13 November 2009

Frances Xavier Cabrini, Virgin

13 NOVEMBER 2009. Today, in the dioceses of the United States, the Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (Francesca Cabrini), the founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart and the first American citizen to be canonized.

Francesca, one of thirteen children, was born in Lombard, Italy on 15 July 1850. At birth, Francesca was so small and fragile that she was rushed immediately to the local church for baptism for fear that she would not survive. However, her life of service and virtue is not only a testament to her survival, but of her flourishing in love of service to Christ.

As a young child, Francesca was mostly tended to by her eldest sister Rosa. Rosa desired to be a teacher, who imagined little Francesca as her pupil. The family's patriarch, Agostino Cabrini, often read aloud to his children gathered in their kitchen. And, the stories were usually stories of missionaries serving in far away lands. It is no wonder then that little Francesca imagined herself in play as a missionary sailing to far away places. When she turned 18 Francesca applied to the convent in the hope that she would one day be sent to the Orient as a teacher. However, Francesca's application was denied because of her health.

Undetered in her vocation of service, Francesca at once set herself to living as a lay person. Francesca cared for her parents, but both of them died within a few years. Then, a small pox epidemic swept through her hometown, and Francesca devoted herself to serving and assisting the ill. She worked so frequently with the sick that she eventually contracted small pox herself. However, her sister Rosa nursed Francesca back to health and she suffered no long-term effects of the illness.

On her recovery, and with improved health, Francesca accepted a job as a substitute teacher and reapplied to the convent. However, the local priest, Father Serrati, counseled the convent to again deny her application. Father Serrati had watched the way she devoted herself to the service of others in the small pox outbreak and thought Francesca's zeal and piety would have other avenues.

Father Serrati asked Francesca to go to a nearby town and "put things right" at an orphanage that was badly disorganized. During her time at the orphanage, Francesca took the nun's habit and after three years took her vows. So impressed were her superiors with the work that Sister Cabrini was doing, that they made her the mother superior of the orphanage at the age of about 27. For three years afterward Sister Cabrini worked at the orphanage until it was dissolved. At the orphanage, Sister Cabrini built strong relationships with many of the girls, and when the orphanage closed it left homeless Sister Cabrini and seven young nuns that she had trained.

At this point, the Bishop of Lodi called on Sister Cabrini and asked her to found a missionary order of women to serve the diocese. Happily accepting, now Mother Cabrini acquired an abandoned Franciscan friary in Cadogno and set to establishing her new order. Mother Cabrini's sisters opened a day school, sold embroidery to earn money, took in orphans, and soon were fully involved in missionary work. At the same time Mother Cabrini composed a simple rule for her order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. They wore a simple habit, even keeping their rosary in a pocket to better enable them to work, and adopted as their patrons Saint Francis Xavier and Saint Francis de Sales. Mother Cabrini's order then began to grow and new houses were soon started around the diocese.

In 1887 Mother Cabrini went to Rome to establish a house there and seek papal approval for her order. After a short while in Rome she made contacts at high levels in the Church and her order was accepted by Pope Leo XIII, who later spoke of Mother Cabrini with admiration and affection. In this period too, Italy was suffering from terrible economic woes and many Italians were immigrating to the Americas. However, upon arrival on our shores, the new immigrants were often mistreated and were without the ties to family and church they had in Italy--simply struggling to survive. In answer to this cry, Mother Cabrini came to the United States 1889.

When Mother Cabrini and her company of nuns arrived in New York, they immediately set to work. Having no convent, a local wealthy Italian family purchased a house for the sisters who used it to start an orphanage. Soon, the orphanage was overflowing with children and the nuns frequently resorted to begging to meet the needs of all the children.

Over the next many years, Mother Cabrini spent much time in the United States and Rome. Then she traveled to Nicaragua, opening schools there. From there, schools were opened by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Argentina, France, England, and Spain. Schools were next opened in Brasil as South American novices took to the order. Then, Mother Cabrini returned to the United States, starting new schools in New York and across the country as she traveled westward. In 1909 in Seattle, Washington, at the age of 59 Mother Cabrini took the oath of American citizenship. While Mother Cabrini might have, at this point in her life, been looking forward to a life of reduced activity, she continued to travel to and fro in the support of her order.

However well known that Mother Cabrini became, though, she always lived a modest and humble life. In fact, she deplored being referred to as the "head" of her order. Although the friend of three popes, Mother Cabrini did not take on the air of authority.

On the way back to New York from a trip to the Pacific Coast, Mother Cabrini stopped in Chicago. While there, though, she suffered a recurrence of malaria that she had contracted many years before. As she was recovering from her illness, Mother Cabrini was helping her nuns and some children prepare for a Christmas party in the hospital when she suffered a fatal heart attack. Mother Cabrini died on 22 December 1917, at the age of 67.

Mother Cabrini's body today lies beneath the altar at the Saint Frances Cabrini Shrine at Mother Cabrini High School in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. She was beatified on 18 November 1938, and canonized on 7 July 1946 by Pope Pius XII.

Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini is the patron saint of immigrants.


God, You called Saint Frances Cabrini
from Italy to serve immigrants of America.
By her eaxmple
teach us concern for the stranger,
the sick, and the frustrated.
By her prayers help us to see Christ
in all men and women we encounter.


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