Frances Xavier Cabrini Biography (1850-1917)

Italian, American
missionary, saint

A source of inspiration and comfort to countless people in urban areas worldwide, Frances Xavier Cabrini or Mother Cabrini, as she was later called established over 60 orphanages, schools, and hospitals in the United States, England, Italy, France, Spain, Panama, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. She also founded a religious order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. In 1946, Cabrini was canonized, making her the first American citizen to become a saintin the Roman Catholic Church.

Agostino Cabrini and his 52-year-old wife Stella (Ordini) had already lost nine children when their 13th child was born on July 15, 1850 in Sant'Angelo Lodigiano, the Lombardy region of Italy. The baby was born two months prematurely and was so weak that her parents thought she would not survive. The baby was immediately baptized and named Francesca Maria Cabrini. Throughout her childhood, Frances remained frail and was often too weak to attend school. In her early years, she was tutored by her older sister Rosa who was a local teacher.

Frances continued her education at a school run by the religious order, Daughters of the Sacred Heart, in Arluno. In 1870 she received her teaching certificate, with top honors, at the age of 18. Frances hoped to join the Daughtersof the Sacred Heart, but her health was too fragile, and instead taught in Vidardo. In 1874, one year after she had taken religious vows, a local priesturged her to help reorganize a grossly mismanaged orphanage in Codogno. Despite verbal and sometimes physical abuse by the women administrators, Cabrini worked at improving conditions. However, the orphanage was closed in 1880. Inthat same year, seven of the orphans joined Cabrini in establishing a religious order called the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. The order was officially sanctioned by Pope Leo XIII in 1888.

Mother Cabrini next traveled to the United States at the urging of Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini. The bishop had observed the plight of Italian immigrants in America and established the Congregation of St. Charles Borromeo and a church in New York. Knowing that more needed to be done for the immigrants, especially for Italian children in America, the bishop asked Cabrini to take charge of an orphanage in New York. Urged also by the Pope, she sailed forNew York in 1889 accompanied by six other nuns.

When she arrived in New York, Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York informed her that the project was discontinued and suggested that she return to Italy. In a bold move, Cabrini challenged the authority of the archbishop and informed him that she would remain in New York. He later recommended that she and the other sisters establish a school at the church of the Scalabrinian Fathers in lower Manhattan. After establishing the school, Cabrini convinced thearchbishop to open an orphanage for Italian immigrant girls.

With limited resources, Cabrini created a nurturing environment for the children residing at 59th Street as well as another orphanage she established in lower Manhattan. She supplied both homes with day-old bread provided by localshop keepers and soliciting donations from the rich as well as the poor. Theorphanage soon branched out, first to Hoboken, New Jersey, Staten Island, andBrooklyn, all of which had Italian settlements. She then secured a 450-acreestate formerly owned by the Jesuits in West Park, New York, and moved the children there.

During a trip to Italy with several American girls who joined her order, Cabrini founded a teachers college in Rome and had several audiences with Pope Leo XIII, who was very impressed by her accomplishments. In 1891, she expandedher work to Latin America, establishing a private school for young women in Nicaragua. She then turned her attention to the southern United States. MotherCabrini was drawn to the area because of the desperate plight of Italian immigrants living and working in that region. In less than a month after their arrival in 1892, Mother Cabrini and her Missionary sisters founded an orphanage and school in New Orleans and offered comfort to the city's poor, sick, anddying.

Caring for the sick soon became a priority for Cabrini. In 1891, while visiting New York, Bishop Scalabrini convinced the nuns to take charge of a small,recently opened hospital in an upper Manhattan Italian neighborhood. When thehospital was forced to close in 1892 due to financial difficulties, Mother Cabrini moved the patients to a building on 12th Street, where she and the other sisters cared for the sick in an environment that initially lacked heat and water. Enlisting the aid of doctors of all faiths, Cabrini persuaded them to donate their services to Columbus Hospital while working-class Italians were encouraged to donate money, food, and supplies.

Ironically, the outbreak of typhoid fever on an Italian battleship docked inNew York harbor proved a positive development for the hospital. While other hospitals refused to treat victims of the epidemic, Columbus Hospital took them in. With increasing popular support for the hospital after the epidemic, Cabrini secured a bank loan to renovate the facility. In 1885, the completely renovated hospital received approval from the state of New York. Two other branches of the Columbus Hospital were later established: one in Chicago, the other in Seattle, a city where Cabrini also founded a school and became a United States citizen in 1909.

In 1910, Cabrini became Superior for life of the order she founded. For the next few years she traveled to various locations to care for the sick. She tended nuns stricken with a smallpox epidemic in Rio de Janeiro and a yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans required the sisters' nursing skills. By 1917, recurring bouts of malaria contracted in Latin America weakened Cabrini, and shedied in Chicago in December of that year.

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