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  • Writer's pictureOmar Gutierrez

The True Grit of Mother Cabrini

The Cabrini family was a farming family in northern Italy. They were all made of tough stuff, it was said, and the youngest child born in 1850, little Maria Francesca, the future Mother Cabrini, was no exception.

Stories of missionary work read at night to the whole family made Maria desire to go and bring the Gospel to other peoples in other lands. China was her desired outpost. But her parents wanted her to be a school-teacher, so she obeyed.

In 1874, a Father Serrati and the Bishop of Lodi, knowing Maria's desire for religious life, invited her to help staff an orphanage called the House of Providence founded by a woman named Antonia Tondini. Serrati had noticed Maria’s grit and talent and so her mission was to improve the conditions at the orphanage and help create a religious community with Tondini and the other two women who had previously joined. Maria was not eager to agree but she did and then found herself at the receiving end of Tondini’s insane abuse. For several years, now Sister Frances Xavier Cabrini endured Tondini, but in the end, nothing could be done. In 1880 the bishop closed the orphanage.

Nevertheless, Sister Frances' grit and determination had drawn several women to her, and the bishop asked her what she desired. She wanted to do missionary work, but there were no institutes of missionary work for women at the time. The bishop said, “so found one yourself.” And she did, calling them the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with the specific charism of educating girls. Within two years she had enough sisters for three houses in Italy and seven houses after five years.

None of this came easily, of course.

The words “missionary sisters” were considered inappropriate to women because of the dangers that missionary work often involved. Then there was the mother who sued Cabrini for “tricking” her daughter into joining. There was hard work at each step, but Mother Cabrini persisted, for traveling East to China was where her heart had been since she was a girl. However, the Bishop of Piacenza, the Archbishop of New York, and several others asked Mother Cabrini to come to America and serve the many Italian immigrants landing on those shores. She resisted the idea entirely, until one night she had a dream and decided to seek the advice of Pope Leo XIII. He said, “Not to the East, but to the West.” And so, with six of her sisters she came to the U.S., landing in 1889 and found… a mess.

The Italian immigrants who had come to America were largely uneducated and poorly catechized. In New York there were around 50,000 Italians, but according to some reports a fraction of them had ever attended Mass. The Italian priests who were celebrating those Masses had been sent over because they had gotten in trouble back home, and so they were less than good examples. What’s more, when she arrived and finally got in to see the Archbishop of New York, Archbishop Michael Corrigan, he explained that there had been a disagreement between himself and a donor and so, while there was a school, there were no living quarters for Mother and her sisters. He explained that she would have to go back.

"No, Monsignor,” she said, “not that. The pope sent me here, and here I must stay.” Within weeks, Mother Cabrini had repaired the relationship between the Archbishop and the donor, secured a spot to live, and founded the orphanage. After four months she was back on a boat to Italy with two new recruits from America, and nine months after that she was back in the U.S. with reinforcements from Italy. It was not long before she founded more orphanages and schools not just in the New York region but also in New Orleans, Chicago, Seattle and eventually Nicaragua, Panama, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Costa Rica.

By the time that Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini’s grit began to fade, she had traveled thousands and thousands of miles, spreading the Gospel to all corners of the Western World. Her order had grown to over a thousand sisters in eight countries. Few managed to do as much as she did in so short a time. But in 1917, in one of her convents in Chicago she passed away.

It didn’t take long for her to be canonized. Pope Leo XIII had said she was a saint back in 1889. The Church officially recognized the fact in 1946, making Mother Cabrini the first American citizen to be canonized a saint .

St. Frances Cabrini, may your grit and determination for the building up of the kingdom inspire us all to rise up to the difficulties of our time and stay true to that mission to which we’re called.

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