Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini: America’s Patron Saint of Immigrants
As debates rage nationally and locally over immigrant’s rights, we are well served to remember that – ultimately and with very few exceptions – all Americans are immigrants in one form or another. At the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, the American ideal is reflected eloquently in a poem by Emma Lazarus that begins: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” Ideology and dialogue alone, however, provide little visible relief to immigrants. Help often comes from individuals, and for many Italian immigrants in late 19th America, this support came from Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini.
Widely recognized as the first American citizen canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, she is also acknowledged as the Patron Saint of immigrants. She gave hope to those desperately seeking help, offering assistance in both their material and spiritual needs.
Born Maria Francesca Cabrini on July 15, 1850, she was the tenth child of Agostino Cabrini and Stella Oldini. Her difficult birth, premature by two months, affected her health throughout her life. Many of siblings, however, would not survive adolescence. Her father farmed as her mother tended to the children in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, a small village sited on the plains of Lombardy south of Milan.
Maria’s life found its direction early. Nightly, her father read to the family, often recounting stories of great Catholic missionaries. Especially appealing for Maria were the tales of Chinese missions, and she hoped to become a Franciscan missionary. At the age of 13, she enrolled as a boarding student in the Normal School located in the commune of Arluno. Graduating in 1868 and certified as a teacher, she remained in Arluno, living in the convent with the religious sisters who ran the school.
In 1877, at the age of 27, she was able to take religious vows and became the Mother Superior of the House of Providence orphanage in another Lombardian commune, Codogno. In a tribute to the evangelizing Jesuit, Frances Xavier, Maria added Xavier to her name. Within three years, she helped establish a new order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. The order helped to create homes, a school and a nursery, and their good works became known to the Bishop of Piacenza, Giovanni Scalabrini.
By the late 19th century, thousands of Italians had arrived in the United States, with many making New York City their home. They suffered tremendous hardships in their new country. Viewed contemptuously by most Americans, Italians labored in the most menial of jobs. Even the Roman Catholic Church in America was unprepared for their arrival and initially treated the many devout Italians as outsiders. The prayers of the immigrants, however, were soon answered in the form of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini. Urged by Bishop Scalabrini, and with the blessing and support of Pope Leo XIII, she and six of her Missionary Sisters landed in New York in early 1889.
Unable to speak English and lacking a place to stay, she and her fellow Sisters endured many of the same problems suffered by immigrants.Obstacles, however, failed to diminish her spirit and within a short time she established an orphanage and school. Her primary donor was the wife of the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Countess Mary Cesnola. This was only the beginning, however, for during her lifetime Mother Cabrini founded sixty-seven institutions around the world including schools, orphanages, hospitals, and social service outreach programs.
Eventually her work brought Mother Cabrini to Seattle, where in 1909 she fulfilled a deeply held desire to become an American citizen. Her missionary work continued with zeal over the next few years as she traveled extensively reaching to help those with the greatest needs. A tale persists that in 1912, she and a companion had tickets for the Titanic. Circumstances – and perhaps divine intervention – prevented her from sailing on that ship’s final voyage.
The last years of her life were spent in Chicago. Her health, always fragile, eventually failed as she contracted malaria. As she sat in her wicker chair at Columbus Hospital, the disease claimed her life as she prepared Christmas candy treats for the local immigrant children. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini passed away on December 22, 1917, at the age of 67. Appropriately, she was interred at the Sacred Heart Orphanage in West Park, NY. In 1933, however, Mother Cabrini was exhumed and enshrined in the church’s altar at St. Frances Cabrini Shrine in Manhattan. Faithful pilgrims continue to visit this site by the thousands each year.
Five years later, the Church beatified Mother Cabrini and Pope Pius XII subsequently canonized her on July 7, 1946. Attesting to her immense popularity, even in death, over 100,000 attended her canonization at Chicago’s Soldier Field. By 1950, Pope Pius XII also declared her the “Heavenly Patroness of all Emigrants.”
Mother Xavier Cabrini still represents a ray of hope for many, especially immigrants. She saw not what was, but what could be. Her inspiration and genuine love not only changed lives, but saved them, too. Her accomplishments will never fade nor be diminished with time.
Mother Xavier Cabrini left us with a prayer, and it serves a reminder of who she was, and perhaps a guide for future generations:
We must pray without tiring, for the salvation of mankind does not depend on material success; nor on sciences that cloud the intellect. Neither does it depend on arms and human industries, but on Jesus alone.