If it is possible to fall in love with a saint by merely reading her life story, this wonderful, unassuming, humble, yet oddly forceful, Italian missionary sister would have the whole world at her feet with a single reading of one of her many biographies. Born the last child of thirteen into a peasant farming family of Lombardy, sickly from birth and shy by nature, she was to prove one of the most indomitable forces in the Catholic missionary fields of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; a figure whose spirit was as big as the world itself and who befriended president and pope alike in her zeal to bring the love of Jesus Christ and His Sacred Heart to the entire human race.
St. Frances Cabrini, or, as she is still lovingly called by those whose lives she touched, “Mother,” entered the world on July 15, 1850, in the town of Sant’Angelo in the Lodi region of Lombardy in northern Italy. Her given name was Francesca. Her parents gave her, and all their children, a love of their Catholic Faith and a knowledge of the great missionaries of the Church. After their daily devotions, the nightly readings were always stories of St. Francis Xavier, St. Francis de Sales, and other holy priests and brothers who traveled far and wide spreading the Faith and saving the souls of countless creatures who otherwise would be lost to Heaven. These tales of the missionary saints which she heard nightly fired her imagination; her burning desire from early childhood was to bring the Faith to exotic lands, especially to China.
She came two months early to a fifty-two-year-old mother, and, as her father awaited her birth and prayed that the child would be healthy, a flock of white doves, never seen before in their part of Italy, descended upon him and the older brothers and sisters, heralding the birth of this exceptional soul. “Cecchina,” as she was affectionately called by her family, was a delicate child who could not participate in the rough play of her siblings and friends.
When she was a little girl, she often visited her uncle, Don Luigi Oldini, the village priest of a small town near Sant’Angelo. Near Don Luigi’s church was a swift-flowing river, the Venera. Little Cecchina formed paper boats and filled them with violets that she picked from the river bank, pretending that the flowers were the missionary sisters that she would someday send across the ocean to China. One day, she became so immersed in this “game” that she leaned too far over the bank and fell into the Venera. Fortunately, she was pulled out of the water before the river entered a tunnel. Seeing her little body lying wet and shivering along the bank, a young boy rushed to fetch Uncle Luigi. No one saw who rescued her, not even Cecchina! She and Uncle Luigi concluded that it must have been her guardian angel. Indeed, God had special plans for this little girl!
Francesca’s appointed guardian during her childhood was her older sister, Rosa, whose dream of becoming a religious never came to pass because of her duties at home. One of the sisters, Maddalena, was crippled with polio and needed constant attention, and Francesca herself needed to be educated. Rosa, being a teacher, took Francesca under her tutelage from a young age.
One Sunday, a Franciscan missionary priest from the Orient visited their church. Francesca, now thirteen, was more enthusiastic than ever about being a foreign missionary as a result of his visit. When she shared her thoughts with Rosa, her older sister scoffed at the idea. There were no women missionaries, she said, and besides, Francesca was too frail and weak for such a task. As well as she knew her little sister, Rosa did not know that her ridicule only made Francesca’s resolve all the stronger. All her life, when she was told by a person in authority that something could not be done, she determined more strongly than ever that it would be done.
Francesca was an intelligent and curious girl. When she was thirteen, her parents sent her to the nearby school conducted by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart. There she remained for five years, living with the sisters and receiving a thorough Catholic and academic education, enabling her to follow in her older sister’s footsteps as a teacher. Here, too, she began her lifelong devotion to the Sacred Heart and became convinced that God meant for her to become a religious. Rosa remained at home, helping to care for their crippled sister, keeping the farm going, and teaching in the village school.
When it was time for young Francesca to graduate from the sisters’ school, she applied for admission to their religious order. Had she given up the desire to become a missionary? Probably not, but since at that time there were no missionary orders of women, and given her less than robust health, she may have thought that belonging to the local religious sisters was her next-best prospect. In any event, the Mother Superior of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart refused her, blaming her delicate constitution. Although Francesca was disappointed by the refusal, she seemingly took it in stride and returned to Sant’Angelo to settle into the routine of family life once more.
We Americans tend to have fixed in our minds a false notion about the modern European nations. We think that since civilization in that region is far more ancient than in the New World, these countries must be much older. In truth, however, a number of those nations are actually younger than our own. Italy was not truly united under one government in the form we are familiar with today until after the end of World War I, and later in the 1920s with the rise of Mussolini. During much of its history, the southern half of the peninsula and Sicily were fighting off Saracen invaders, while the northern portions were in turn under Spanish, French, German, and Austrian influence, depending on royal marriage alliances and whose armies were stronger. For many years during the second millennium, the history of Italy is the record of the rise and fall of successive petty kings. Until the last part of the 19 th century, the Papal States took up much of the geography of the peninsula.
After the “success” of the French Revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy in that country, the revolutionary spirit spread throughout Europe. The year 1848 — two years before the birth of our Saint — was marked by radical Masonic uprisings all over Europe, partly as an attempt to end the influence of the Church, partly because of extreme nationalism. During the entire span of Mother Cabrini’s life, she was faced with the anticlericalism of Italian government officials, from the highest rank to the lowest. Much of this anticlerical feeling spilled down to the populace, making them suspicious of priests and sisters. It is to her everlasting credit that she always found a way to wrap these officials “around her little finger” and get what she wanted from them, sometimes even bringing them back to their Catholic roots in the process. She had to fight anticlericalism among her own people and anti-Catholicism in her adopted country. But let us not get ahead of our story.
Back Home Again
When Francesca returned to Sant’
Angelo after graduating from the sisters’ school, she fell into the old routine of the farm. By that time, only four siblings remained, the rest being called to Our Lord in their youth. She helped her parish priest teach catechism to the children of the village and made herself useful at home. This peaceful existence was not to last long, however. Shortly after her return, her father, Agostino, suffered a stroke and lingered helpless for a year. That same year, Stella, his beloved wife, joined him in death, leaving only Rosa, Francesca, Giovanni Baptista, and Maddalena, who died soon after.
In 1871, a plague of smallpox visited Lombardy. Rosa and Francesca nursed those affected in their village until the younger and frailer of the two was stricken with the awful disease. Rosa assumed full-time care of her Cecchina, lovingly bathing her face with olive oil and milk so that no scars remained. Rosa, so stern and unbending with Francesca when she was growing up, now seemed to mellow and accept her fate. Thanks to her older sister, Francesca recovered unblemished from the smallpox.
No sooner had our Saint regained her health than she was invited by the parish priest of the nearby town of Vidardo to act as substitute teacher in the public school there. A position that was supposed to last a few days stretched to two years. Francesca proved to be a natural teacher, gentle, but firm in that delicate way of hers. In addition, her superior organizational abilities came to the fore. These talents did not go unnoticed by those in authority. She caught the eye of Fr. Serrati, a local priest who was ascending the ladder of ecclesiastical authority. When Francesca re-applied to the Sacred Heart Daughters and to another community, the Canossian Sisters, Fr. Serrati secretly intervened with the superiors of both orders so that she would be turned away. He had other plans for her, as, apparently, did God, for in retrospect one can say that this was all a part of God’s plan for the little lady from Lombardy.
Father Serrati, now a Monsignor, approached our subject for the grandest of favors and the most difficult of positions. He asked her to bring sanity to a madhouse. There was an orphanage, the House of Providence, in the town of Codogno, run by two women. These women, Antonia Tondini and Teresa Calza, were not quite nuns, but not quite laywomen either. When they agreed to take over the orphanage, the bishop convinced them to take the habit and live as religious, but neither had a vocation to the religious life, nor did they seem to care about their charges. The seven young girls living at the House of Providence were thoroughly neglected; Tondini’s n’er-do-well nephew lived on their charity; the place was in a total shambles.
Francesca was to take over the house, yet would not be its superior. She was to bring order to the place and teach the girls, but the two women would still be in charge. It is a tribute to another of her great virtues, that of holy obedience, that she consented to this impossible task — impossible, that is, for a normal woman. The “two weeks” she was to have been at the House of Providence stretched into six years. During this time, she taught the girls needlework; they had their spiritual life apart from the other two women; and they took in more orphans. Although they lived in the same house, they truly lived the life of a religious community separate and apart from the two older women. In the meantime, these two women, particularly Tondini, constantly ranted and raved at Francesca and accused her of undermining her authority. All in all, it was a living hell for Francesca and the young girls in her charge.
Halfway through her tenure at the House of Providence, the local bishop convinced her to take the veil and consider herself and the several now-matured orphans — those among them who wanted to be sisters — as professed religious. Still, they were persecuted by the older women, sometimes to the point of the young novices having to protect Francesca physically from their blows. It was a situation that could not continue, and, in due course, the bishop gave the house to Tondini and ordered Francesca to form a missionary order of her own. She was so taken aback, yet so pleased, that her simple answer was “I’ll look for a house right away” — an answer that she was to repeat many times in her life. Sadly, Antonia Tondini sued the bishop in civil court and was immediately excommunicated as a result!
A Lifelong Dream Come True
Francesca, now called “Mother,” did not have to look far for a house. There was an old abandoned monastery behind the Franciscan Church in Codogno. Here she demonstrated another of her many talents, one that she would use her entire life in the missionary fields: that of purchasing exactly the property she wanted — and at her price!
They had pitiful belongings and little furniture, but they felt like the richest ladies in Italy when they took over the house. Lacking funds even to purchase fabric for new habits, they ripped their old habits apart and their talented fingers re-worked the inexpensive material into simple work habits. On November 14, 1880, four days after their arrival at their first house, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart were founded. Mother Cabrini was thirty years old.
From the beginning, it was a “learn by doing” project. There were no constitutions yet, no fixed spiritual charism; yet, in her wisdom and practicality, Mother Cabrini had short-term and long-term goals in mind. She took in as many postulants as came to her door, began a school for young girls, fixed up the old monastery and added to it, yet told the bishop that her “Institute cannot be confined to one diocese or one city. The whole world is not big enough for me.” She took in young women who had been refused by other religious orders, no doubt thinking of her own unhappiness when the Daughters of the Sacred Heart would not accept her. Her health was still precarious, as it would remain, but she did her share of the physical work like everyone else. She took as her own personal motto, and later as the motto of the Institute, the words of St. Paul, “I can do all things in Him Who strengtheneth me.”
Even from those early days, unusual incidents occurred around Mother Cabrini. There were times that an appointed sister was sent to the wine merchant, the baker, or the grocer for supplies. Often there was no money to pay for the item. Upon being told of this lack of funds, Mother would tell the sister, “Are you sure, Sister, why don’t you look in your pocket again?” or “Daughter, check the money drawer again; perhaps you overlooked it.” Always, the money or the needed supply appeared. On one occasion in the early days of the Institute, when Mother shared her room with one of the sisters, the young sister awoke with a start seeing that the room was filled with light. “Mother, did you see that?” “Yes, my daughter, I saw it. It is nothing; go back to sleep.” After that, she never shared her room with anyone again.
It was never Mother Cabrini’s intent to have only one house in her Missionary Institute. By 1882, she had opened another convent and girls’ school in Grumello. In 1884, the convent at the old Franciscan friary in Codogno was too small to house all the nuns — and so began another facet of her career, that of contractor! She decided that the bid she received from the contractor was far too expensive and got the idea that the sisters would do the work themselves. Mother put a young sister, whose father was a bricklayer, in charge of the work. Up, up went the walls after working hours, with the sisters climbing the scaffolding and hauling up buckets of mortar and baskets of bricks. One day, soon after the walls were erected, a building inspector from the city hall visited Mother at the convent. The walls were too high with no support and in danger of tumbling down! Mother set the sisters to work buttressing the brick walls so that they would be secure. Not pretty, but safe! It was the first of many building projects that she would oversee.
In 1884, a parish priest offered the Missionary Sisters a boarding school in Milan. Mother accepted at once and turned the school into a teacher-training school for Catholic laywomen. The government normal schools were turning out liberal, secularist teachers, and she could see that the only way to counteract this movement was to make good Christian teachers available. Milan was the first big city in which the missionaries functioned, but our saintly sister — always looking forward — saw it as a stepping stone to Rome and beyond.
Only three years later, in 1887, Mother’s dream of going to Rome was fulfilled. She was counseled by all of her priestly advisors not to try to visit the Holy Father for his approval of her Institute. It was too soon to think of asking for papal approval, they said, and she would return humbled and embarrassed when the pope refused to see such an upstart. However, she knew that if she were ever to go to the foreign missions, securing papal approval was mandatory. She had a dream, or perhaps it was a vision, that the Infant Jesus came to her saying, “Go to Rome.” It was the first of many dreams upon which she acted. So it was that in September, 1887, Mother Cabrini and Sister Serafina made their way from Milan to the Eternal City.
A Dual Purpose
Besides wishing to seek papal approval for her Institute, Mother Cabrini had another reason to be in Rome. As the seat of Christendom, it was there all the worldwide religious orders had their headquarters. She wanted to gain permission from Church authorities to establish a house in Rome — a school, or an orphanage, perhaps. She and Sister Serafina were in Rome only a few days when she sought an audience with Cardinal Parocchi, the Cardinal-Vicar who could seek from the Holy Father permission to establish a branch of the Institute in Rome. Mother Cabrini was always the charming and deferential Francesca when speaking to Church authorities; yet her sense of purpose and her burning zeal for the Faith came through. Cardinal Parocchi, a Lombard like herself, was a bit shocked when she presented him with no letters of recommendation from bishops. Nor did she have constitutions drawn up for the Missionary Sisters as yet. Perhaps providentially, Mother was unaware of the Roman way of doing things. Permission for a new house and papal approval of a new order were things that normally took months or years. Blissfully ignorant of such protocols, she once again sought an audience with the cardinal, this time asking him to speak to the Holy Father regarding her desires, a bold and almost shocking request.
Obviously, there was something about this young and radiant sister that fascinated the cardinal, and he promised to approach the pope. After two weeks of agonizing waiting, Cardinal Parocchi called the sisters back to his office. “Are you ready to obey?”he asked. “Of course, Your Eminence,” came their reply. “I shall not allow you to establish a house in Rome.” Mother Cabrini did not flinch. “Instead, I order you to found two houses — a free school for the poor and a kindergarten.” Needless to say, the sisters were delighted and relieved, although founding two houses in different sections of the city would put a strain on their resources, both in personnel and money.
A New Proposal
A few short months after her arrival in Rome came the approval of the rules of the Missionary Sisters by none other than Pope Leo XIII himself. They were truly on their way!
Before her sojourn to Rome and while she was still in Milan, Mother Cabrini had been approached by Bishop Scalabrini of Piacenza. The good bishop was concerned with the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Italians making their way to the United States because they simply could not make enough money in their homeland to feed their families. Most had settled in New York City, in the horrible slums that were growing there for the many European immigrants arriving on the western shores of the Atlantic. The potato famine in Ireland had sent huge numbers of starving Irish to the United States and Canada a generation earlier. Now Italians were leaving home. The bishop had long been worried about the plight of the Italians in this English-speaking country where they took the lowest paying jobs, lived in filthy hovels the Irish had abandoned, and, worst of all, were losing their Catholic Faith for lack of Italian speaking priests. Sadly, those taking most advantage of these newcomers were their own countrymen who managed to bilk them out of their little money and abandon them, destitute and alone in the slums of the big city. The bishop’s efforts at sending these poor Italians assistance had been meager and slow; he wondered if the good Mother Cabrini and her Missionary Sisters would consider the United States as their missionary territory? At the time, Mother scoffed at the idea (of course, not to the bishop), even telling her sisters that the bishop’s idea was a pipe dream. Besides, her deepest desire had always been to bring Christ to the Chinese. America was out of the question.
Bishop Scalabrini was biding his time. He awaited a letter from the Archbishop of New York, Bishop Corrigan, inviting Mother Cabrini to establish schools, orphanages, and whatever else she deemed necessary, in New York. To keep the idea in her mind, he kept her informed of the plight of her countrymen in that city. In the meantime, Mother Cabrini had her first private audience with Pope Leo XIII. Immediately they became fast friends. With his famous Rerum Novarum , Leo was the first pope to issue an encyclical on such social concerns as the economy and just wages for workers (what might be called “social justice,” though without the liberal connotations implicit in it for modern Americans); therefore we presume His Holiness had to be concerned about the pathetic condition of his own countrymen in America.
During the time she prayed for guidance that she would make the right decision, Mother once again had one of her famous dreams. In it, she saw Venerable Antonia Belloni, a Clarissian Sister from Codogno whose cause had recently been presented to Rome, and to whom Mother had been praying a novena. Venerable Antonia told her that the expected letter from Archbishop Corrigan would arrive the next day. Behind Antonia she saw a host of saints, among whom was her own mother who reproached her, “For all your desire to go to the missions you now hesitate?” Last of all she saw Our Lady and the Sacred Heart. Our Lord’s words were, “Why do you fear, my child? You must go to take my name to far-off countries. Take courage. I am with you.” The dream was true; Archbishop Corrigan had written. She would leave the decision in the hands of her dear friend, the Holy Father.
As she knelt before him during this fateful audience, she told him of her plight. It was then that he uttered to her his famous command, “Not to the East, but to the West, my daughter.” After getting a hesitant “Go to America” from her doctor, all that remained was to make sure her Italian houses were functioning well and to book passage across the Atlantic to New York.
Italians(?) in New York
There were several important ways that the Italian immigrants were very different from the Irish that made their lives and the efforts of those trying to assist them more complicated. Recall that Italy was not really united as a nation at this time. Immigrants from the various independent parts of the peninsula and Sicily mistrusted each other. They did not consider each other fellow countrymen, only foreigners from near their home areas, speaking different dialects. This attitude made cooperation almost impossible. In addition, two-thirds of the immigrants were men who had left their families back home in order to make some kind of living in the New World, but always with their eyes on the eastern horizon, yearning to return to their home provinces. A third factor was the personality of the newcomers themselves. Most were simple, unskilled country farmers with no experience in big city living. These campesinos were easily cowed by those who would take advantage of them in sweat shops and on railroad gangs. They gathered in the Little Italy slums of the big cities, mostly in New York, took the worst of housing and were demeaned as “wops,” “dagos,” and “white niggers.”
Further complicating the situation for the Church’s attempts to assist these poor individuals was the fact that, because of their official anticlericalism, the secular, anti-Catholic governments in Italy did not want the involvement of priests and sisters. It was more important to them to have these people hate the Church than to get them some help.
The First Voyage
In March, 1889, Mother Cabrini and several of her sisters arrived in New York after a terrifying Atlantic crossing, terrifying because none of the sisters except Mother had so much as seen the ocean before, and the sea was very rough. While her young charges spent the time seasick in their bunks, Mother sat on deck writing letters to her daughters back home. It was to become a regular habit of hers, the only time that she ever had to rest and to write her letters. These were the only “journals” that she kept, being read, passed around, and cherished by her daughters in religion. She loved the sea and saw in it the glory and awe of God’s creation. When her doctors told her to stop working and rest, she complied only when on board ship, crossing the ocean. This she did an amazing twenty-five times in her lifetime, founding houses, schools, hospitals, and orphanages in places that she had never expected to visit. It was her custom to be present at the opening of every one of her institutions, no matter how far she had to travel to get there.
They were eager to begin; thus, it came as a numbing shock when Archbishop Corrigan told them that he was not prepared for them. They had no permanent housing; in fact, they spent the first night in a flea-infested, filthy rooming house, where they stayed awake and prayed all night while keeping the vermin off each other! The archbishop wanted them to return to Italy, but Mother, in her sweet, stubborn way, told him that, since she was under the command of the Holy Father himself, returning was unthinkable. Archbishop Corrigan finally consented to allow them to begin an orphanage in a home provided by the wife of an Italian nobleman. They began with two dirty, pitiful little girls dressed in rags; within months, there were four hundred such creatures, though now they were clean and well-clothed. Mother lived up to her name; she truly became “mother” to every one of these little girls.
Pennies Add Up
There were times that Mother Cabrini took upon herself and her sisters an assignment with absolutely no funding at all; sometimes she was given a small stipend by the local bishop or parish priest to begin her work. That first mission in New York helped her to establish her regular routine of making the rounds all over the Little Italy sections of a city, begging donations of money, furniture, food, or whatever the people could part with. Often the gift was only a penny or two. Sometimes they went home loaded down with enough food to sustain them and the children for a week. In this way, they were not only able to support themselves and add to their properties, they also saw it as the best way to befriend a sometimes suspicious people and address their individual needs. Mother Cabrini was not above begging from the local authorities and the Italian consuls and ambassadors, either. Obviously, she was a very difficult lady to turn away, for the financial successes she accomplished in land and building purchases were amazing.
One example of this was her purchase of a beautiful piece of land on the Hudson River in the country, not far from New York City. Bishop Corrigan seemed to hope that Mother could move her city orphanage to a location where the children could have more space and abundant fresh air. She received word, when she was in Codogno visiting the novitiate, that the Jesuits had a property for sale at a bargain price on the banks of the Hudson, across the river from Peekskill, New York. Some time earlier, one of her famous dreams had occurred, one in which she saw a large wooded property with many buildings. When she visited the site, it was exactly as she had seen in her dream. What the sellers did not reveal at first was that there was an inadequate water well yielding up just enough water for drinking. Any other water had to be taken bucket by bucket out of the Hudson, a twenty minute descent down to the river bank and a longer ascent back. Because of this, Mother was hesitant to make the purchase, even at the bargain price; so she studied the ground carefully and prayed to Our Lady of Grace. She soon noticed a damp area in the ground and had a well dug there; now they had enough water for her hundreds of orphans. The site that was once the Jesuits’ Manresa now became known as West Park. The well was known as “Our Lady’s miraculous spring,” attracting thousands to drink from it. Mother loved the property so much that she planned to retire there when she could no longer serve as Mother Superior. While this wish was never fulfilled, her desire to be buried there was.
To Another Continent
On one of Mother’s many crossings of the Atlantic, Providence saw to it that she met a wealthy Nicaraguan lady who, when she discovered the work of the Missionary Sisters, begged Mother Cabrini to open a school for the wealthy daughters of her countrymen in Granada, her home. Although the fact that she even considered this possibility may seem out of keeping with the mission of her order to minister to poor Italians, Mother never gave up the dream of becoming world-wide. She told her sisters, “The world is only a small ball for the Missionary Sisters. See how the Infant Savior holds it in His hands!” Her primary goal was to save souls, and her Nicaraguan friend convinced her that the wealthy in her country were in sore need of spiritual guidance. In seeking approval from the Papal Secretary of State, she was looking beyond Central America to the southern continent. Truly her vision encompassed the whole globe.
In September, 1891, Mother Cabrini arrived back in New York from Codogno with twenty-nine newly-formed sisters. In just over two years since first setting foot in America, she now had fifty sisters here, fourteen of whom were to accompany her to the new venture in Nicaragua. Leaving New York a few days later, their ship encountered a tropical hurricane making its way up the east coast. Mother and her fourteen very seasick young sisters prayed all night that the tempest would not cause them to capsize. Indeed, several ships were wrecked off the coast of New Jersey, but theirs was able to make it out to sea and escape the worst of the storm’s fury.
The voyage to the Central American coast was a long one. They anchored on October 19, at the port of Colon, Panama, just where the eastern entrance of the Panama Canal was being dug. From there they journeyed by train across the isthmus where they marveled at the amazing sights of brightly plumed tropical birds, lush vegetation, and the many exotic creatures of the jungle. On the western side of the isthmus, they once again boarded a ship that would take them up the coast to Nicaragua and their new school. The casual acceptance of the near nakedness of the mixed-race women, which encompassed about ninety percent of the female population, came as a great shock to the sisters. Only five percent were pure Spanish and the same pure Indian. The rest were mixed Negro, White, and Indian. At a banquet given in their honor, Mother insisted that the serving ladies cover themselves with whatever was at hand before the banquet could begin. Thus it was that they were served by ladies draped in tablecloths, sheets, and towels!
A worse shock was the high percentage of out-of-wedlock children. Apparently it was common practice for those of mixed race to father children by several mothers, none of whom were their wives. From the beginning, Mother Cabrini made it clear that she would accept no illegitimate children in her school. While this may have seemed harsh — indeed, the sisters expected martyrdom — she felt that this was the only way that she could discourage such an immoral practice. As a protest against this policy, the populace surrounded the school and made awful noises all night long for a number of nights, but when they realized that she would not change her mind, eventually they left, and things settled down. Mother Cabrini left her thriving school in Nicaragua in March, 1892, with another adventure in mind.
When she left Granada, Mother traveled for a month in the wilds of the rest of Nicaragua with an eye to establishing future houses there. She went to the territory of the Mosquitia Indians. How she yearned to bring Christ to these primitive, yet not unintelligent people! But this yearning was never fulfilled, as a mere two years after she established the school in Granada, all religious were expelled in an anticlerical revolution. As she sailed from the eastern coast of Central America, her next adventure took her to New Orleans, where many Italian immigrants had settled in the warmer climate of the South. Sadly, they were even more despised there than in the North. The local French Creole aristocracy of the city, though Catholic, wanted no part of them, and the Protestants of the countryside thought them lower than the Negroes. Some of the Sicilians brought the criminal organization of the Mafia with them and, in fearing a few, the Americans of the Deep South learned to fear and hate all.
Just before her arrival, a terrible incident involving Italians took place in New Orleans. In the spring of 1892, the police chief of New Orleans was murdered and the Mafiosi were blamed. Fourteen young Italians were arrested and tried for the murder as tensions in the city ran high. Three were found guilty; eleven were acquitted. An incensed mob, inflamed by the press, stormed the jail, dragged out all the Italians, and lynched them all on tree limbs and lamp posts. A collective shudder of fear ran through the entire Italian population of the United States. Mother Cabrini felt it her duty to go to New Orleans and personally assess the situation, try to calm the fears of both the Italian and non-Italian population, and provide some assistance for her fellow countrymen. Archbishop Janssens welcomed her and asked that a mission be established by her sisters. Although they had no financial means of doing so, two months later three young sisters were sent from New York to New Orleans. They had so little money, that they purchased three tickets headed south to the farthest city away from New York that they could afford. Then they begged pennies in that city and did their good works until they could purchase tickets to a city closer to their destination. In this way, they eventually made their way to New Orleans, where they rented rooms in, and eventually purchased, an apartment building on St. Philip Street in the French Quarter. From here they ministered not only to the city dwellers, but to the Italians who worked in the farming country of south Louisiana and Mississippi.
Twelve years later, the orphanage at the St. Philip Street location became so crowded that Mother sought to purchase a wonderful piece of land out of the city on the banks of Bayou St. John. Naturally, she had no money to effect the purchase, but had just made the acquaintance of a certain Captain Salvatore Pizatti, a Sicilian sea captain who was very wealthy, but something of an anticlerical. Captain Pizatti became enamored of the precious Sicilian children at the orphanage and offered to help. Many of the Sicilians in New Orleans, as elsewhere, were anticlericals; they wanted no money going to any kind of Catholic institution, even though it would help their own people. Mother Cabrini, being the astute businesswoman that she was, graciously accepted the Captain’s offer and asked him to put it in writing. She had her lawyer draw up an iron-clad legal document in the event the captain might change his mind. This institution functioned as a girls’ orphanage until 1959, when it was converted to Cabrini High School for girls. Mother’s private room is still kept in the original building as a shrine where the students and visitors pray to her.
In 1905, an epidemic of yellow fever once again hit New Orleans. The good sisters were the only personnel that the most ignorant of the Italian slum-dwellers would allow to visit them with medicines that they were given by the medical authorities. Many times they were asked by a dying victim of the fever to hear his confession since there was such a scarcity of Italian-speaking priests. Of course, that was impossible, but they had no qualms about giving comfort to the sick and dying and putting themselves at risk. Not one of the sisters fell prey to the fever, although Archbishop Chapelle, a Frenchman whom Mother Cabrini had met in Paris years before, died of the disease.
Making the World Smaller
Mother Cabrini’s greatest adventure came in the year 1895, when she decided to travel to Argentina via Central America. When her sisters were expelled from Nicaragua, they fled to Panama and opened a school there. She spent several months at their lovely convent overlooking the sea, then set sail from the west coast of Panama and traveled south down the western coast of South America. On the voyage they crossed the Equator, stopping at ports in Ecuador, Peru (where she prayed at the church containing the relics of St. Rose of Lima), and Valparaiso, Chile. Disembarking there, the two sisters traveled overland to Santiago at the foot of the great Andes. Mother’s traveling companion was Mother Chiara, an older nun not in good health. She always made a point of taking one of the less robust sisters, so that the ones left behind would not miss an essential pair of hands in their work. During her stop at Santiago, Mother learned that the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who had invited her there to open a school, had died. Would she be welcomed by the new bishop? As always, she put unpleasant possibilities out of her head and trusted in the Sacred Heart of Jesus that His Will would be done.
If the journey to South America seems daunting until this point, the most harrowing part lay ahead. From Santiago they traveled by train as far as the railway penetrated the mountains, traversing breathtakingly deep gorges with angry swirling rivers far below. Upon reaching Cumbre Pass, they transferred to clanking coaches drawn by six mules each. Above them towered Mount Aconcagua, at 23,000 feet the highest peak in the Andes. Poor Mother Chiara blanched anew at each dangerous turn and twist in the narrow path. However, the sisters could not help marveling at the beauty of God’s creation at the very top of the continent.
After a restful night in an inn far above the clouds, they mounted mules for the hardest part of the journey. Mother, being a perfect lady, refused to allow the muleteer to assist her and insisted on standing on a chair to mount her animal, the best of the lot. The downside to having been given the best mule was that she would lead the convoy across the mountains, preceded only by two experienced muleteers. Mother Cabrini insisted on keeping her eyes open while Mother Chiara simply lay across the back of her mule like a sack of flour! Approaching a deep crevice, they had to dismount to allow the mules to jump it. Since Mother had the lead mule, she had to be the first of the party to jump after all the animals had gotten across. She would have fallen into the chasm had not her muleteer caught her and pulled her over to safety. At this point she became breathless and fainted onto a snowbank. Shortly thereafter, they crossed into Argentina and descended onto the pampas of that country where they traveled by train to Buenos Aires, on the Atlantic side of the continent. As she had entrusted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the new bishop welcomed them and encouraged them to open a school. It was her habit to traverse on foot every quarter of a city until she found the perfect house in the perfect section of the city. Her Spanish was poor to nonexistent, but she sent to New York for a group of her Missionary Sisters, begged furniture, money, and supplies from wealthy acquaintances she had made, and on the first day of school, enrolled fifty young ladies to be educated in the Catholic Faith by these wonderful and selfless women. She stayed only long enough to be sure that the establishment there was running smoothly.
Some years later, she opened a school in Portuguese-speaking Brazil. Just as the sisters were getting their school started, a smallpox epidemic hit the city of Rio de Janeiro striking several of the sisters, one fatally. Mother Cabrini herself cared for two who were ill, nursing them until they were well, bathing their faces with a feather dipped in whipped cream as her sister Rosa had done for her so many years before. One of these sisters, testifying at the beatification process, stated that when she was ill some time later of gastric problems and headaches, Mother Cabrini appeared to her, although at the time she was in Chicago, telling her to get up and attend to her duties. Mother removed her bandages and the sister found herself perfectly well.
There is much more to say of this amazing lady, but we can only outline the rest of her great accomplishments before finishing our little study, regretting our inability to pay appropriate tribute to her greatness.
She opened her first hospital in New York in 1892 with only two hundred and fifty dollars and an empty building. Shrewdly, she named it Columbus Hospital, knowing that all Italians would know it was for them, the religious and the anticlerical alike. Three more Columbus Hospitals were to follow, in Seattle, Chicago, and Denver, and a tuberculosis hospital in Southern California for the tubercular children she found all over the United States. Mother could often be seen at the building sites with tape measure in hand, making sure measurements were correct and that she had been sold the size of parcel the act of sale stated. She was not about to be taken in by unscrupulous real estate merchants! She founded houses in France, Spain, and England. Her hope for the English people, whom she dearly loved for their politeness and sense of propriety, was that she and her sisters could lead them back to the True Faith. Always in her work, she knew the necessity of making conversions and of bringing the non-practicing Catholic back home. We already mentioned that, long before the ease and speed of airline travel, she crossed the Atlantic Ocean twenty-five times. The results of all this “pond hopping” were that she established sixty-seven institutions on three continents, one for each year of her life.
The Final Days
In 1907, the birth year of Sr. Lucia of Fatima, Mother Cabrini became an American citizen, perhaps because she hoped to retire to West Park on the banks of the Hudson. She was now nearly sixty and had been suffering from malaria off and on for some time. Her fervent wish was to retire to a life of solitude and prayer and let younger, healthier sisters replace her in the traveling and the physical work. When her daughters in religion at the novitiate in Codogno learned of her wishes, they conspired with the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation of Religious to refuse her request to retire. When, to the delight of the sisters, the cardinal told her that he would “give her another chance to do things right,” Mother was chagrined at his little joke, but under obedience, promised to serve as Superior until her death.
Before she left Codogno this time, she met with Antonia Tondini, the woman who had given her six years of Purgatory in her early years as a religious. Mother fell on her knees and asked the old lady to forgive her. She had prayed every day for Antonia, and now wanted forgiveness for the unpleasantries. Antonia cried that she was the one who should beg forgiveness. They prayed together, knowing this would be the last time they would meet.
In the last years of her life, although she was ill most of the time, she slowed down only occasionally, on direct order of her doctors or at the insistence of some of her daughters who were closest to her. When she improved slightly, she flung herself into vigorous work, scrubbing the outside of a brick building on a ladder, traveling from city to city establishing new hospitals, orphanages, and schools, and begging money from Catholics and non-Catholics for her institutions.
In 1917, she became very ill in Los Angeles, yet still insisted on traveling by train to Chicago, promising to see the doctors at her Columbus Hospital there. Her sisters were shocked at her appearance and insisted that she rest. The malaria had taken its toll on her pulmonary arteries, and Italy’s defeat in an important battle against the Germans in World War I took its toll on her spirit. As Christmas approached, Mother insisted that she and the sisters had to wrap candy for the children’s Christmas stockings. All day on Friday, December 21, 1917, Mother worked feverishly wrapping the candy, as though she knew that this was to be her last day on earth. The next morning she was too ill to arise, a not uncommon occurrence in these last months. The sister who asked her what she would like for lunch was sent away and told to prepare anything she liked. It was Mother’s habit to lock her door when she did not wish her prayers and meditation to be disturbed; so no thought was given to the fact that the door had been latched. However, when the sister bringing her lunch approached her room, she heard the lock turn from the inside and saw Mother’s hand reach the bell that hung on the outside of the door. Opening the door, she saw Mother Cabrini collapsed in a chair with blood on the front of her nightgown and her bloody handkerchief held to her mouth. Although she lived long enough for the priest to arrive and administer Extreme Unction and give her conditional absolution, she never uttered another word. She looked around the room at her daughters gathered there, and with her head in Mother Antonietta’s arms, closed her blue eyes and died peacefully.
Thus ended this earthly life for the first canonized American saint. The little girl from the obscure Italian village of Sant’ Angelo who sent flowers in paper boats down the swift Venera and pretended that they were her missionaries on their way to China, who was told by her doctors, her priest, her bishop, and her family that she would live a short life and could never be a missionary, became one in the grand tradition of her patron, St. Francis Xavier. Although she never got to China or Africa, she saw more of this world than most modern travelers, bringing hope, health, love, compassion, and, most importantly, the True Faith to countless people around the globe. She did, indeed, make the world smaller. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, pray for us!