Childhood & Early Life
Frances Xavier Cabrini was born as Maria Francesca Cabrini on July 15, 1850, in Sant'Angelo Lodigiano, a small village near Milan, Italy. Her parents Agostino Cabrini and Stella Oldini were farmers with a modest holding. Born two months premature, she was of delicate health from the very beginning.
She was the youngest of her parents’ thirteen children, nine of whom died before they reached adolescence. As her mother was fifty-two years old by the time she was born, she was raised mainly by her elder sister Rosa.
From her father, Maria heard many stories about missionaries, which greatly influenced her. While on a visit to her uncle Don Luigi Oldini of Livagra, she put violets in paper boats, pretending they were flower missionaries and floated them down the nearby canal, urging them to go to China.
In 1863, she was enrolled at Normal School, run by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart in Arluno, earning her teaching certificate from there in 1868.Thereafter, she returned home to look after her aging parents till they died in 1870.
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In 1870, Maria Cabrini tried to enter the congregation of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart but was turned down because of her frail health. Undeterred, she decided to serve as a lay person, throwing herself into nursing the sick during a smallpox epidemic in her village.
After the epidemic was over, she began to teach at a nearby private school. Around 1874, on the recommendation of her pastor, she went to work for ‘House of Providence’, an orphanage located in the nearby town of Codogno.
From 1874 till 1880, she worked tirelessly for the orphanage, bringing in order into the disordered house, earning love and appreciation for her work. Meanwhile in September 1877, she took her religious vows and was appointed Mother Superior of the institution.
Founding her Own Organization
In 1880, ‘House of Providence’ was closed down, leaving seven nuns, who were also her former students, homeless. At this juncture, the Bishop of Lodi advised Maria Cabrini, now known as Frances Xavier Cabrini, to establish her own organization.
On 14 November 1880, she founded Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (M.S.C) in a depleted house in Codogno. Very soon, the nuns made it habitable and started accepting orphans. To pay for the expenses, they ran a day school and sold fine embroidered clothing.
As prioress, Mother Cabrini chose St. Francis de Sales and St. Francis Xavier as their patron saints. She also set up some simple rules and devised simple habits for her nuns. Very soon, they began to expand.
In 1887, Mother Cabrini traveled to Rome. By then, she had established seven homes, a free school and a nursery, which had attracted the attention of many senior clergies. On their advice, she also opened a centre near Rome.
In Rome, she was received by Pope Leo XIII. But when she asked for his approval to go to China, something she had dreamed of since her childhood, he told her to go the west, because the Italian immigrants in USA needed help.
In early 1889, after making sure that her establishments in Italy were running smoothly, she sailed for USA along with six other nuns, reaching New York City on 31 March. It was expected that a convent would be ready for her, but that was not the case.
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After struggling for days, they set up an orphanage, initially known as Sacred Heart Orphan Asylum, in a donated house in New York City. Very soon, the funds began to run low, forcing them to go begging for money, food or clothing in Little Italy.
In July 1889, Mother Cabrini returned to Italy, where she had another audience with the pope, reporting the conditions of the Italians in USA. While there, she also opened a dormitory for school students, returning to USA in the spring of 1890.
In 1890, she purchased a house in West Bank and transferred her orphanage there. Thereafter, she traveled to Nicaragua with several trained teachers, opening a school for girls of well-to-do families in Granada.
On her return journey, she found that the situation in Louisiana was as bad as in New York. Therefore, she bought a tenement in New Orleans, which became a haven for Italians in trouble. Her nuns also started visiting outlying rural areas to help Italians working there.
In 1892, she established her first hospital in New York, mainly with the intention of serving the Italian immigrants, calling it Columbus Hospital in order to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the explorer’s voyage. The hospital was incorporated in 1895, and it formally opened on March 18, 1896.
Continuing to travel across the Atlantic, she opened 67 missions throughout the Americas and Europe, establishing a school and training center for novices in New York in 1899. Called Sacred Heart Villa, the school produced dedicated nuns who devoted themselves to the cause.
In USA alone, she established several centers in cities like New York City, Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans, Denver, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Those apart, she founded many institutions in a number of cities in Latin America, France, England, Italy and Spain.
Death & Legacy
In the late fall of 1917, while returning from a trip to the West Coast, Mother Cabrini stopped at Chicago, where she suffered a bout of malaria. She was also much troubled by the First World War that was raging across Europe, causing great sufferings to the people.
In December 1917, she decided to hold a Christmas party for the children in Columbus Hospital. On 22 December, while she was making preparations for the party with her nuns, she suffered a severe heart attack and passed away within a few minutes.
Initially, her mortal remains were interred at Saint Cabrini Home, the orphanage she established in West Bank. In 1933, her body was exhumed and different parts of it were sent to different centers, where they are preserved as relics.
She was beatified on November 13, 1938, and canonized on July 7, 1946. In the Roman Martyrology, her feast day is December 22. However in USA, it is celebrated on November 13.