Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini--Patron of Immigrants from a devotional card.
Note—Perhaps as we register out outrage at the criminal abuse of immigrants and asylum seekers in Trump’s America this week at Lights for Liberty vigils this Friday and other actions around the country, it would do well to recall an earlier immigrant….
She arrived in New York City in 1889 just short of 40 years old, a frail and tiny woman accompanied by six of her sisters barely able to speak a word of English and with virtually no resources. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Prioress of the Institute of Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, found a chilly welcome from Archbishop Michael Corrigan, who, like many of the mainly Irish American Catholic Bishops, was disdainful and distrustful of the waves of Italian immigrants who were piling up on American shores. Rather than seeing them as potential reinforcements for the faith in a still largely Protestant and hostile nation, Corrigan thought of them as ignorant and dangerous and a threat to Catholicism’s gradual and grudging acceptance. He found her space in the partially empty convent of the Sisters of Charity, and left her to her own devices with little support—and frequent opposition—from the Archdiocese for her missionary work.
When she died less than thirty years later the woman who came to be known simply as Mother Cabrini and her order had established 67 institutions—orphanages, hospitals, schools, and convents in New York, Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans, Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and other locations. In addition there were more than 100 others in Italy, and countries throughout Europe and Latin America. Archbishop Corrigan and the rest of the American Hierarchy eventually became her admirers and supporters. Not bad for a woman who originally had only wanted to become a missionary to the heathen Chinese.
Maria Francesca Cabrini was born on July 15, 1850, at Sant’Angelo Lodigiano in the Province of Lodi, Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, of the Austrian Empire. Her father, Agostino Cabrini was a prosperous cherry grower. Her very religious mother, the former Stella Oldini raised her 11 children, only four of whom lived to adulthood, steeped in the Faith. Francesca, as she was known, was the youngest of the family and always frail. After nursing siblings who died in a small pox outbreak and contracting the disease herself, she was almost invalid.
Francesca spent a lot of time with a favorite uncle, a priest, who encouraged her growing sense of vacation. As a child she constructed paper boats filled them with violets, launching them on a canal by her uncle’s church telling him the flowers were missionaries on their way to China. At 12 she took a personal vow of perpetual virginity.
The next year at the age of 13, Francesca enrolled in a school run by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart. She graduated cum laude in 1868 with a teaching certificate. But when she tried to join the order, the sisters had to turn down their accomplished student on the grounds that she was too frail for their life.
Sister Francis Xavier Cabrini as a young nun in Italy.
Instead she took a teaching position and then became Headmistress of the House of Providence Orphanage in Codogno. In addition to teaching, Maria gathered a religious community around her, drawing mostly on older girls from the Orphanage. In 1877 she and seven of them took religious vows together. She adopted the name Francesca Saverio Cabrini—Francis Xavier Cabrini—at that time in honor of the Jesuit saint, Francis Xavier, Patron of missionary service.
Three years later in 1880 Cabrini and her sisters formally founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with her as the Superior General of the order. Under her visionary leadership and administration skills, sisters grew rapidly and within a few years had established seven orphan homes, a free school, and a nursery. They supported their work through the sale of needle work and fine embroidery produced by the nuns and by students. They also benefited from Mother Cabrini’s persuasive skills in soliciting donations from the wealthy.
This work achieved the admiring attention of Giovanni Scalabrini, Bishop of Piacenza who arranged for an interview with Pope Leo XIII. She expressed her childhood dream of being allowed to become a missionary to China. The Pope discouraged that idea. Instead he suggested she consider moving her mission field to the United States where large numbers of Italians were settling and where they had few priests to serve them and keep them loyal to the Church and where they were mired in poverty and exploitation at near the bottom rung—barely above Negros—of American society. “"Not to the East, but to the West,” he admonished her.
It took a few years for Cabrini to put the affairs of the Sisters in order in Italy to keep up the work there and to raise the funds for the mission trip with a nucleus of her sisters. They were finally able to make the crossing in 1889.
Cabrini's West Park, New York orphanage and school for immigrant girls.
The sisters began their work by teaching catechism and general literacy—in Italian—classes for the immigrants in New York City’s crowded slums. In an age where many poor women died in childbirth, diseases like tuberculosis cut short lives, industrial accidents took a heavy toll on men and women alike, and when many men abandoned their families, the sisters found many orphaned or abandoned children living in the streets. Mother Cabrini founded her first American orphanage for girls, now known as the Saint Cabrini Home in West Park, Ulster County New York. The grounds also included an academy, the American Mother House and Novitiate, and served as Cabrini’s principle home and headquarters for the rest of her life.
The property was sold to a rock bottom prices by the Jesuits who could find no water on it. But legend has it that Cabrini prayed to find a spring on the grounds and, seemingly miraculously after years of futile searching by the Jesuits an ample, pure spring was found on a hillside where she first dug.
Concerned with the appalling health care immigrants received, Mother Cabrini and the sisters expanded their operations to hospitals first opening Columbus Hospital in New York City in 1892, a year of national hoopla over the supposed discovery of the New World by Italian hero Christopher Columbus 400 years earlier. The hospital merged with the Italian Hospital (founded 1937) in 1973 to become the Cabrini Medical Center.
Chicago became another important center for Mother Cabrini. She founded the large Italian immigrant community there especially fertile ground and enjoyed more support from the Archdiocese there than in New York. In addition to establishing a large convent there and founded Assumption School on East Erie Street in Streeterville and Chicago Columbus Hospital in the North Side Lincoln Park neighborhood in 1905. Later she added Columbus Extension Hospital for the Poor on the West Side. In her later years Chicago became a virtual second home.
Mother Cabrini, by this time famous and celebrated, became a naturalized American Citizen in 1907. Her example was said to have encouraged a minor wave of naturalizations among the immigrants she served and who adored her.
Mother Cabrini in maturity.
Cabrini was a busy administrator and tireless fund raiser. She also made the arduous round trip trance-Atlantic crossing almost every year for 30 years. On one such trip in 1915 Italy joined the Allied side in World War I with the aim of reclaiming more Italian speaking regions from Austria—Cabrini’s home in Lombardy had been annexed by the Kingdom of Italy back in 1859. Cabrini threw herself into organizing her hospitals and convents there in support of Italian troops and providing medical care for the wounded as well as relief for refugees. She was hailed as national heroine.
Mother Cabrini made one more hazardous war-time crossing back to Italy. But back in Chicago on December 27, 1917 her fragile body succumbed to malaria in a room of her own Chicago Columbus Hospital. At her request she was buried on the grounds of the Mother House in New York beside other sisters of her order. Back in Chicago, the room in which she died became an unofficial shrine. It was preserved just as it was on the day of her death and was visited annually by thousands. Rumors of prayers answered and cures began to be associated with it.
Responding to the rumors of miracles and to the worshipful attention Mother Cabrini continued to inspire in Chicago, Cardinal George Mundelein initiated the Church investigation leading to her official veneration, the first step toward canonization. As part of that process her body was exhumed for inspection in 1931. In the spirit of the ancient tradition of dismembering the body to be used as relics at church and shrines dedicated to or associated with the dead, Mother Cabrini’s head was removed and preserved in the chapel of the Congregation’s international motherhouse in Rome. One arm was severed and sent to Chicago to a chapel adjacent to her death room at Columbus Hospital. The rest of her body was brought to a new Shine constructed on the ground of the girls’ school she founded in New York City at 701 Fort Washington Avenue.
Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in stained glass.
In 1938 after a miracle involving the restoration of sight to a child blinded by the excess application of silver nitrate to the eyes, Pope Pius XI raised her to official veneration in a decree, anointing her heroic virtues. After a second miracle involving the healing of a terminally ill nun was confirmed, Pope Pius XII officially canonized her on July 7, 1947. The whole process took an unusually short period of time, which reflected the concern at the Vatican that the United States, which had become one of the largest Catholic countries in the world by population as well as the wealthiest, was vastly underrepresented on the Calendar of Saints.
St. Cabrini made Patron of immigrants, orphans, hospital administrators, unlikely causes, and against malaria. Her feast day is on November 13, the date of her beatification, rather than the more customary anniversary of her ascent into Heaven (death.) This was probably due to the crowded nature of the liturgical calendar during the Christmas Season.
IN 1955 Cardinal Samuel Stritch consecrated the National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini including her death room inside the Chicago Columbus Hospital.
Many of the institutions Mother Cabrini founded are no longer functioning. State authorities and other institutions took over many of the orphanages and closed them with the movement to placements in foster care or adoptions. Many of her schools fell victim to declining enrollments, including Mother Cabrini Catholic High School in New York where a separate shrine was built on the grounds in 1957 and which shut its doors at the end of the school year in 2014 after 111 years.
Her hospitals could not survive the relentless pressure from ever-growing private, for profit hospital conglomerates on one hand, and shrinking Medicare and Medicaid payments for their largely indigent patients. No amount of fundraising could save most of the hospitals first from rounds of merger and consolidation and then from closure. In late 2001, Chicago Columbus Hospital closed its doors. A year later, the shrine and chapel inside were also shuttered. The hospital building was demolished, but the Cabrini National Shrine was a separate property belonging to the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and was preserved. After years of controversy and heavy handed pressure to relocate the Shrine so that the valuable Lincoln Park land could be profitably redeveloped an agreement was made and a new luxury condominium building was erected over and around the Shrine. After restoration the Shrine was blessed and dedicated by Cardinal Francis George on September 30, 2012.
The National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini as it now stands alone in Chicago's affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood.
Meanwhile in New York City, Cabrini Medical Center was forced to close in 2008. After an attempt by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to turn the vacant buildings into a for-profit out-patient surgery center fell through, the complex was sold to private developers who planned to convert the buildings to condominiums.
For many people, Mother Cabrini is best remembered for something she never personally had anything to do with—Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green public housing project. The projects were built out over a period of twenty years beginning in 1944 with the Frances Cabrini Roughhouses on land cleared from some of the worst and most dangerous slums in the City, a largely Italian neighborhood so rife with crime that more than 50 murders were committed in one year alone at Death Corner, Locust and Sedgwick. Four additional sections of high rise buildings were finally finished by 1964.
At first the development was integrated and most of its residents were employed former slum residents who took pride in being Development People. But Mayor Richard J. Daly shifted the focus of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) to warehousing the very poor and reinforcing the city’s rigid racial segregation. By the mid-‘70’s Cabrini-Green was over-run by drugs, gangs, and violence and the building were allowed to deteriorate with poor maintenance and vandalism. Many believe that it was allowed to happen because the land juts into the intersection of two of Chicago’s wealthiest neighborhoods, Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast and was coveted by developers.
A new round of Public Housing “reform” has seen the high rise buildings razed and their residents disbursed. The area is being re-developed, supposedly for mixed income uses. The Cabrini row houses were preserved, although their residents were all evicted. They are now an up-scale anchor for the planned development. No one expects that any of the former Black residents will find space in the few units reserved for low income residents.
Meanwhile the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus continue their work in the United States and around the world. They remain dedicated serving the needs of the poor and immigrants with health care, senior care, immigrant services and the like. They have taken a special interest in implementing Catholic teachings on Social Justice and ending world-wide human trafficking.