“She was not a humanitarian; she was a heroic lover of God. In her missions of charity, in her achievement of the impossible, it was not genius; her secret was Divine Love. This is the wonderful story — a romance that is gripping and striking. It is the story of a woman who lived among us, who saw the things which we see, a woman in whose soul Divine Love had consumed the last remnant of self, who came to love only God, and who saw God in every poor man, woman and child. She loved us. She was our benefactor. She went begging in our streets. She rode our street cars. Through alleys she went in search of little hungry children who were homeless and friendless. Our Saint issues a challenge to each of us, no matter how gloomy the world about us may be; we can smile the serene smile of our Saint” – Samuel Cardinal Stritch of Chicago, Radio Address, July 7, 1946, the day of the canonization of Mother Cabrini.
The small young nun with beautiful large blue eyes entered the presence of the elderly Pope Leo XIII. She knelt before him and told him of her ambition to go to China. He shook his head and said, “No, not to the East, my daughter, but to the West.” He decided that Mother Francis Cabrini should go to the United States and not to China. Thus began a missionary service that resulted in the largest number of missionary foundations in the United States.
On March 12, 1888, her diocesan Institute was approved by the Vatican. Pope Leo XIII dispensed with the usual formalities and approved her rule. While Mother was in Rome, she also learned from Bishop Scalabrini about the plight of the Italian immigrants in the United States.
Bishop Scalabrini was the Founder of the Scalabrini Fathers who ministered to the Italian immigrants. He asked Mother if her community would go New York to help his priests work with them. Italy suffered from an economic crisis in 1887 and the government encouraged poor people to leave the country. There was insufficient work for the men in Italy and many of them immigrated to the States where there was plenty of work for laborers. There were over a million immigrants who lived in ghettos, worked at low-paying menial jobs and had no priests, teachers or doctors to care for them or the orphans. The preceding Irish and German immigrants had assimilated into American society but the Italians had not. Their plight was much like the plight of our undocumented immigrants today.
When the immigrants arrived in the States, they faced minority discrimination, a language barrier in communicating for their daily needs and, more importantly, for their spiritual needs. Some came only for money. Mother said, “They had to come to the United States to earn a living. But what breaks my heart is to see how often they think of nothing else.” Immigration endangered the immigrants’ faith since there were hardly any Italian-speaking priests or nuns in the States to help them to practice it.
The Italian workers had no medical insurance, unemployment insurance, workmen’s compensation or welfare benefits. Their crowded tenement homes helped to spread contagious diseases and there was no one to nurse them. Their children often got hurt at play and their fathers often got hurt working. There was no medical attention for them. Some died and left widows and orphans with nothing. Children had few Italian teachers. There was a great need to educate the children, to take care of the orphans and to conduct hospitals that would care for the sick and injured. Many immigrants lived and died without a priest, without teachers and without doctors.
A newspaper article told the story about Mother’s arrival with her nuns:
This week young ladies with radiant faces dressed in plain black religious hoods and robes were seen coursing the overcrowded streets of Little Italy between the Ghetto and Chinatown, befriending and soliciting the Italians. They left no stones unturned, climbing the dark narrow-hallways of poverty to the top floors, descending murky cellar-ways into filthy basement flats, boldly entering questionable alleys, backyards and obscure areas into which not even the police would venture. They are the pioneers of a congregation called the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and in the short period of a month have already founded a school and orphanage. It is not unlikely that after their devoted rounds these young religious ladies are rewarded with scant alms and the care of more of our vaunted city’s shamefully neglected orphans. These young nuns hardly speak English. The Directoress of their congregation is “Madre Francesca Cabrini,” a diminutive, youthful lady with great eyes and an attractive smiling face. She does not know the English language, but she knows the universal language of the human spirit.
The Missionary Apostolate
Mother never waited until everything was perfectly in place before she started working. The work was more important than the means. She started and worked with whatever was available. Soon, benefactors came to her aid and praised her for her works. She simply replied, “I am merely watching God perform wonders through us.”
In 1907, Mother celebrated the 25th anniversary of her Institute and Pope Pius X granted its final approval. At that time it had more than 1,000 Sisters who cared for 5,000 children in schools and 100,000 patients in hospitals throughout America. The Italian Ambassador to the United States said, “As Ambassador, I consider the illustrious Mother General of the Missionary Sisters a priceless collaborator; for while I work for the interest of Italy among the powerful, she succeeds in making it loved and esteemed by the humble, the infirm, and children.”
Mother continued to establish houses in the United States and South America seemingly out of thin air. Somehow, a hospital, an orphanage or a school sprung up from nothing.
In her lifetime, Mother established 67 elementary schools, high schools, hospitals, orphanages and other missions. She established one institution for every year of her life. “Rest?” she would exclaim, “We will have all eternity in which to rest. Now let us work.” But all of her work was the fruit of her prayer. She once wrote, “I would become weak and languid and risk losing myself if I were to occupy myself only with exterior things or if I were to be without the sleep of prayer in the heart of my beloved Jesus.”
As Christmas of 1917 neared, Mother learned that the local priest was unable to distribute the usual Christmas candy to the children because of the sugar shortage during the war. Mother said, “What! No candy for the little ones? Christmas would not be Christmas! We’ll provide the candy as usual, war or no war.”
So she spent the day of December 21 with her Sisters wrapping Christmas presents and filling bags of candy for the children and wrapping a special gift of a desk set for a long time friend, Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago. Shortly before noon on the next day, December 22nd, she was found collapsed in a chair in her room, her clothes stained with blood. There was just enough time for a priest to come and administer the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Then Mother turned a last look on to her Sisters and died at age 67.
All of Mother’s missionary activity was carried on in an un-hurried manner. In the midst of her whirlwind activities she maintained her recollection in the presence of God. She was never in a hurry and always in a spirit of detached peace. Her prayer life nourished her active life and proved the wisdom and prudence to make her decisions in conformity and obedience to the will of God.
Mother continually practiced prayer in the midst of all of her activities. She wrote, “Pray, pray always, and ask unceasingly for the sprit of prayer. What is the sprit of prayer? It means praying according to the Spirit of Jesus, in Jesus and with Jesus. The spirit of prayer means praying in accordance with the divine good pleasure, willing only what God wills. It means that we have our minds fixed on prayer at all times, in all places, working, walking, eating, speaking, suffering; habitually and always.”
One of the Sisters once asked Mother what to do when her prayers were not answered. “Do?” Mother replied, “Thank God all the more!” At such times she herself would say, “I thank Thee, dear Jesus, that Thy will and not mine has been done.”
She did not practice nor recommend austere penitential methods such as the wearing of a hair shirt. She said, “Contradictions, there is the real, sharp hair shirt! If you love penance, there is a penance that has made saints and which all can practice, even with the weakest health. It is a hair shirt that you can wear not for an hour but all day long.”
Mother was also docile to the voice of Jesus and promptly obeyed. She said, “Jesus speaks and passes by. The Sacred Heart of Jesus acts so quickly that I can hardly follow Him.” Her confidence in Jesus was increased by her humility. She said, “I am imperfect and full of failings, what shall I do? Discouragement, anxiety and worry keep us away from our merciful Jesus. It is an offense to the Sacred Heart, this lack of confidence in His love and gracious bounty.”
Mother’s Institute served in 67 institutions in eight countries on three continents. Her charitable institutions seemed to sprout from nothing in a whirlwind of activity. It was an extraordinary demonstration of her faith and her works of mercy in cooperation with the mighty power and works of God. With no money or means and little help from others, she bought furnished, staffed and administered schools, hospitals, orphanages and convents.
Mother simply went forward with the means at hand confident that God would supply what was lacking. “Don’t worry,” she would say with a smile, “if I were to think too much about procuring the means, the Lord would withhold his graces. We have nothing, yet we spend millions.” No obstacle could stop her. She wrote, “Difficulties! What are they, Daughters? They are the mere playthings of children enlarged by our imagination, not yet accustomed to focus itself on the Omnipotent. Who is not weak? But with God’s help you can do everything. He never fails the humble and faithful.”
This little frail woman with no college education or prior business training or experience demonstrated the truth of her motto, the words of St. Paul, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Fear of sickness did not stop her work. She said, “While I am at work, I am well. I fall sick the instant I stop working.”
At the time of her death, Cardinal Mundelein recalled the paradox of her dynamic power in so frail a body. He said, “When we contemplate this frail little woman, in the short space of two-score years, recruiting an army of 1,000 women under the banner of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, dedicated to a life of poverty and self-sacrifice, fired by the enthusiasm of the Crusaders of old, burning with love of their fellowmen, crossing the seas, penetrating into unknown lands, teaching them and their children by word and example to become good Christians and law-abiding citizens, befriending the poor, teaching the ignorant, washing the sick, all without hope of reward or recompense here below — tell me, does not all this fulfill the concept of a noble woman?”
Mother was beatified in 1938 after Pope Pius XI waived the rule requiring a lapse of 50 years after death. She was canonized in 1946 and was the first United States citizen to be canonized. Her Feast Day is celebrated on November 13 which is the day before the anniversary of the foundation of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
One of the miracles brought through Mother’s intercession was the complete cure of a baby boy at Columbus Hospital. He was blinded by an overdose of silver nitrite solution poured into his eyes by a careless nurse. His eyes burned out, but his eyesight was restored after prayers for Mother’s help.
In 1996, on the 50th anniversary of her canonization, Pope John Paul II called Mother Cabrini “Missionary of the New Evangelization.” Mother’s intercession is necessary in the New Evangelization particularly for the many immigrants still coming to the United States from foreign lands. They come as refugees from persecution, war and famine as well as the immigrants who come undocumented from Latin America and the Caribbean as refugees from poverty.
Mother wrote in one of her letters a prophecy of her intercession for them and for us, “In the adorable Heart of Jesus, I can always find you. He is our comfort, our way, our life. To Him I shall confide all your needs. I will speak to Him of each one of you in particular. I know the wants of every one of you. I will take a great interest in you and keep you close to my heart — you may be sure of this.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on CE as “A Missionary for our Time: Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini” on Nov 13, 2008.
image: Andrew Balet/Wikimedia Commons