Maria Francesca Cabrini stands next to Mother Teresa as the foremost evangelizing woman of the twentieth century. Yet few know much more about her than that she was the first American citizen canonized.
Maria Francesca was the youngest of thirteen children born to wealthy cherry tree farmers, Agostino Cabrini and Stella Oldini. She was born July 15, 1850 in Sant’ Angelo Lodigino, in Lombardy, Italy, the north. Small and two months premature, it is amazing that Maria Francesca survived. Only four of the children made it past adolesence.
Maria had an active love of helping others. Throughout her childhood, she hoped to be able to be a missionary to India or China. The story has it that she would go to visit her uncle. While there, she would make little boats out of paper and fill them with little flowers, then put them into a stream. She said that they were her emissaries, and hoped they would float to India.
When she was thirteen she went off to school with the Daughters of the Sacred Heart. Five years later, she graduated cum laude with a certificate to teach. Having always wanted to be a nun, Maria applied to be accepted into the order, but the sisters told her she was not strong enough for a lifestyle like theirs, and refused her acceptance. Disappointed, she cared for her parents until their deaths a few years later. and she helped on the farm.
Shortly after the deaths, Fr. Serrati, a life-long friend, asked her to teach at the House of Providence, an orphanage. It was a poorly run place. The woman who donated the money to establish it was also running it. Maria was asked to manage it and the woman. Maria learned much about tact and diplomacy from her years there, since the foundress still remained in charge. Avoiding jealousies, Maria Francesca, developed deep relationships with the girls in her charge. But after six years, the foundress grew more erratic and the House of Providence closed. At that point, Maria, who had taken her vows, and seven young ladies who she had trained to be nuns, were homeless.
It was now 1877 and the local bishop asked he to organize an order of sisters to be missionaries on the local level to care for poor children in schools and hospitals. They found an old, useable Franciscan monastery as their home and proceeded to fix it up, while Maria set up simple rules and designed a simple habit. They named their order the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Marie took the name Xavier, from St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary to India and Japan. She still wished to go there.
They worked hard and established a day school to make expenses and an orphanage to take in the children. They started classes in needlework for adults and sold embroidery. With the growing appreciation for these women, young ladies asked to join. But there was little room. So, the sisters began to build on to the house, themselves. Townspeople could not just look on, so they helped. Soon, the sisters had requests from neighboring towns to build a school or an orphanage. They had the workers to do it. In seven years they had seven institutions, even one in Milan.
She met with Pope Leo XIII in 1889 to persuade him to let her be a missionary to the Far East. His response was, “Go West, not East!” The pope, known as the “workingman’s pope” for his encyclicals on social justice, saw the poor economy in Italy and, very rightly, saw the beginnings of the massive immigration to America which would take place in the next few decades. He convinced Mother Cabrini to take her sisters there. And so it became that Mother Cabrini and six other sisters boarded a ship and went to New York City in 1889.
At first, it was very difficult for the seven women. The first house they had arranged to stay at was not available by the time they got there. The archbishop suggested they go back to Italy. But, filled with a deep trust in God and very good administrative skills, the good mother and her sisters persevered.
First it was New York City, where she established schools and Columbus Hospital and Italian Hospital. She established an orphanage in West Park, N.Y. Realizing that the adult Italians were walking away from the faith, she developed catechesis classes for adults as well as for the children. Next the sisters went to Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, Des Plaines, Ill., Seattle, Golden, Colorado and Los Angeles. Then on to South America! By the time of her death, there were 67 different institutions that she and the sisters had established. And she had established a mode of training new sisters to enter her order.
Within a few years, requests came in from all around Europe and the Americas to help with establishing similar institutions. Mother Cabrini, herself, crossed the Atlantic 23 or more times trying to bring God to the poor and disenfranchised. She did not limit herself to the Americas, either. She founded places for the poor and sick in France and gave impetus to others to bring the same to England.
Mother Cabrini became one with her students and their parents. She took her oath of citizenship in 1909, thus becoming an American. Her hard work paid off. Not only was she prayerful, but she could negotiate. She was amazing at finding people to donate time, energy, money or prayers when the sisters needed the help.
Mother Cabrini died on December 22, 1917 at Columbus Hospital in Chicago, which she founded. In less than 30 years, she was canonized. In tribute to her spirit and fortitude, a Mass was celebrated at Soldier Field, Chicago to commemorate her sainthood. 120,000 attended.
In admiration for not only this little woman’s work, inspiration and sanctity, there is a National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in Lincoln Park, Chicago, The Saint Frances Xavior Cabrini shrine in Washington Heights, Manhatten and another shrine in Golden Colorado, where she had established an orphanage in 1904.
Her legacy includes the Cabrini Mission Fund, a non-profit organization, which raises money to continue Mother Cabrini’s work in her institutions and programs supporting health care, social services and education. Mother Cabrini was also honored in 1996 by the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
So, what is evangelization? I think that Mother Frances Cabrini pretty much summed it up: “I will go anywhere and do anything in order to communicate the love of Jesus to those who do not know Him or have forgotten Him.”
Copyright 2016, Debbie McCoy