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Saint Frances Cabrini: Victim or Victor?

Maria Francesca Cabrini wasn’t expected to survive for very long when she was born in Sant’Angelo, Italy in 1850. Instead, she founded sixty-seven schools, orphanages, and hospitals.

Detail from a stained glass window in Saint Stephen, Martyr, Roman Catholic Church, in Chesapeake, Virginia, depicting Mother Cabrini. (Image: Nheyob/Wikipedia)

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. — Quotation popularly attributed to Saint Frances Cabrini

What do you call a woman who’s told that she can’t pursue her chosen vocation because she’s a woman? What do you call a woman who’s slandered and mistreated by her superior? What do you call a woman who was never supposed to make it to her first birthday due to poor health?

The world might call such a woman a “victim”, but the Catholic Church calls her Saint Frances Cabrini.

Maria Francesca Cabrini wasn’t expected to survive for very long when she was born in Sant’Angelo, Italy in 1850. After all, she was a preemie—born two months early—and was the youngest child in a large family of poor, hardworking, but devout farmers.

Little Maria Francesca was frail and troubled by health problems when she was young. For that reason alone, much less their poverty, it’s not surprising that her family tried to deter her from her childhood dream. But the youngest child in their family had only one plan for her life: to travel to faraway China and bring the Gospel to those who had never heard it before. She was so serious about this goal that she gave up eating sweets; surely, she thought, she would never be able to eat something as frivolous as dessert when she traveled to the faraway Asian continent.

Her family brought her back to reality. Just try to get a teaching certificate, they said, and get a job. She dutifully obeyed her parents and became a teacher. But soon afterwards, when she was only about nineteen years old, her parents died, turning her world upside down.

Maria Francesca lived with a sister for a few years but couldn’t stop thinking about her dream of giving her life to God as a missionary. Unfortunately, each religious congregation she approached took one look at her and sent her away. How could such a fragile teenager be expected to handle the rigors of religious life? 

A parish priest finally gave her a chance. He had founded an orphanage with the help of a wealthy woman, and the priest suggested that Maria Francesca try to turn the staff of that orphanage into the religious congregation of her dreams.

She tried to make a success of the orphanage, but the young woman faced an insurmountable problem. The wealthy woman who had provided the funds and was the putative leader was not just difficult or even eccentric; some reports say she was actually insane. Maria Francesca’s natural charm, strong leadership, and success in attracting dedicated women as teachers only made that woman more abusive and unhinged. The bishop finally stepped in and closed the orphanage to put an end to a situation that had become a public scandal, but he clearly saw something extraordinary in the devout young teacher. The bishop told Maria Francesca that since there was no such thing as a religious congregation of missionary sisters, she should establish one herself. 

So she did. She called her new congregation the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and she took the name in religious life of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, inspired by the example of the great Jesuit missionary who had died (you guessed it) while trying to evangelize China.

Within ten years, despite being repeatedly told that it was inappropriate for women to become missionaries, her little congregation grew and grew in Italy. Mother Cabrini visited the pope himself, asking for permission to take some sisters from her brand-new congregation as missionaries to China. But Pope Leo XIII knew that there were many Italians who had fled to America looking for work in the late nineteenth century. Those Italian immigrants were in dire need of spiritual and material support to remain faithful Catholics in their new land. The pope therefore told Frances to take her sisters to the west, that is, America, rather than east and her longed-for China. Once again, Frances obeyed.

Mother Cabrini had almost drowned once when she was a girl, and she could not swim. She therefore had a completely reasonable fear of large bodies of water, such as, say, the Atlantic Ocean. But despite that fear, she almost immediately booked passage to America with a group of her sisters, taking her first (but far from her last) voyage on a ship.

No sooner had she arrived in America when her plans seemed to fall apart. The bishop of New York, apologizing profusely, told her she needed to return to Italy. Although there were plenty of poor, Italian-speaking children who needed to be educated by her sisters, the building that was supposed to house the school was no longer available. A wealthy donor had retracted her offer of a school building and housing for the sisters, and there was no place for them to stay. In a very short time, Frances charmed the donor and found a new location for her first school in America.

If you could establish one orphanage to care for children, would you consider that a great achievement? In her lifetime, Mother Cabrini founded sixty-seven schools, orphanages, and hospitals. Her Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart spread all over America, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, and from Spain to Latin America, even while she was alive. Even today, dozens of parishes, hospitals, and schools are named after the tiny woman who faced her fears and seemingly impossible obstacles with a boundless trust in God. 

That is, after all, what makes Saint Frances Cabrini a victor over her many challenges in life rather than a victim of mistreatment and disadvantages: she had the heart of a saint. 


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About Dawn Beutner 26 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press and blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

3 Comments

  1. “No sooner had she arrived in America when her plans seemed to fall apart. The bishop of New York, apologizing profusely, told her she needed to return to Italy” (Beutner). Dawn there’s more to the story than Archbishop Michael Corrigan’s profuse apologies.
    “Corrigan was rebuked by the Vatican in 1887 for neglecting the spiritual needs of the surge of Italian immigrants settling in New York and for treating them in a humiliating way. Italians were neither permitted to attend Mass at Irish churches nor construct their own churches, instead being permitted to say Mass only in the basements of Irish churches. Corrigan justified this exclusion on the grounds that the Italians were ‘not very clean’ and would drive down revenues unless segregated from the Irish” (Moses, Paul 2017 Mother Cabrini’s American Welcome in Commonweal). My dear friend now deceased Msgr Francis Cassano said Archbishop Corrigan rudely ordered her to return to Italy. It took her insistence and pressure from the Vatican to convince the Archbishop.
    By the time I was born in Brooklyn the former Italian parish Sacred Heart named in honor of the Sacred Heart Missionaries who compelled the Archdiocese for a church instead of using the basement at St Stephen’s [the Irish community church] the two churches were integrated now called St Stephen’s and Sacred Heart Church. What brought this about was a fire that destroyed Sacred Heart Church. Likely providence. Irish and Italians, Italians mainly children of Sicilian and Neapolitan immigrants got along well. Although the Irish who were also victims treated terribly when they first immigrated had as often the case become, former victims the oppressors of the Italians.
    Mother Cabrini’s legacy was that we were well educated in the faith. The Sisters were tough, I suppose they had to be. I can still feel the smack one gave me. Mother Cabrini is much loved today by all ethnicities because of her heroic love trained in adversity. The genuine article.

    • Very nice and informative article and followup comment with additional information. Mother Cabrini was certainly a gift from God. Would add that those Sisters of Sacred Heart and the Notre Dame Sisters that taught me, whose names very few remember, were also gifts from God. In some ways it is sad that these sisters, who served so many for God, are not remembered more.

    • Very interesting history. Later on, generations of Irish girls from Inwood went to Mother Cabrini High School. She had a way of winning over people and hearts.

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  1. Saint Frances Cabrini: Victim or Victor? – Via Nova Media
  2. Saint Frances Cabrini: Victim or Victor? – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman
  3. CatholicSaints.Info » Blog Archive » Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini

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