God sees all things and all acts an eternity before they are or happen.
Most are aware of this paralyzing truth, of course. But, because our finite minds cannot really grasp it, we tend to give little if any thought to its awesome mystery.
And so, no one in that northern Italian village of Sant’ Angelo knew the reason for the unusual occurrence there on July 15 of 1850. A great flock of white doves swirled aloft over the town that day, and then descended like a placid cloud into the yard of Signor Agostino Cabrini.
Oh, the villagers knew it was a strange phenomenon, of course, since doves were never before seen in Sant’ Angelo. And certainly Signor Cabrini found it still more puzzling that he could not drive the snowy visitors from his yard. But then he had more serious matters to concern him, what with his wife about to give birth to their thirteenth child.
No, only Almighty God, having joyfully anticipated this hour from the unplumbable depths of eternity, knew the preciousness of the occasion. A saint was about to be born. A saint who would be as delicate, as chaste, and as endearing as the little doves who not only heralded her arrival, but who also in later years would appear wherever in the world she would travel. They would, these gentle feathered companions, perch on her shoulders, her head, her lap. They would “flutter about her in tamest friendliness” and carpet the earth before her feet as she talked to them.
But how could Signor Cabrini have known this was the explanation for the presence of an angelic-like host outside his window? He could not. At that moment he was thinking only of his wife, Stella, now in labor, to whom he brought one of the cooing creatures for comfort.
The future apostle, Francesca Maria Cabrini, was eager for action right from the start. For she was born only moments later in that month of the Precious Blood, a full two months ahead of time. No wonder Agostino was concerned, having already lost several of his children! The premature infant was so frail, in fact, that he carried her the same day to the parish church to be baptized, fearing she would not even live through a night.
Poor little apostle! It would be many years before others would come fully to realize that even her lifelong fragile health was supremely outmatched by a dauntless determination to live in heroic service to her Divine Master. Meanwhile, she would have to wait patiently, trusting that Jesus would provide that opportunity in His own good time.
It was obvious that the Holy Ghost poured abundant graces into the heart of this little santina from her very infancy. But naturally others, too, provided pious influences, which molded in Francesca her character of the rarest sanctity.
Foremost among these, of course, were her parents, simple farmers, yet exceptionally virtuous and devout. Dutiful Catholic parents they were who nourished, clothed, and protected the souls just as attentively as the bodies of their children. With what patience, what love did Signora Stella Cabrini instill devotion in her youngest child, and answer endless questions about God, the Holy Family, the saints, with meticulous care and clarity! And it was Agostino, himself a model father, who first ignited in little “Cecchina” — she was nicknamed such for her tininess — her unquenchable apostolic spirit by regularly reading to her from the book, Annals of the Propagation of the Faith.
“Rosa,” the tot announced to her older sister in all earnest, “I want to be a missionary!”
‘You, a missionary?” came the response. “Why, you are so tiny! Missionaries must be strong.”
Not the least discouraged by this obvious truth, Cecchina had her own childlike way of overcoming the problem. She fashioned toy boats from waxed paper and set them afloat on the Ada River with cargoes of flowers. But, in this child’s enchanting world of make-believe, these were not really flowers: “They are missionaries. They are going to China.” To China, like Saint Francis Xavier, to teach the poor pagans about Jesus. She also “founded” in fantasy a convent of missionary sisters whom she recruited from the ranks of her dolls.
Cecchina occasionally stayed with her uncle, Don Luigi Oldini, a saintly, charitable old priest who was known to his parishioners as the thief who stole from himself. Don Luigi was another of the holy influences bearing on her life. On one of her visits she was again launching a missionary flotilla on the icy river when she slipped and fell into its deadly swift currents. A boy who saw the accident was helpless to do anything but rush to fetch Don Luigi. The old priest arrived to find his little niece lying on the riverbank.
“Who rescued you?” he asked. Francesca could not answer, for she had seen no one. “Then it must have been your guardian angel,” he affirmed with a certainty characteristic of his strong faith.
But big sister, Rosa, fifteen years her senior, was surely the tiny saint’s greatest influence, at least quantitatively if not qualitatively. Rosa, though a pious girl, was rather headstrong, and for that reason had been refused admittance into the convent. Still, we must admire her spirit of self-will, seeing her conducting a catechism class in open defiance of the Masonic anticlerical regime that had prohibited private schools and all teaching of religion.
Little Cecchina would have been the natural center of Rosa’s affection and attention anyway. For the precocious child was a bubbly and lovably happy soul, graced as well with a face of angelic innocence, waves of golden hair, and expressively large blue eyes that could melt a heart of steel. Indeed, she was the darling of all the family. But Rosa was a girl of strong maternal instincts, and tended to be pedantically domineering. Hence, she appointed herself as personal full-time guardian of the mite.
But what if Rosa was overly stern in her guidance? The child intensely loved her, blindly obeyed her, tenaciously clung to her, and imitated her every gesture. Francesca was her devoted dove, hovering beside her night and day. If Rosa would pay a visit in Church, the little one must go too. If she was praying to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, the angel at her side would murmur unintelligible prayers to Him also. If she went to confession, there was tiny Cecchina right beside her confessing horrible “sins” to a much-amused priest.
From Rosa the santina learned prayer, penance, obedience, humility, meditation, and especially love for the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
At six years of age the holy child eagerly begged to receive her dear Lord in Holy Communion. By then-prevailing Church canons she was too young — six years too young — and so she was refused. But the following year she did receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, a profound event which she still recalled vividly years later, saying: “At the moment when I was anointed with the holy chrism, I felt that which is indescribable. It seemed as though I were no longer on earth. My heart was filled with the purest joy. I am unable to explain what I experienced, but I know it was the Holy Ghost.”
Francesca Maria Cabrini, however young she was, was a changed person from that moment. She gave up worldly pleasures-no more toys or candy. She asked her mother to help her to be good and to punish her if she were not. And she trained herself to spend longer, fixed times in prayer.
A little woodshed became her retreat where she would kneel in lengthy periods of prayer. So deep was her meditation in this daily practice that when a severe earthquake struck one day it did not distract her. When it was over she was found in the woodshed still in prayer.
Cecchina also spent more time before the holy tabernacle. Once she arrived at the church at a late hour when it was locked. When the petite visitor pressed gently against the doors they opened miraculously to admit her.
Finally, the bishop, taking cognizance of Francesca’s eagerness and preparedness, consented to let her receive First Holy Communion at the age of nine. Now her union with the Divine was corporeally complete; she was at last truly and wholly a child of God!
Shortly thereafter she was permitted to take a private vow of chastity, which she renewed every year until she came of an age to make it a perpetual vow.
At thirteen, Cecchina went to a boarding school at Arluno run by the daughters of the Sacred Heart. Here she not only learned the deeper mysteries of the Divine Heart of Jesus, but had the inexpressible joy of living day and night under the same roof where that Jesus, that Sacred Heart in the Blessed Sacrament, dwelt in a nearby chapel. Now the little saint could visit her Beloved more often than ever. Kneeling there, gazing upon the tabernacle in a state of near ecstasy, she was unaware that her recollection and piety in these frequent visits had become a regular attraction for the nuns who silently stole in to watch her at a distance.
Francesca Cabrini was not in this devout atmosphere long when, unable to restrain her eagerness, she asked to be admitted into the Congregation. But in the eyes of the Mother Superior she was too frail, too delicate for such a strenuous life. However disappointed she was, Francesca humbly accepted the refusal, saying, “God’s will be done.” And so she was content simply to continue her five years of study at Arluno, distinguishing herself as one of the school’s most brilliant pupils.
Apostolic Career Begins
Formal education for Saint Frances ended at age eighteen, and it was time for the petite dove to fly on her own wings. But in which direction? Indeed, her vocation to religious life as a missionary was firmly fixed in her heart, but to what order? She had already been turned down by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart on account of her poor health. No doubt other orders would refuse her on the same grounds.
And there was another problem. Nationalist movements under Masonic control were inflaming anti-clerical sentiments to a fever pitch — so much so that Victor Emmanuel’s revolutionary army was soon able to seize Rome and drive the pope into exile. Surely it would be extremely difficult under these conditions to enter any kind of religious congregation, much less an apostolic one.
Francesca had to be happy with launching her missionary career gradually. Yet it was no small start. She began by devoting herself wholeheartedly to the care of the sick, comforting them spiritually as well as physically with her tireless attention. Soon she added the further task of teaching in a public school, while also giving catechetical instruction on weekends both to children and to adults. The latter work, strictly forbidden by the government, was made possible when young Cabrini bravely approached the anti-clerical mayor and brought him back into the Faith, causing no small stir in the district.
When the youthful saint was then given charge of confraternities for women and girls, it seemed certain that she would soon prove, to the complete satisfaction of ecclesiastical authorities, that she was a competent candidate for even the most strenuous activities of religious life. In 1872, however, a smallpox epidemic struck, and naturally Cecchina, in spite of the danger, gave herself unreservedly to the task of nursing its poor victims until she, too, contracted the disease. Thanks to the expert care of her sister, Rosa, she survived the affliction without any scars to mar her beautiful face. But her health was left seriously undermined for life.
Francesca was as determined as ever to enter the convent. Unfortunately, her spiritual advisors opposed the ambition, partly because of her health and partly because they felt that her vocation was to remain in the world. There was nothing she could do now but carry her petitions to Our Lord. He answered them, of course, though in so doing He also sent the saint the greatest trial of her life.
A bitter novitiate
In Codogno there was a small orphanage run by three women, one of whom was its foundress and principal benefactor. Though they had devoted their lives to this charitable labor, none had taken — in fact, they had declined to take — religious vows. Therefore, they did not value the importance of obedience and abandonment of self-will in doing God’s work. Consequently, in the course of sixteen years disagreements led to quarrels, which in turn led to flares of temper, followed by entrenched animosity.
Hoping to resolve the chaotic situation, the bishop appointed Francesca to assist at the house and to try to form some semblance of a religious atmosphere. She would, in so doing, be serving her own novitiate for the religious state.
As can be imagined, her late-coming intrusion was bitterly resented, most especially by the foundress, whose violent emotions, now bordering on derangement, were liberally vented against the poor novice. The unmerciful derision, ridicule, humiliation, retaliation, and threats abundantly heaped upon her for six long years evoked only courageous patience and humility from their subject. For Sister Frances Xavier — such was her religious name — was not only grateful to receive such mortifications, but would allow nothing to distract her attention from either her duties to the children or to her spiritual state.
None of this escaped the notice of the bishop, who, at length, when the situation became hopeless, closed the orphanage. As for Sister Francesca Saviera, he had this surprising announcement, which brought joyous tears to her eyes: “You are to become a missionary sister. I know of no missionary institute for women. Found one yourself.”
“I will look for a house,” was her characteristically simple reply. And it was just as characteristic that, against great odds and with no money, she had little difficulty finding one — a blessing that would repeat itself over and over many times in her career, owing to her devotion to Our Lady of Graces.
A new congregation
In early November of 1880, Mother Cabrini and her first spiritual daughters, all of them recruited from among the staff and inmates of the orphanage, moved into their new convent. Indeed, they were now an order. They would be known as the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. But they were a small order-only eight of them. And they were extremely poor — so poor, it is said, that they had but one fork for all to eat their meager meal the first night. There would be many a time, furthermore, when both cupboard and purse would be bare. On such occasions Mother Cabrini often would instruct a Sister to look once more in some drawer or pocket that already had been well searched. Then would be discovered a mysterious sum of money, which had not been there earlier.
Such phenomena became so commonplace that the Sisters no longer were startled by them. For they knew that their Superior was a saint whose life was marked by various strange prodigies. Often, for example, they would observe the face of their Foundress literally aglow upon leaving the chapel. And on one occasion a Sister who shared her room awoke to find it filled with light and anxiously aroused Mother Cabrini. “I saw it,” Francesca calmly replied. “It is nothing; go to sleep.” The saint thereafter thought it wise to sleep alone.
Finding money where there had been none was really a typical Cabrini phenomenon that characterizes the entire spectacularly productive career of this rare saint. Entrenched in straitened poverty all her religious life — and happily so — she nonetheless managed miraculously to multiply institutions for the care, shelter, and education of the needy into impressive numbers over half the globe — all from “nothingness!” “How ever do we spend millions of dollars,” she would rhetorically ask one day, “and yet we have no capital?”
It was, to be sure, a miraculous feat. Yet it did not happen effortlessly or without considerable sacrifice and suffering. From the very beginning, each of these otherwise impossible achievements was purchased with heavy crosses, endless prayers, and, perhaps most important of all, immovable faith.
The beginning for the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart was the humble little convent in Codogno, but soon schools and orphanages were opened in the surrounding area. Swelling numbers of vocations at the same time necessitated the continual enlarging of facilities. And, within two years, the apostolate expanded beyond the diocese of Lodi by the opening of a convent and school in Milan.
Domestic though it was, this was truly vital missionary work all the same. For who had greater need of Catholic instruction than the poor Italians, whose faith had been suffocating under the oppressive, anti-clerical, communistic atmosphere of the Masonic Risorgimento? It was only for such domestic missionary work, in fact, that the Bishop of Lodi had commissioned Francesca to found her Congregation. The saint, however, had her heart set all the while on converting China, to finish the holy labor begun by her patron, Saint Francis Xavier. For that matter, China meant for her only a beginning. Like other modem saints, Francesca wanted to convert all mankind to the One True Faith — to “embrace the whole world and contact it everywhere . . . to enlighten the souls that know not Christ.”
But to carry this apostolic work to other nations, to become a worldwide crusade, her order, Saint Frances felt, must have the official approval of the Holy See and must establish a foundation in Rome. Unfortunately, both her bishop and her spiritual advisor were adamantly opposed to these sweeping ambitions. And though they had not constrained her under formal obedience, still she did not want to act in defiance of their wishes. Once more, therefore, the path of this determined little apostle was seriously obstructed.
It was then that she had a dream of the Infant Jesus, in which she heard an interior voice urging her: “Go to Rome.” From that moment, Mother Cabrini was resolute. It mattered not to her that it was virtually impossible for a new congregation to gain Papal approbation before many years of scrupulous examination; or that it would be almost as impossible to establish a new religious house in Rome, especially in those turbulent times. “Not the possible, but the impossible!” she was wont to say. And so, fortified with the determination of that indomitable spirit, and emboldened by the compelling directive of an inward voice, she set off for Rome in late September of 1887 accompanied by one other Sister.
A new commission
In October the two met with the Cardinal Vicar, Lucido Maria Parocchi, who, though very gracious, could not give the Missionary Sisters the slightest hope for their luminous aspirations. The Foundress had no letters or papers of recommendation, no finances to assure solvency for the order and its work, and her own delicate countenance again betrayed that sickliness which had convinced everyone that she could never perform the arduous labors that she proposed to pursue. All she had, in fact, was a Rule, which the Cardinal agreed to submit to the Roman Curia for preliminary examination. But as to the chance of its approval or of her establishing a convent in Rome, he was decidedly negative. He advised the two nuns to return home.
Francesca’s companion wept over the bitter disappointment. The saintly Mother, however, simply uttered “Deo gratias” in appreciation for the humbling experience, and assured the Sister that God would change the Cardinal’s heart. And with that confident expectation the two remained in Rome, visiting the sacred shrines and beseeching the intercession of the saints whose relics they venerated there.
It was only a few weeks later that Cardinal Parocchi announced that he now was inclined to approve the new Institute, giving as his reason that God had changed his heart! Mother Cabrini was then informed that she was to open not one but two houses in Rome. Now all that remained was the papal approbation of her Order. And again the Hand of God was visible when the Decree of Preliminary Approval was given a short time later.
At last the way seemed completely clear. Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, long eager to follow in the footsteps of her patron saint, all but had her luggage packed and her passage to the Orient secured when she was approached by Bishop Giovanni Scalabrini of Piacenza. Bishop Scalabrini had recently founded the Congregation of Saint Charles Borromeo, a society of priests dedicated to alleviating the plight of Italian emigrants in America, and came to beg the assistance of Mother Cabrini and her Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in this vital work. Deeply sympathetic though she was, Francesca felt she must refuse.
After all, she had dreamed and prayed and planned and sacrificed all her life to have the opportunity to convert the pagans of China. Was she now expected to cast that holy ambition aside just to join the work of another religious order? That would not be fair to her own community of religious who shared those dreams and sacrifices with her. “My Lord,” Francesca responded to the bishop, “I am convinced that this would not be the right course for me to take. New York, America — the whole world is too small for me to confine my work to any one place. I must go everywhere.”
Still the matter was not that easily dismissed. Bishop Scalabrini was persistent in his petition, and was joined by the persuasive appeals of Cardinal Parocchi. A short time later, Francesca received a letter from Archbishop Corrigan of New. York, asking her to undertake the mission work in his archdiocese. And the matter pressed even more heavily on the saint’s heart when in her dreams she heard a voice saying: “You must take My Name to distant lands. Have no fear, my child, for I am with you.” Did this mean she should set her apostolic course toward America rather than the Orient? Only one man could answer this dilemma — the Vicar of Christ.
When Pope Leo XIII received Mother Cabrini in audience, he inquired about her Institute with an enthusiasm that revealed his personal familiarity and keen interest in the work. Then came his careful decision on the matter that had brought her: “Not to the East, but to the West. You will go far, but for the present a great field awaits you in America.” The Holy Father then dismissed Francesca, giving her the Pontifical Blessing, and after a moment of pensive silence, he remarked: “She is a saint.”
To the West
Once Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini had received her new commission from Christ’s Vicar not the slightest doubt was left in her heart, and no one could ever again distract her from her goal. For to this faithful daughter the voice of the Holy Father spoke the will of her Divine Master more clearly, more certainly than even the interior voice that so often called to her in dreams. She must go to America.
And, as for China, she told her spiritual daughters, she would never go there in her lifetime, though she hastened to add with prophetic vision, “Many of you will go there one day — one day. But for the present, she understood, God was sending them “to the West” — to America. And with good reason!
As in other European countries during the nineteenth century, the ruling Masonic powers in Italy had brought economic as well as spiritual ruin on the people. Under the “progressive” Risorgimento the people were to be “liberated” from religious “superstition” and the ageless traditions of civic life by a “new order” of things. No more God in the textbooks; no more crucifixes in the classrooms! No more were religious to teach the children, filling their minds with values that belied the modern messianic character of the New Masonic Order — that is, man made God!
Most Italians were farmers. Traditionally they gravitated around monasteries, which for centuries had helped and guided them in raising their crops and had strengthened them in their Faith. But the Risorgimento suppressed the monasteries, thinking this would bring about a swift transition to the urbanization it desired. The farmers abandoned their crops. With religious restricted from teaching, illiteracy rose to seventy-eight percent. And with taxes rising in similar proportions, the economy soon collapsed.
These and many more disastrous results of the oppressive tyranny in Italy in the latter part of the century precipitated a wave of some sixteen million emigrants to South, Central, and especially North America. Unfortunately, they fared no better in the New Land. Money for passage had to be borrowed from unscrupulous agencies, which demanded such exorbitantly high interest that the poor emigrants were forced to take work under their lenders’ “patronage” at slave wages.
Illiterate for the lack of education, wholly unfamiliar with new customs and languages, and impoverished beyond imagination, the lot of the Italians was far worse than that of other suffering nationals who migrated to the Americas in that era. Pathetic living and working conditions took a high death toll, leaving many homeless children to wander city streets with crime as their only opportunity for survival. As a result, resentment against Italians became quite intense. And there were worse consequences.
The spiritual plight of Italo-Americans was convincingly summarized in 1888 by the saintly Bishop of Mantua, who later became Pope Pius X, when he addressed those emigrating from his diocese: “My beloved children, it is not for me to judge whether our country is among those where there are more mouths to feed than means of subsistence, or too many hands for the work to be done. But whatever the opinion of others on this matter, I, as the Father of your souls, cannot but grieve over the departure of so many of my children for countries where they will find but rarely and with difficulty those helps to religion which, thank God, are not yet wanting to us here. To leave the church in which you became Christians, where you have learned to pray, where you received your First Communion, in which you have assisted at so many feasts of Our Lord, and to go to a country in which you will hardly ever meet with these precious helps, where perhaps once in a year you may come across a priest, and be able to hear Mass — oh, it is impossible, at such thoughts as these, not to feel one’s soul torn with sorrow, grief, and compassion!”
First American Foundations
It was March19, 1889, the Feast of Saint Joseph, when the little foundress, who only a short time earlier had been told she probably would not live more than a year, set out with a small band of seven Missionary Sisters to conquer the world for the Sacred Heart. Word had been received from the Archbishop of New York that all was in readiness in the first land that was to receive them. And so, parting with torn emotions from her homeland and from most of her beloved religious family, Francesca Xavier Cabrini boarded the Bourgogne and headed for America.
The saint could not rest easy when a new project had not been marked with some sort of severe trial or “sign of the Cross,” as she would call it. This one did not disappoint her, for crosses were present from the outset. And making the trans-Atlantic voyage was one of them. From the time when, as a small child, she had fallen into the river, Francesca was terrified of water. Now she had not only to overcome this tremendous fear, but also to suppress even the least indication of it, so as to set a worthy example for her Sisters of complete confidence in Our Lord.
On board ship were fifteen hundred emigrants, all strange to the rages of the sea. When the ship ran into stormy waters, it was the Missionary Sisters, under the leadership of their brave little Mother, who, overcoming their own wretched seasickness, quelled a spreading panic and attended to the large numbers of ill passengers.
But new and more serious crosses awaited Mother Cabrini in America. Upon their arrival in New York, the Sisters discovered that they had not been expected after all, and that no preparations had been made for them. Their first night had to be spent in a slum hotel, rat-infested and filthy beyond imagination. Now, these courageous missionaries were well accustomed to hardships, having often slept on hard floors and without heat out of necessity. But the squalor of their two hotel rooms was such that the beds were completely uninhabitable. The Sisters slept on chairs, therefore, while Francesca, exhausted though she was, passed the night in prayer.
Next morning, after Mass and Holy Communion, the thirty-nine-year-old foundress called on Archbishop Corrigan, who with no little embarrassment explained that his plans for using her Missionary Sisters had gone awry.
It seems that a charitable benefactress, Countess Cesnola, an American married to one of the many Italian noblemen forced into exile by the Masons, had wanted to open an orphanage for the numerous homeless Italian children of New York City. The Archbishop had favored the idea, and had intended that Mother Cabrini’s Congregation should operate the facility. But the Countess insisted on opening it in a fashionable residential neighborhood of the city, where the prelate feared that not only the cost would be prohibitive, but that anti-Catholic animosities would be stirred up — even more than they already were — by the unwelcome presence of wild, unruly Italian orphans. When the Countess went ahead and rented the property in spite of his protests, feeling that the atmosphere would benefit the children, Archbishop Corrigan withdrew his approval of the project.
And now, as concerned Mother Cabrini, the prelate told her it was unfortunate that his letter explaining the difficulty had not reached her before her departure. Furthermore, he insisted that she and her company should return to Italy. Saint Frances turned deathly pale at this, according to her companions. Respectfully, but firmly, she informed the Archbishop that that was out of the question: “We have been sent here by the Holy Father, Your Grace, and we cannot go back. We have been entrusted with a special duty, and we must fulfill it.” Whereupon she produced official letters that confirmed her Papal commission.
In the face of this, Archbishop Corrigan agreed to allow the Company to remain, perhaps even to open a day-school if the Sisters could find the means. But still he adamantly insisted that the orphanage was a closed matter.
Mother Cabrini, of course, was in full agreement on the need for a school, and somehow managed to open one only a few days later in the Italian district. The little church of Saint Joachim was used as a schoolhouse, where in a short time some two hundred students were attending their different classes in the pews, the choir loft, and the sacristy.
But, as for limiting her missionary work to this day-school, the diminutive saint, needless to say, had contrary intentions. She had witnessed the pitiful living conditions of Italians in America. She had seen the consequences of their spiritual disenfranchisement in New York, where there were only five Italian churches and nineteen priests to attend to these 250,000 souls. And worse still, she had found that a Protestant mission house was operating in the heart of what was called “Little Italy,” requiring of the impoverished immigrants that they renounce Catholicism and embrace heresy before it would provide them with material assistance. No, Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini saw plainly, no mere day-school would ever suffice to meet the vast needs existing here. Our Lord, she thought, would just have to change the Archbishop’s heart, as He had done with Cardinal Parocchi in Rome.
Sure enough, between the irresistible persuasiveness of Mother Cabrini and the more irresistible graces from heaven, Archbishop Corrigan finally consented to the orphanage. And on April 21, 1889, three weeks after their arrival, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart moved into their first American foundation on Fifty-Ninth Street, called the Asylum of the Holy Angels.
Each day brought more wild, homeless waifs to the house, seeking the shelter and love for which the tiny angel of mercy in a black habit was becoming widely known. Their numbers in only four months reached four hundred. And it was Mother Cabrini’s delight personally to receive each one of them, scrubbing their badly neglected bodies, cutting their hair, and even fashioning new dresses for them at times out of her own clothing.
Indeed, running a heavily overcrowded orphanage, while at the same time conducting a school for two hundred students must have been an enormous burden in itself for one sickly Superior and seven religious daughters. But that tells only part of the story of the heroic sacrifices and labors which went into making these and all their other missionary accomplishments extraordinarily successful.
The day that the community had moved to the Holy Angels orphanage, a gift of a statue of the Sacred Heart and a loaf of bread were found awaiting them on the doorstep. Mother Cabrini must have remembered at that moment the reply that overcame Archbishop Corrigan’s objection that the Sisters had no funds to sustain the institute over a long period. He was answered: “In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to give us our daily bread, not bread for a year.” How symbolically fitting, then, to find a statue of Him, Whose Name she was to carry throughout this land, greeting them with a single loaf of bread!
Deeply touched, the saint regarded this as a sign that Divine Providence would never fail to provide for them. She was right. For while money was alarmingly scarce in those hard times, Francesca always managed somehow to raise just enough for the community’s immediate needs.
But it was no longer a matter of merely opening a drawer and finding a tidy sum placed there by heaven’s loving generosity. No, the money and food had to be earned by one of the most humbling acts of mortification in religious life — begging. The wide-eyed little nun and her fellow mendicants daily would go from store to store, trying to raise the needs of the day for feeding, clothing, and sheltering their orphans. And, poor though they were themselves, the kindhearted Italian merchants gave generously, for which they were repaid a hundredfold.
Begging from these struggling shopkeepers was a very unpleasant chore for Saint Frances — in fact, she admitted once that she intensely disliked doing it. But at the same time, she relished the opportunity it gave her to meet so many people who in frequent instances had been away from the Sacraments for some time, or had lost the Faith entirely. For they could not easily resist the persuasiveness and the appealing holiness of this angelic-faced religious who exhorted them to return to their Mother, the Church.
In this way, Francesca in only a short time had made a dramatic impact on much of New York’s Italian ghetto. And the hope she was inspiring there prompted other religious groups to contribute to her work, so that she was able to open another house on White Street, the heart of the East Side Italian slums. The four Sisters who moved into the poorly equipped house had no cooking facilities and had to sleep fully dressed for the lack of bedding materials. Worst of all, they were separated from their saintly Mother, and that was the only deprivation that mattered. But, in offering these hardships as penance, their holy work bore a rich harvest. Through their devoted efforts, men, women, and children were soon returning to the Sacraments in great numbers, and new spiritual life began to sweep through Little Italy.
By July of 1889, Mother Cabrini could look with satisfaction on her American mission, which now was well launched and capably supporting itself. And, only four months after her arrival in this country, she was able to return to Italy and attend to pressing matters there, while also planning further expansion of her apostolate.
The several months that Saint Frances spent in Italy were, for the most part, relatively uneventful. As can be imagined, her administrative duties as spiritual Mother of a large, growing religious congregation demanded much of her time. While she was in Codogno, however, the boarding school caught fire. Heavy winds fanned the flames, which soon raged out of control before the eyes of the helpless community. Mother Cabrini, taking a reliquary that she always carried with her, made the Sign of the Cross in the direction of the inferno, and the flames suddenly subsided.
The saint again obtained an audience with Pope Leo XIII, who was anxious to learn of her progress. While she was in Rome, word reached her that a large and fully furnished estate two hours’ distance from New York City had been put up for sale at a very low price. Francesca set out at once for America, taking seven Sisters with her.
The crossing was made perilous by the encountering of enormous icebergs, which narrowly missed crushing the ship. But it was also on this voyage that the holy woman began to pen her beautiful and numerous letters to her religious family. She wrote of a kind Protestant who had made a present to her of tickets for the ship’s lottery, though she was personally disinterested in the prizes: “Even if we win, it will matter very little for they are all useless things. I hope to have a greater gain of a more important kind — that of converting, with the help of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Protestant gentleman who presented me first with the tickets.” Indications are that she did just that!
Ever the apostle, whether on land or sea, she wrote on another trip: “This morning I petted a dog to please a lady, in order that, having gained her friendship, I might speak to her on our Holy Religion. She is a Protestant. . . . I would like to convert all Protestants; this is a mission I have very much at heart.”
It was May when Francesca Cabrini arrived in West Park, New York, to examine the property of the Jesuit novitiate that had beckoned her back to America. The estate was beautiful, but it held little surprise for the saint, as she immediately recognized it as the same place she had seen quite a while earlier in one of her “dreams.” Indeed, it was a paradise ideally suited to her needs, with a lovely chapel and even a cemetery, which, when she saw it, prompted a prophecy that stunned those present. She quietly remarked, “I shall be buried here.” She would indeed be buried there, but that would be many years later.
The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart were able to purchase this estate at a very modest price, owing to the fact that there was no water on the land. (It was for that reason that the Jesuit Fathers were abandoning it.) After the Congregation took possession of the property, however, Mother Cabrini selected a spot in its sandy soil and instructed a Sister to dig. As the very first spadeful of earth was turned, the dirt became dark with moisture and a miraculous spring issued forth with an inexhaustible supply of water for the new Sacred Heart Orphanage.
In August, Mother Cabrini returned to Italy again, taking with her two postulants from the United States. Going directly to Rome this time, she set to work raising funds for opening there a small, tuition-free teachers’ college for poor Catholic girls.
The saint had yet another audience with the Holy Father in December. This was an exceptional favor, since Papal audiences during the Christmas season were reserved only for princes, and it gives some idea how important Pope Leo regarded Francesca and her missionary work. We surmise that they spoke of plans to expand this work into Central and South America, for her very next expedition was made in the direction of these lands.
Doña Elena Arellano was another charitable soul like the Countess Cesnola, deeply concerned about homeless children. She had, in fact, been maintaining an orphanage in Granada, Nicaragua, when through a Jesuit friend she heard of the accomplishments of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart and wrote to Mother Cabrini, asking that she take charge of the work. It would be a dangerous undertaking, what with revolutions instigated by the Masons constantly threatening the country’s peace — not to mention other hazards, such as frequent earthquakes, a live volcano, deadly reptiles, disease-carrying insects, and the dread of malaria. The fact is that several of the nuns, including Francesca, would eventually contract that disease. But the opportunity of expansion into Central America, with a foundational base already established, outweighed all such dangers. And the pressing need in that area for spiritual help could not be ignored.
On September 5, 1891, Saint Frances and twenty-eight Sisters sailed for New York; nine of them would continue on to Nicaragua. Anticipating the “sign of the Cross,” Mother Cabrini wrote: “We do not expect this voyage to be as smooth and beautiful as the last, seeing that we are facing a new Mission which needs great graces and therefore new sacrifices to render us more worthy of it.” A terrible storm arose only a short while later, one so fierce that even the captain feared his ship could not withstand its crushing waves. But the frail little prophet in black had seen still greater dangers impending.
None of the others in the small missionary band was the least aware of them, however, as throngs of people, joined by government officials, welcomed the Sisters to Nicaragua with tumultuous festivities. Graciously appreciative but visibly unimpressed by it all was Mother Cabrini, who reminded her daughters that Our Lord had been accorded a similar reception in Jerusalem amid chants of “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday, five days before the same people were to scream, “Crucify Him!” True enough, when later the saint began to take measures against prevailing modes of immoral dress and behavior, she and her Sisters were subjected to such brutal retaliation that they began to brace themselves for early martyrdom. And although this episode of brutality did subside, within a few years the holy foundress received word that her Sisters had been forcibly driven out of their Nicaraguan home, like common criminals, between files of armed guards — a deed which Saint Frances credited to the work of Masonry.
A worldwide apostolate
In spite of all the promised hardships and crosses, the Nicaraguan foundation was put on its feet in short order and went on characteristically to perform heroic labors that would be of lasting spiritual benefit to countless souls. But a whole world-full of souls yet awaited the wonder-workings of our ambitious saint, and she was soon moving on to fulfill the exploits of an exceptionally holy career that would win for her eternal glory.
The present brief account unfortunately cannot follow in detail the steps of every one of her missionary journeys, which saw her crossing the Atlantic no less than thirty times. Henceforth, only a sketchy outline will be provided. Let it always be remembered, however, that much the same pattern of prayer, sacrifice, crosses, perseverance, and miraculous achievement, as already has been recounted, was repeated time and again throughout those future episodes.
We next find Saint Frances in New Orleans, whence she had come in response to the urgent appeal of Archbishop Francis Janssens. Nothing yet described could even approximate the abject poverty, the appalling inhumanity, and the hateful bigotry that Italian immigrants had to suffer in this part of Louisiana. The previous year, eleven of them, after having been acquitted in a murder trial, had been ruthlessly lynched by a mob. The situation was so bad, in fact, that Italy had to recall its ambassador, thus severing diplomatic relations for a time.
Whole chapters could be devoted to the tremendous variety of works and sacrifices performed by Mother Cabrini and her Missionary Sisters here in New Orleans alone. While courageously standing up to powerful organizations in order to fight political injustices, they would also make their rounds of the slums to nurse those stricken in an epidemic of yellow fever. While going from door to door begging money to help the poor, they would also wade through mud to reach spiritually impoverished fishermen and urge them to return to the Sacraments — even arranging special Masses at two o’clock in the morning for the convenience of these men. While conducting schools for children, they would also hike out into the cotton fields to instruct plantation workers in the Faith.
Negroes, Italians, French- all benefited alike from the abundant corporal and spiritual works of mercy of these holy nuns. Many souls were brought back to the Faith, and many more were converted.
And the hardships endured by the Missionary Sisters over long years is equally inspiring. They lived in squalid slums far worse than those of New York. At times they were crammed into a single tenement room, without cooking facilities or eating utensils. Their drinking water, drawn from the filthy Mississippi River, was brown in color and germ-laden. Oppressive heat and swarming insects plagued them constantly. One of their number, Mother Battistina, succumbed to typhoid fever in 1895, dying in the odor of sanctity. Despite the intense heat, her body was discovered still to be incorrupt a year later. Perhaps that fact speaks best in attesting to the holy heroism of the New Orleans mission under the leadership of Frances Xavier Cabrini.
A new dilemma awaited our saint back in New York. There, the Fathers of Saint Charles Borromeo had founded a hospital for the poor, staffed by a group of Italian nuns. Through mismanagement, unfortunately, the project amassed heavy debts, and with its failure the nuns returned to Italy.
Now Monsignor Scalabrini, founder of the Borromeo Fathers, was turning to Francesca Cabrini, asking that she step in and assume management. The good Mother, however, was reluctant to accept the assignment. After all, hers was a missionary apostolate, whose special work was schools and orphanages — quite different from the tremendous financial and managerial demands of running a hospital. For this and many other important considerations, she could come to no decision in the matter until she had another of her extraordinary dreams. In it she saw the Blessed Virgin busily tending the sick in a hospital ward while Mother Cabrini watched from the side. Our Lady turned to her and said, “I am doing what you refuse to do.”
Saint Frances now was certain of her course, and within a few days Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart were hard at work in their new field. Unfortunately, it was too late even for a Mother Cabrini to save that hospital, but with nothing more than 250 dollars in contributions — just enough to pay one month’s rent and buy ten cheap beds — she boldly opened a new one on East Twelfth Street.
It was a courageous venture, considering the enormous expense and hardship of operating a hospital. Consider, too, that the new building was without water and had no gas for lighting and cooking. The Sisters had to buy food for themselves and their patients from a nearby restaurant and heat it over crude coal stoves. They also had to make all mattresses and bedding themselves. And on top of that, there was very little medicine and no surgical equipment. But through the dauntless perseverance of the confident Superior, and with the generous help of doctors who contributed medical supplies and their own services without charge, the project survived to flourish in later years.
The year was 1892, the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. In honor of that pious Italian missionary-explorer, whose heroic voyages were undertaken to bring the Faith to pagan souls, Mother Cabrini named her new establishment Columbus Hospital.
In future years the saint went on to found other Columbus Hospitals in Chicago, New Orleans,
Denver, and Seattle. In California she began a clinic — one of the first of its kind — that specialized in treating children’s tuberculosis. All were tremendous achievements, and all managed to blossom miraculously out of nothingness, befitting the peculiar Cabrini style.
South American Mission
Late in 1892, Francesca returned to Italy to open two more foundations, one of them a convalescent home for her Sisters. And, as usual, there were audiences with the Pope, who by now had become something of a Father to the little apostle and her missionary congregation. This time, however, she came with a purpose: she wanted a personal contribution from Pope Leo, and he obliged by giving her one thousand dollars. When she was leaving Italy in 1894, she called on him once more to say goodbye. The Holy Father dismissed her with a blessing, saying: “Time is so short, let us work, Mother Cabrini, let us work.”
To Francesca those words apparently were a commission to redouble her labors. For, from that time on, the pace of her work and the magnitude of her accomplishments are thoroughly staggering — especially considering that this same dynamic little missionary was a frail, sickly nun suffering with chronic fever, who had been expected to die decades earlier!
Her path on departing from Italy that year led to the United States again, then on to many Latin American cities where she repeatedly encountered serious obstacles in her work, all created by political upheavals instigated by the Masons. But her primary objective on this trip was to open a foundation in South America.
Her services having been urgently solicited by the bishop of Buenos Aires, Francesca sailed from Panama on October 12, 1895, taking with her a somewhat feeble nun for whom Mother Cabrini thought the sea voyage would be refreshing. Unfortunately, the companion quickly wearied of ocean travel.
Having for some unexplained reason set out from the western coast of Panama, Mother Cabrini had planned to sail all the way around the continent of South America to reach Argentina on the eastern shore. But now, to spare her uneasy companion the long voyage, she chose to strike inland from the coast of Chile. Perhaps it looked simple enough on a map. Or perhaps Francesca had no previous familiarity with what was entailed in crossing mountains that peaked at more than 20,000 feet. For she had grossly underestimated the ordeal that was ahead of her, traveling overland to Argentina across the great Andes.
It was almost December when the two nuns started over the forbidding mountains in a mule train. As they ascended, all traces of the alpine path gradually disappeared under deep snow. Frequently they had to pass along icy precipices which were scarcely wide enough to admit their sure-footed mounts, and which overlooked ravines so deep that the bottoms could not be seen. So terrifying was the journey that Mother Cabrini’s companion passed a fair stretch of it unconscious, lying across a mule’s back ‘like a sack of flour,” as the saint described her.
But the most frightful part came when the cavalcade reached a long and deep crevasse that could only be crossed by a healthy leap. A guide offered to carry Mother Cabrini, but she preferred to chance her own strength against such an indignity. As the guide waited on the opposite side, Mother Cabrini gathered breath and courage, then flung herself into the attempt. To the horror of all, she missed her mark! As she started to fall backward, the alert guide, whom Francesca thought to resemble Saint Joseph, lunged back across the gap, pulling the little nun with him. Then, before she could recover enough to protest, he gathered the saint in his strong arms and bounded over to the other side again.
Saint Frances did reach Buenos Aires safely and there founded her first South American Mission. But we never again hear of her taking mountain shortcuts!
Apostle of the world
In succeeding years the travels and accomplishments of this remarkable saint throughout the whole western world almost surpass credibility. Her trail leads to Rome, to Paris, to London, to Paris again; then on to New York, Chicago, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. From there it leads to Spain, where she opened several orphanages and a college; then on to many cities in Italy, where more institutions were founded, to France and then Brazil.
Indeed, were that path to be traced in ink, the map would become a blur of lines. One year alone chronicles her return to at least five different countries in this order: the United States, Italy, Spain, France, Italy again, then Brazil. Do remember, too, that international travel in those days had to be made by slow-moving steamships. On just one “tour” of the United States we find the footsteps of the saint wholly encompassing the country. They lead from New Orleans to Denver, to Los Angeles, to Seattle, to Chicago, and to New York. How remarkable it is to recall, then, that all this arduous journeying was undertaken by a delicate woman, very poor in health but very rich in faith. All of it had one purpose — to save and to serve needy souls. And no effort or sacrifice was ever too great to accomplish that purpose.
From Denver she wrote: “There are to be found here young people, up to thirty years of age, who have not made their First Holy Communion yet. There are marriages which have not been blessed by a priest, and children not baptized.” Laborers in mines and factories were ‘‘oppressed by the work,” she added, and “have not approached the Sacraments for many years.” Her answer to this situation was to travel about the diocese with her Sisters, even descending almost a thousand feet into the dangerous mines, to recall such souls back to the Holy Faith. So many responded to this wonderful work that the local church could not accommodate them all, and Mass had to be celebrated for them outdoors.
In Seattle, she found that the Italians scattered over the hills were without a church. So she built them a chapel. “At the beginning,” she wrote, “we had no bells, so the Sisters used to go by twos to call them from the different hills. These poor people would answer the call and follow the good Sisters who led them to church . . .”
When Mother Cabrini and her Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart celebrated the Silver Jubilee of the Congregation in 1905, it numbered a thousand nuns and some fifty institutions spread throughout five continents, sheltering more than one hundred thousand patients and orphans — not to mention the inestimable number of students attending its schools and colleges. These magnificent statistics are an impressive tribute to the indomitable spirit of a diminutive and delicate girl who doctors had said would die very young — the girl whose oft-repeated motto was: “I can do all things in Him Who strengthens me.”
Into eternal glory
But as death comes to all, so it eventually came to the seemingly invincible Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini.
Her most intimate thoughts were sometimes set down in private notes, obviously kept to aid her own spiritual perfection. She destroyed most of these notes, but a few that survived contain this passage: “I wish to die of love after a life of total surrender to God. . . . Oh Jesus, I love you so much! . . . Give me a heart as large as the universe, so that I may love You, if not as much as You deserve, at least as much as I am capable of. . . . I am Your victim, ready to be sacrificed; do with me as You will.”
Her prayer was answered. Little Francesca was to die as she wished, immolating herself in flames of love in the furnace of her own heart — a heart which was, indeed, as large as the universe.
To die of love is to die a slow death in an agony of happiness. Thus, Mother Cabrini, sickly all her life, and critically stricken many times with disease, still continued the crushing pace of her world-wide labors for many years by the sheer force of love. But toward the end, her remarkable recuperative capacity was noticeably lessened.
Those last years were spent in the United States, the country where she had performed her greatest works, and of which she was now a citizen. In 1916, she visited the foundations in Los Angeles, where the Missionary Sisters were shocked to see how much the health of their Mother General had failed. Had they known the ordeals she had undergone in recent times, and how much agony the outbreak of the First World War had given her, they would have better understood her shattered appearance. And perhaps they would have realized that Saint Frances already then was dying. In any event, they did prevail upon her to consult doctors at Columbus Hospital in Chicago.
An event that occurred before the saint left Los Angeles is worth mentioning. A Sister there had suffered for years with extreme pain from varicose veins. Specialists with their many assorted treatments and remedies had accomplished nothing toward relieving the intense pain. Finally, she purloined a pair of Mother Cabrini’s stockings, put them on, and was immediately and permanently cured! When the nun told Mother Cabrini what had happened, the saint dismissed her own merits in the miracle, saying: “It was your faith that did it.”
Francesca arrived in Chicago on April 18, 1917, where again her grave visage evoked tears. The doctors, as she had known all along, could do nothing for her. She was suffering from the ravages of malaria, complicated by a critical circulatory condition. Rest was prescribed, but it was no easy task to get the habitually active and energetic nun to comply. No longer able to whirl back and forth across the face of the globe like some sort of apostolic tornado, she flung herself, during her remaining months, into the grinding work of the Chicago institute, and eagerly took part in all the somewhat strenuous spiritual exercises of the community.
By the morning of November 21, Francesca’s health had so failed that she staggered as she approached the Communion rail, and fainted when she returned. After the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, she was no longer able to join in community exercises. But as late as the twenty-first, she still could muster enough strength to attend Mass, to spend an hour in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, as was the Friday practice for the Missionary Sisters, and to busy herself with Christmas preparations for the hospital.
The next morning, the saint was unable to rise for Mass. She did, however, receive some of her daughters, asking one of them to clean her room, especially to sweep clean near the chair in which she was sitting. “And please, Sister, don’t leave a speck if you see one,” she added. Though the sixty-seven-year-old Mother did not say so, the fastidious demands were not for her own sake, but for Him Whom she was expecting.
About noon, one of the Sisters returned to Francesca’s room. Finding the door locked, she assumed that the holy woman was dressing, and left.
What actually happened in that little room in Chicago during the several moments around midday, December 22, 1917, remains a mystery. But when Mother Cabrini’s bell summoned the Sisters to hurry to her side, a strange light was seen glowing from her now-opened door. Rushing into the room, the Sisters found their beloved foundress sitting in her chair with traces of blood on her lips and bedrobe. Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, her heart bursting with love for the Sacred Heart of Jesus, had at last succumbed to that beautiful lifelong affliction.
Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, Pray for us.