This month, American Catholics have an opportunity to mark a significant anniversary. On July 7, 1956, Pope Pius XII canonized Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. Mother Cabrini was the first American citizen to be so honored by the universal Church, and it came less than three decades after her death.
Sixty years later, as Americans struggle again with difficult questions about immigration, she still has much to teach us.
Francesca Cabrini was born in 1850 in northern Italy. In that year, Catholics comprised about five percent of the population of the United States. After her schooling, she worked on her parents’ farm and also as a school teacher, until finally taking religious vows in 1877. By that year, Italians were emigrating to America at a rate of 20,000 per year.
In 1880, Frances’s bishop asked her to found a new order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, dedicated to the care of poor children. The need was great, for Italian society was troubled by unemployment, poverty, and disease, the very things that were then sending Italians elsewhere by the hundreds of thousands, in search of a better life.
In the United States, these immigrants, joined by many others from other European countries, were unfamiliar with the society they stepped into and unwelcome by most of its people. Most of them spoke little English. They crowded into disease-ridden slums and were taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers, who gave them dangerous and filthy jobs for little pay.
An encounter with Pope Leo XIII sent Mother Cabrini following in their footsteps. The pope asked her to go to America, to work among the immigrants. She arrived in New York City with six other sisters on March 31, 1889. Their first night there was spent in a dismal hostel, where they prayed most of the night rather than climb into the filthy beds they found.
When Mother Cabrini met with the archbishop of New York for the first time, he told her that the problems of the immigrants were far too complex and the situation far too uncontrolled to begin thinking about opening an orphanage or a school, and he suggested she return to Italy at once. She refused, insisting that America was where God wanted her. Four months later, she had a functioning school and orphanage.
The next three decades were a whirlwind of service, evangelization, and administration. Mother Cabrini cared for the sick, provided food for the poor, and organized catechism classes for children as well as adults. She founded hospitals, orphanages, schools, and convents in Newark, Scranton, Chicago, New Orleans, Denver, Seattle, and Los Angeles, as well as in South American and European cities.
In 1909, Mother Cabrini became a US citizen in Seattle. She continued her work with little rest right up to the day of her death in Chicago in 1917. By that time, almost four million Italian immigrants were living in the United States.
“She extended a friendly and helping hand especially to immigrants,” Pius XII preached at her canonization Mass, “and offered them necessary shelter and relief, for having left their homeland behind, they were wandering about in a foreign land with no place to turn for help. Because of their condition, she saw that they were in danger of deserting the practice of Christian virtues and their Catholic faith.”
The same pope declared Mother Cabrini the patron saint of immigrants in 1950.
Mother Cabrini was herself an immigrant. She spent herself in caring for a massive influx of immigrants into a population that distrusted them, took advantage of them, and was not always receptive of them. They came at a time long before the laws that currently regulate American immigration policies today.
As we mark the anniversary of her canonization, the parallels and the lessons are hard to miss. They may not provide immediate answers to people of a very different time, but they surely offer food for thought.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, first American saint and patron of immigrants, pray for us!
© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange
Barry Michaels's work has appeared in many Catholic publications, including Our Sunday Visitor, National Catholic Register, The Priest, Touchstone, My Daily Visitor, and Catholic Men's Quarterly. His third book, New Novenas for New Saints, will be published by Pauline Books in spring 2007.