The Incredible Missionary Spirit of Mother Cabrini
On November 13, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. Mother Cabrini is truly a holy figure we can admire and model our own lives after, as her life was one of constant submission to the will of God and one of love and service to her fellow man. It is clear that Mother Cabrini saw the face of Christ in those she encountered who were suffering or less fortunate, and consequently worked her whole life to care for and evangelize children, immigrants, the poor and the sick. Mother Cabrini can also be a saint we can look up to as citizens of the United States since she – although an immigrant herself – was the first naturalized citizen of the United States to be canonized. Thinking about her life and work as her feast day approaches allows us to reflect on trusting in God and setting our own wills aside so that we may do the work that God calls us to do.
Mother Cabrini was born as Francesca Cabrini in the Lombard Province of Lodi, Italy, on July 15, 1850. Her parents were Agostino Cabrini and Stella Oldini, wealthy cherry tree farmers, who had twelve children before Francesca. Sadly, the family’s life was one of sorrow in spite of their earthly successes, since only four of the thirteen Cabrini children survived to adolescence. Francesca herself was born two months prematurely, and since at that time medical care for premature infants was much worse than it is today, her early birth ultimately led to a lifetime of health problems and physical fragility. Francesca, however, did not let her health interfere with her mind and imagination. From an early age, Francesca was captivated by stories of Catholic missionaries traveling to far lands to spread the gospel of Christ. Even in the games she played as a young girl, it was clear that she was so enthralled by their stories that she gained the desire to become a missionary herself. Her uncle, a priest by the name of Don Luigi Oldani, recalled Francesca setting violets in paper boats adrift on a canal near his home and calling the flowers missionaries on their ways to India and China. It seemed that Francesca, even though only a child, knew in some way the work that God was calling her to do.
At the age of thirteen, Francesca began to attend a school run by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart. She did well academically, despite her health problems, eventually graduating five years later cum laude with a certificate in teaching. Her desire to join the religious life had persisted until this time, and her experience with the Daughters of the Sacred Heart was ultimately so positive that she wished to join that particular order herself. She applied to join the order after the death of her parents in 1870, but although Francesca should have been in good health at the young age of twenty, her poor health remained a problem and the Daughters of the Sacred Heart were regretful in denying her admission to their convent. Although Francesca must have been disappointed, she did not let this obstacle impede her response to God’s call for her to enter the religious life in some way. She became the headmistress of the House of Providence Orphanage in Codogno, Italy. She began to live a religious way of life here, and along with several other women who wished to join her, Francesca professed her religious vows in 1877. She added the name Xavier to hers to honor St. Francis Xavier as the patron of missionary service.
Several years later, in the year 1880, Francesca and six other women who had joined her in professing vows went on to found the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The bishop named her the prioress of the Missionary Sisters, and so it was that Francesca became Mother Cabrini at the age of thirty. She and her sisters strongly desired to work as missionaries in countries such as China, but when she and her sisters gained an audience with Pope Leo XIII to obtain permission to go, she was told that she ought to go “not to the East, but to the West” to New York to aid the thousands of Italian immigrants there.
Although this new plan was not what Mother Cabrini and the six women accompanying her had expected, they sacrificed their desires in favor of the orders of the Pope and the will of God and journeyed to New York, arriving in New York City in 1889. They were met with obstacles and difficulties seemingly at every turn, but despite their struggles, the Missionary Sisters were successful in opening schools and orphanages, providing catechism classes and education to Italian immigrant children and orphans. Mother Cabrini also founded hospitals in New York City and Chicago. After many years, the work of the Missionary Sisters had spread across the entirety of the United States, reaching as far as Los Angeles, California. Mother Cabrini continued to be tireless in her efforts to serve, and although she had always been afraid of water, she set herself aside and made more than twenty trips across oceans to spread her work to Europe and to Central and South America. In the United States, however, was where the majority of the work of the Missionary Sisters occurred. Reflecting this, Mother Cabrini was naturalized as a citizen of the United States of America in 1909.
Mother Cabrini continued her work until her health truly began to fail her. She died at the age of 67 on December 22, 1917, from complications from dysentery. Her lifetime of service was reflected in her death since she died in one of the hospitals she herself had opened. At the time of her death, she was still thinking of others as she prepared Christmas candy and gifts for local children.
She was beatified on November 13, 1938, after news of a miracle where a one-day-old baby who had been chemically blinded was restored to sight through her intercession. (This child, Peter Smith, was present at her canonization and became a priest.) The miracle that led to her canonization involved a member of her congregation was healed of a terminal illness and the healing was again attributed to Mother Cabrini’s intercession. She was canonized on July 17, 1946, and Pope Pius XII at that time commended her for her lifetime of holiness and her dedicated service to mankind and the Church.
Mother Cabrini was later named the Patroness of Immigrants in 1950. She is also honored as the patroness of hospital administrators and impossible causes, and her childhood interest in missionary work to faraway lands is reflected in the fact that she is known as a patron of India as well. Even just a few short years after her canonization, devotion to Mother Cabrini grew rapidly, and the immense number of pilgrim visitors to her room at Columbus Hospital prompted the then-Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Samuel Stritch, to consecrate a national shrine built within the hospital complex in her honor. Although the hospital itself was eventually closed and demolished, Mother Cabrini’s room and the National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini were preserved, reopening to the public on October 1, 2012. There are also shrines in Mother Cabrini’s honor in Manhattan, New York and in Golden, Colorado. These shrines have become centers for pilgrimage for thousands of people.
Mother Cabrini’s work also continues with the Missionary Sisters who are alive and serving today. Their work spans six continents and fifteen countries.
This causes us to pause and consider the fact that Mother Cabrini’s desire to work as a missionary across the world has ultimately been fulfilled, although it happened not to be in her lifetime. We can reflect on this as we think about the fact that God’s will is ultimately much, much greater than our own and things are accomplished in His time and according to His plans. Although surely Mother Cabrini was at times discouraged and disappointed by the fact that her life’s work became very different than she had originally envisioned, we can follow her lead and cheerfully take on the burdens and work that we are given in our own lives, although they may not be what we originally planned. Mother Cabrini’s relentless trust in God and submission to a plan besides her own is wonderfully inspirational, and it is by remembering that in our daily lives that we too can grow to love and serve the Lord by loving and serving those we meet.
Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, pray for us!