As a child in Italy, Francesca Cabrini was enthralled by the Asian adventures of the 16th-century Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier. When she made her vows as a nun, she took Xavier's name, hoping that she would be sent to China or Japan as a missionary.
In a private audience with Pope Leo XIII, she revealed her desire to serve in the Far East, but the pope told Mother Cabrini that her mission field lay "not in the East, but to the West." He meant the United States, where millions of poor Italian immigrants were pouring into America's cities.
Like every immigrant group that has come to the United States, the Italians were at once welcome and not welcome. They were welcome to the extent that the women and girls were ready to work in the mills and factories, and the men and boys to work on the docks and construction sites. But they were unwelcome because they were foreigners, they spoke little or no English, many of them were desperately poor, and there were so many of them. Between 1899 and 1910, 2 million Italians disembarked in American ports.
Even the Catholic Church in the United States was ambivalent. Language was the first problem because hardly any of the American clergy spoke Italian. But there were other issues: most of the priests and bishops in America were Irish-born or of Irish descent — they didn't know what to make of emotional Italian piety, or the Italian custom of celebrating a saint's day with an exuberant street festival.
American bishops deluged the Vatican with appeals for Italian priests. The Franciscans and the Scalabrini Fathers were among the first to arrive and the American bishops were delighted to see them.
In spring 1889 New York's Archbishop Michael Corrigan was waiting for another shipment of priests from Italy when an Italian nun knocked on the door of his residence. She introduced herself as Mother Cabrini and said that she had come with six Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart to do what they could for New York's Italian immigrants. Archbishop Corrigan was not happy. He felt that the slums were no place for nuns. He told Mother Cabrini to go back to the dock and take the next ship home. Mother Cabrini stood up — she was barely five feet tall — and said to the archbishop, "I have letters from the pope. I'm staying."
And she did. Nonetheless Archbishop Corrigan's apprehensions about nuns living in the slums were not without merit. The Missionary Sisters' first "convent" in America was a cockroach-and-bedbug infested apartment in a tenement in Little Italy. From the first day they arrived, the sisters were besieged by children who were orphaned or abandoned by their parents; by women whose husbands had died or deserted them; by the sick who couldn't afford a doctor; by the out of work who couldn't afford a meal.
The Sisters of Charity and the Bon Secours Sisters in New York City helped Mother Cabrini and her sisters establish themselves. Eventually Archbishop Corrigan, impressed by the determination of the Italian nuns, became their chief benefactor.
For 29 years, Mother Cabrini worked virtually nonstop to improve the life of immigrants, Italian and non-Italian, in America. She founded 67 hospitals alone and named all of them for her favorite Italian hero, Christopher Columbus. In 1916, ill and exhausted, she retired to the convent attached to Columbus Hospital in Chicago. There, three days before Christmas 1917, she died quietly in her rocking chair. In 1946, Pope Pius XII declared Mother Cabrini a saint and formally proclaimed her the patron of immigrants.