Sanctity in America: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini

Today, November 13, is the Memorial of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.

Maria Francesca Cabrini was born on July 15, 1850 in the Lombard Province of Lodi, Austrian Empire. Her parents, Agostino Cabrini and Stella (Oldini) Cabrini, had thirteen children. Sadly, only four survived past adolescence. Frances was their youngest. She was born two months premature and remained in delicate health her entire life.

Always a missionary at heart, the lovely story is told of how Frances, as a young girl visiting her uncle, Fr. Luigi Oldini, would walk to the canal near his home after having made paper boats. She placed flowers (her missionaries!) in the small paper boats and place them in the running waters of the canal, watching them sail off to the missions of the Far East.

At thirteen, Frances began attending a school run by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart. She graduated cum laude five years later with a teaching degree. Her parents died two years later, in 1870, and Frances applied for admittance into the Daughters of the Sacred Heart. The Sisters, however, told her that her health was too fragile to endure their lifestyle. So, Frances took a position as a headmistress at the House of Providence orphanage in Codogno, Lombardy. She drew a small group of women around her and, in 1877, they took religious vows. At this point, Frances added “Xavier” to her name in honor of the Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier.

In 1880, Frances and seven of the women who had taken religious vows with her founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Frances wrote the Rule and Constitution of the community and assumed leadership as superior, a position she would hold until her death, and which gave her the title “Mother Cabrini.” The Missionary Sisters opened seven homes for orphans, a day school (which helped pay expenses), a free school (for children from poorer families), and a nursery, all in only their first five years. They were supported by donations, of course, and by the embroidery they sold.

In 1877, Frances went to Pope Leo XIII to seek approval for establishing missions in China. Pope Leo recommended, instead, that Frances and her sisters go to America, to assist the many Italian immigrants that were moving to America, and who mostly lived in desperate poverty.

Frances and six of her Sisters arrived in New York on March 31, 1899. She encountered immediate difficulties, as the house in which they were to live was no longer available. Archbishop of New York, Michael Corrigan, was not initially very supportive, and told them to return to Italy. When Frances refused, the archbishop found them housing at the convent of the Sisters of Charity and gave permission to found an orphanage. The orphanage still stands to this day and is called Saint Cabrini Home.

Frances and her Sisters began catechism classes and regular schooling for Italian immigrants and served the many orphans of New York City. From her small beginnings, Frances’ remarkable ethic of work and prayer would bear fruit in the establishment of 67 institutions, including hospitals, schools, homes for orphans and the poor, and not only in New York, but in Chicago, Des Plaines, IL, Seattle, New Orleans, Denver, Golden, CO, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and in countries all across South America and Europe.

I do not know if the story is apocryphal, but it is said that, whenever a company who had done work on one of Mother Cabrini’s many institutions sent her a bill for their services, she would send the bill back, unpaid, with the hand-written note, “Thank you for your generous contribution to God’s work!” She was never called on it!

Frances died on December 22, 1917 at Columbus Hospital in Chicago, of complications from dysentery. She was 67 years old, the number of her years corresponding to the number of institutions she had founded around the world.

Devotion to Mother Cabrini was far and deep, and it did not take long for her cause for canonization to begin, in 1931, only fourteen years after her death. On November 13, 1938, she was beatified by Pope Pius XI. The miracle for her beatification was the healing of a one-day old baby from blindness. The baby had mistakenly been administered a concentration of 50% silver nitrate solution to his eyes instead of the prescribed 1%, causing his blindness. The child was present eight years later at Frances’ canonization on July 7, 1946. Peter would grow up to become a priest. The miracle for her canonization was the healing of a terminally ill Sister of her congregation. Since she had become a naturalized American citizen in 1909, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was the first American citizen to be canonized a saint of the Church.

The National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini stands in Chicago, but there are also shrines in Manhattan and in Golden, CO.

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini is the patron saint of missionaries. Her Memorial on the universal calendar is December 22, the anniversary of her death. In the United States, her memorial is celebrated on November 13, the anniversary of her beatification.

Prayer for Discernment

My Jesus,
I have not always recognized
your loving plans for me.

Every day,
with the help of your light,
I learn more of your loving care.

Continue to increase
my awareness of the gentleness of
your loving plans.

I want to follow the purpose
for which I was created.

See, I am in your hands.

I need you to help me choose
the best way to serve you.

Walk with me, Jesus.
Stay by my side and guide me!

                                          — Prayer of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini


Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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