Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini. Via Wikimedia Commons

Frances Cabrini: A Mother in Little Italy

This is the story of a saint who was able to build a new humanity even in moments of great difficulty, an Italian nun who dreamed of being a missionary in the Far East but was told by the Pope: “Your China is the United States of America”–and she obeyed.
Paola Bergamini

In the last few weeks, dark-skinned women wearing the habit of the Sisters of Charity have been visiting the Italian quarter of Little Italy, climbing dark, narrow staircases, and going down into filthy cellars and caverns where not even a policeman would set foot alone. The head of this Congregation is Mother Frances Cabrini, a women with huge eyes and an attractive smile. She doesn’t speak English, but she’s quite a woman” (New York Sun, June 30, 1889). Frances had landed in the American metropolis only a few months earlier, along with seven sisters of the Congregation she had founded–the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus–and her presence and work immediately aroused interest. Who was this slender-looking woman who, over the course of 30 years, was to cross the Atlantic 28 times, founding orphanages, colleges, schools, and hospitals in Europe and the Americas? Then, as now, what is most striking is a presence that, by answering concrete needs, makes Christ’s love for man visible. 

The youngest of 12 children, Frances was born on July 15, 1850, in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, in the Lombardy plains of northern Italy. At the age of 11, she had already decided what to do with her life–she wanted to be a missionary in China. She had a strong character, but poor health, and for this reason many institutes refused to accept her application. Only a certain Dr. Morini commented regarding her physical constitution: “God helps His saints and then plays His games.”

In 1874, she entered the Hospice of Divine Providence in Codogno, near Lodi, where she eventually became Superior. In 1881, the Bishop of Lodi approved the Rule of her Congregation, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In Codogno, she opened the first house for girls, and then primary schools in Grumello, in Milan, and in Casalpusterlengo, as well as a boarding school in Rome–but it still wasn’t China!

In Rome, Frances got to know Monsignor Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, the Bishop of Piacenza. He had already published a pamphlet, Italian Emigration to America, describing the dramatic situation in which Italian immigrants found themselves in the United States. He had sent some priests of the Congregation of St. Charles Borromeo, which he had founded, to help them, but it was not enough. They needed nuns to work alongside the priests, especially in the field of education. The congregation of missionary sisters was just what he was looking for, so he proposed his idea to Frances. She was rather reluctant, mainly because she wanted the Institute to be “free from all material, moral, and spiritual ties, and therefore totally independent.” Also, being the concrete woman she was, she could see no precise plan in which she could collaborate.

Scalabrini returned with a proposal when a request arrived from New York for people to run a school the priests planned to open near the Church of St. Joachim. Before deciding, Frances asked for an audience with Pope Leo XIII. The Pope was very much aware of the situation of the Italian immigrants, and was above all aware that there was a work of de-Christianization going on. People were needed who, with their presence and activity, show that only Christ, within the experience of the Church, is the way to salvation. So he told Frances, “Not the East, Cabrini, but the West. Your Institute is still young; you need means. Go to the United States and you will find them, and with them a huge field for work. Your China is the United States; there are many Italian immigrants who need help.” Frances had no more doubts and she obeyed.

Little Italy circa 1900. Via Wikimedia Commons

Door to door. On March 31, 1889, along with 1,500 immigrants, she landed in New York with her sisters, where there was no one to meet them. They spent that first night in two dirty rooms in a hotel in Little Italy. Frances did not lose heart. In every difficult situation, and in her life, it was always the same: she saw God’s hand, another chance the Lord was offering her to affirm His Presence. The following day, she got to work. With her sisters, she began visiting the families and collecting the children for catechism. With the help of the Bishop, who was at first unsure of them, she set up an orphanage, then a kindergarten, then a school. Where did the money come from? She went from door to door, begging for whatever people could give–money, fruit, vegetables, furniture... Everything was useful. In a short time, the immigrants knew that if they had any difficulty–with work, family, children–they had someone to turn to, but, above all, the sisters helped them to regain a basic aspect of their identity–the Catholic faith.

Frances was untiring. She bought buildings and land, and managed to get loans from the Jewish Community and even from the director of the Metropolitan Museum. No one could resist her. Behind her smile was the brain of an accountant–as she had been taught, you can be in a state of grace and still balance the books. It was her presence that almost “forced” people to give. What moved her was charity–love for Christ and for all men and the longing for Christ to be known–a charity that makes “the children of God work with more persistence, cunning and patience because they have consecrated their efforts to the coming of His Kingdom and are running for an incorruptible reward,” she wrote in a letter. It made a hard-boiled secularist like Filippo Turati say, “We are not in the same parish but, I assure you, I appreciate Cabrini’s work enormously.”

In South America and Europe. Vocations were multiplying and her work was requested in other American cities like New Orleans, Seattle, Chicago… She went wherever they called her and built orphanages, schools, kindergartens and hospitals. She was the example for her sisters. She taught cooking, housekeeping, bookkeeping… and to treat the humble people just like the upper classes. 

After the United States, it was the turn of South America, where there were many Italian immigrants in Nicaragua, Panama, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, across the Cordillera of the Andes on mule back. She never stopped, and yet there was no rush, no anxiety in her work, because “if I were to concern myself only with exterior things, however good and holy they are, I would become weak and faint, with the risk of losing myself, if I should miss the sleep of prayer, and if I were not to try to rest peacefully in the heart of my beloved Jesus. Give me, Jesus, an abundance of this mysterious sleep.” This was her strength: love for Christ. Her journeys took her back to Europe many times, where she founded institutes in Spain, France, England, and Portugal because, given the international character of her mission, the sisters had to be able to speak and teach in the languages of the various countries. Death came to her unexpectedly December 22, 1917 in Chicago, as she sat at her desk.