New York hospital. His mother's first thought upon seeing her newborn son was that his eyes were the most beautiful shade of blue. In a tragic mistake that became a miracle, his nurse administered drops of silver nitrate not intended for the eyes, dissolving the newborn's corneas and severely burning his face.

Mother Charles, the Superior at the convent, applied a relic of Mother Cabrini to Peter’s clothing. The nuns prayed through the night. As they prayed, Baby Peter spiked a fever of 109, and two eye doctors were called in for the emergency. These experts agreed he was irreversibly blind, and wondered what would become of the newborn.

Twelve hours later, the same eye specialists examined Peter. His corneas were perfectly normal, and his eyes a striking shade of blue. So many had seen the destruction of his eyes and face that a miracle was the only explanation. Peter later became Fr. Peter Smith, and said that when he opened his eyes to each new day, he gave thanks to Mother Cabrini.

Mother's second miracle for canonization was to cure Mother Delfina Grazioli, who served as the Superior of her hospital in Seattle. In this location, the resourceful Frances had purchased The Perry Hotel, converting it into a home for orphans, sanitorium, and hospital. Mother Delfina suffered from advanced stomach cancer and was dying in 1925.

Frances Xavier Cabrini appeared to her in a dream, telling her there was much to do.

“I want you to get up and go to work,” Mother Cabrini told Mother Delfina.
“How can I, Mother?“ the sick nun replied in her dream.

She then awoke, healthy, hungry, and ready to work for Mother and the immigrants of Seattle. The cancer was gone. It was a testimony to Mother’s conviction that persistence in prayer, hard work, and continual self-giving could accomplish anything by God's grace.

The Mother Cabrini Memorial in New York - Photo Credit

Lessons from Mother Cabrini

Pray, then work: My Patroness was a woman of action, but prayer fueled her incredible accomplishments. She reminds me that even the impossible can be activated - must be activated - through prayer.

Persevere and trust: Her work for the Lord was always against a backdrop of circumstances that seemed so daunting. She inspires me to accept every difficulty allowed by God, and embrace it to the best of my ability, never doubting that God can act in it.

Accept God's will in humility: Mother Cabrini is a model of humility and obedience. She was one small woman in a foreign land, whose littleness allowed God to fill her, in order to change the world.

“What does it matter if it be Golgotha, Tabor, or Gethsemane? It is enough to know that we are with Him,” Mother once said.

Give without reserve: Until the day she died, Mother was still serving. Nothing stopped this woman whose refuge and first love was the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She modeled that sacrificial love for all who needed His care.

May she lead us to these same virtues from her heavenly home.

Mother Cabrini, pray for us!