Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini,
Patron Saint of Immigrants
by: Deborah K. Millemaci
October is Italian Heritage & Cultural Month, and in remembrance of the hardships our Italian Ancestors endured, one person comes to mind who worked tiredlessly all her life to secure better conditions for Italian and non-Italian immigrants alike.
"Maria Francesca Cabrini" was born in Sant'Angelo Lodigiano, in the Lombardy region of Italy on july 15, 1850. Early in her life she knew that her vocation would be helping the less fortunate, and although her dream was to become a Franciscan missionary and help the poor of the Far East, she soon realized she was destined for a more important mission.
It was suggested to her that she form her own order of missionary sisters after her local bishop told her he was unaware of any Franciscan missionary order that accepted women. So in 1880, Sister Maria Francesca Cabrini and seven orphans took over an old Franciscan monastery, and from that time on, they were known as the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Henceforth, Sister Cabrini would be known to the world as Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini.
During the next seven years Mother Cabrini expanded her order to Milan, and parts of northern Italy and Rome. She still had hopes of helping people in the Far East, but when she met with Pope Leo in 1887, she learned that there were people who needed her even more, the "China of the United States." (1)
In 1899, Mother Cabrini and some of her missionary sisters arrived in New York. She faced the same problems Italian and other immigrants faced. There was no place to stay and she was unable to speak English. But this did not stop her from beginning the work she was chosen to do. She began in New York City's Little Italy, raising funds for the orphans by seeking donations. Shortly thereafter she opened an orphanage and school. She also traveled back and forth to Italy, Central and South America helping everyone she came in contact with.
In 1899, Mother Cabrini opened the first Italian immigrant school in Chicago after the Servite Fathers of the Assumption Church enlisted her help. Tuition was free as a result of the economic conditions the parents endured. Mother Cabrini and the members of her order worked for free. Unfortunately, because of industrial development, the school had to be closed in 1945.
While there were some successes there were the obstacles of deplorable living conditions that the poor of the city had to contend with. The Italian immigrants were so fearful of their surroundings they would house as many people and livestock as they could in cramped quarters. And Italian immigrant children were forced to quit school and seek work in order to survive.
But even with these abhorrent living conditions surrounding her, Mother Cabrini's spirit would not diminish. Even though the need for a children's orphanage was great, there was an even greater need for a hospital. She had little trouble obtaining financial support from the wealthy residents of the area, and soon after she purchased the North Shore Hotel near Lake Michigan in the anticipation of turning it into a hospital.
Although Mother Cabrini was a modest and shy woman, people found out she couldn't be taken advantage of. There was a story where she hastily fired a building contractor who tried to cheat her during renovations of the building. He was quickly replaced by Italian immigrants to complete the project.
The Columbus Hospital opened in 1905, and it was Mother Cabrini's wish that Italians would feel welcome. Mother Cabrini made sure the poor would have beds made available to them. She also founded the Columbus Extension Hospital a few years later. Today the hospital is known as the Columbus-Cabrini Medical Center and poor patients are still welcome. (2)
During her life Mother Cabrini's accomplishments were many: a school in Nicaragua, and an orphanage in New Orleans. Her efforts spanned from New York to California. She founded four great hospitals, one in New York, one in Seattle, and two in Chicago. She also established houses for the poor in Argentina, Brazil, France, Spain, England, along with more foundations in Italy. She was responsible for the founding of sixty-seven institutes in America and Europe, and her Order of Missionary Sisters now number about thirteen hundred. She became an American citizen in Seattle, in 1909. She spent the remaining years of her life in Chicago helping the orphan children. She died on December 22, 1917 which is now her feast day.
She was the first American citizen to be canonized as a saint. Pope Pius XII along with over 100,000 people in attendance celebrated her canonization in Chicago's Soldier Field on July 7, 1946. And, on September 8, 1950, Pope Pius XII also declared that Mother Cabrini was the "Heavenly Patroness of all Emigrants" (and also of displaced persons). He described her as an "extraordinary woman...whose courage and ability were like a shining light." (3)
Originally, after her death, Mother Cabrini was buried at the Sacred Heart Orphanage, located in West Park, NY. But in 1933 her remains were transferred to the Chapel of the Mother Cabrini High School in the Bronx. Pilgrimages by the faithful are made by the thousands each year to this site.
Mother Xavier Cabrini was a light, a light of hope to all immigrants and an inspiration to all whose life she touched. She was a woman of vision, and what she accomplished in her lifetime was nothing short of incredible, especially for a woman of her time. She will always be remembered for opening the door for everyone to pass through.
(1) St. Anthony Messenger, July 1995, p.31
(2) op.cit. p.32
(3) Catholic Information Network (CIN) Home Page, 1996.
Deborah maintains a web site called CAPUCINA'S ITALIAN-AMERICAN
*** This article was published in the September/October 1997 Issue of GENEALOGIA ITALIANA,
the bi-monthly newsletter of the Buffalo & Western New York Italian Genealogy Society, Buffalo, New York. The article
was revised in August 1999.