Frances Cabrini was born in northern Italy on July 15, 1850. Born two months prematurely, but that would not stop this spiritual giant, who was not even five feet tall, from bringing Christ to as many people as she could.
Maria Francesca Cabrini was the youngest of thirteen children in a very devout family. From a very young age, Francesca felt the call to religious life and aspired to travel to China, as she was fascinated by tales of missionaries. As a young girl, she would play by a river near her uncle's house, fill paper boats with flowers, her "missionaries," and send them to China. This recreation activity foreshadowed her work as a missionary Sister.
Teaching with love
Francesca Cabrini was rejected the first time she attempted to enter religious life. While disappointed, she did not despair because she never doubted her vocation.
She received a teaching certificate and was noted for her "warmth, confidence, and faith" by one of the priests." She wanted her pupils to be "fruitful to the Church, country, and society." She left no treatises on education, but she did write a small booklet of regulations ('Regolamento') for students. Her advice to teachers and others on teaching from her 'Regolamento' are still practical and helpful. In her own words:
"Fashion the hearts of the students to a love of religion and the practice of virtue..
Safeguard the children confided to you as on precious loan.
Let your example speak louder than your words.
Maintain a maternal solicitude for the children.
Study well the personalities and the strengths of the students because one cannot presume, they are all the same. Treat each one according to their capacity and the gifts they have received from God..
Seek to form character.
Do not embarrass; correct patiently.
See that the environment is clean and well-ordered..
Frances Cabrini finally got her wish and joined a religious community, The Sisters of Providence, and later, at thirty years old, founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
Mother Cabin's desire to "spread the love of Jesus" worldwide was insatiable, and her desire and Sisters' to evangelize in China did not dissipate. God, however, had another plan.
And, in 1887, Mother Cabrini was approached by Bishop Scalabrini, who was concerned about the nearly one million Italian immigrants who had emigrated to America in a decade due to the abject poverty in Italy. Needing guidance, she visited Rome and obtained an audience with Pope Leo XIII. Before their meeting, the Holy Father had received a report about the environment in New York City as "having all the characteristics of a white slave trade." He told her "not to go to the East but to the West." And that she did.
In New York
When Mother Cabrini agreed to go to New York, she was told by her doctor that she had only two years to live, but that did not prevent her from setting sail for America to tend to her fellow Italians, Italian Americans, and others who had envisioned a better life and economic security. Many of the Italian immigrants were unskilled, uneducated, and most were unwelcomed and faced overt discrimination. Their new fellow citizens were hostile toward them and outright prejudiced.
In addition, their living conditions were despicable. Mother Cabrini and her Sisters found "a mass of human misery."
Parents worked 12-hour days for meager wages, and the children "lacked basic food, supervision, and education." In his book, How the Other Half Lives, Jacob A. Riis cites a report describing the awful conditions under which the Italians and other immigrants lived as "an atmosphere of actual darkness, moral and physical."
Not only did these new Americans lack physical means, but they also needed more spiritual means. And because there were very few Italian priests, as it was an "Irish-led Church," the need for catechists who could speak Italian was strong. After all, America was considered "mission territory at that time," said Julia Attaway, Executive Director of the Mother Cabrini Shrine in northern Manhattan. And Mother Cabrini wanted to do the work of Jesus.
A light in the city
In her own words, "I will go anywhere and do anything in order to communicate the love of Jesus to those who do not know Him or have forgotten Him." Within days of her arrival, she organized catechism classes and schooling for the children, who were mainly from New York's Five Point Neighborhood, which was unsafe. "There was no infrastructure for teaching the faith," shared Attaway, but that did not last for long as the convent quickly became a "haven for children" from this notorious neighborhood.
She was also lauded for her zeal, tact, and organizational skills, which were helpful in business dealings. Mother Cabrini has been called a "shrewd businesswoman" who was bold and adept at raising funds when needed. She and her Sisters went door-to-door, asking for money to help, and sometimes they had doors slammed in their faces and were met with blatant hostility. But her call to serve Jesus transcended all vile circumstances to which she was subjected.
In thirty-four years, this woman, of "deep faith," established sixty-seven institutions comprising hospitals, orphanages, and schools. And despite her ill health and almost drowning as a child, she made twenty-five trans-Atlantic crossings because "she was so grounded in what her mission was," stated Attaway. She continued, "The love of Jesus and the Eucharist so fueled her."
Love for the Eucharist
During her many journeys aboard the ship, she was always prepared for Mass as there were many times when the priest would not have the wine, but Mother Cabrini always did. Julia Attaway shared a story of when there was no priest on board when traveling to Panama, and her desire to receive the Blessed Sacrament was so deep that she would get in a rowboat to receive Holy Communion because she knew of a Church two miles off the coast. She knew that the Eucharist was the most blessed gift.
"Go often, my dear ones, and place yourself at the feet of Jesus. He is our comfort, our way, and our life, said Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini.
Mother Cabrini died in 1917 and was canonized in 1946. She was the first American citizen to be declared a saint.