St. Frances Xavier Cabrini

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), Italian-born founder of the Roman Catholic Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, became famous as the "the saint of the immigrants" during nearly 3 decades of service in the United States.

Maria Francesca Cabrini was born on July 15, 1850, at Sant'Angelo Lodigiano. The young girl was drawn toward a life of religious service at an early age, influenced by her older sister, a schoolteacher; her uncle, a priest who captured her imagination with tales of missionary work; and the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, who prepared her for a normal school diploma in 1870. Francesca, who had already vowed herself to virginity at the age of 12, tried to enter the Daughters of the Sacred Heart in 1872 but was denied on grounds of health. She had contracted smallpox while caring for the sick during an epidemic, and though recovered she did not seem physically strong. After brief employment as a teacher in Virdardo, she was persuaded to do charitable work in an orphanage at Codogno, where in 1877 she made her vows. In the same year she was appointed prioress of her new foundation, the Institute of Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, which consisted at the outset of seven orphaned girls whom she had trained. As head of a religious order, she was entitled to be called "Mother."

Mother Cabrini had much to do in Italy, but she soon craved fulfillment of a lifelong wish to do missionary work in China. Pope Leo XIII and Bishop Scalabrini of Piacenza instead urged her to carry her talents to Italian immigrants in the slums of the United States, and dutifully but reluctantly she sailed in 1889 with six sisters. From modest beginnings in the New York City area Mother Cabrini and her followers gradually built a national and international network of some 70 institutions. In 1909 she became an American citizen. Her journeys in behalf of her mission, including 30 crossings of the Atlantic, occupied much of her time and energy, though she remained physically frail throughout her life. When World War I broke out in Europe, she dedicated her hospitals and nuns in Italy to the war effort there. On Dec. 22, 1917, after a brief illness, she died of malaria in her own Columbus Hospital in Chicago.

Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago and others launched the process of her canonization in 1928. She was pronounced venerable in 1933, beatified in 1938, and canonized in 1946. Her remains, originally at West Park, N.Y., are now enshrined in the chapel of the Blessed Mother Cabrini High School in New York City. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, though declared to have effected the two miracles necessary for canonization, is best remembered for her energetic labors among immigrants and the poor in the United States and for the establishment and staffing of orphanages, schools, hospitals, convents, and other facilities throughout the world.


Further Reading on St. Frances Xavier Cabrini

There are many biographies of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, including Frances Parkinson Keyes's popular account, Mother Cabrini: Missionary to the World (1959). More scholarly are the work by a Benedictine of Stanbrook Abbey, Frances Xavier Cabrini (1944); Theodore Maynard, Too Small a World: The Life of Francesca Cabrini (1945); and Pietro Di Donato, Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini (1960).