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 | By Mary Lou Gibson

Mother Cabrini: First American citizen to be canonized

Maria Frances Cabrini was the youngest of 13 children born in 1850 in the small village of Sant’ Angelo Lodigiano, Italy. She followed her parents’ wishes and trained to be a teacher in a convent boarding school at Arluno. Her parents died when she was 18, and Frances discerned a call to religious life. She applied to two religious congregations but was refused because she had been ill with smallpox.

So, she taught in a private school until 1874 when the Bishop of Lodi asked her to help at a small orphanage in Codogno. Editor Michael Walsh writes in Butler’s Lives of the Saints that the bishop then asked her to turn its staff into a religious community.

Several recruits joined her, and in 1880 she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart dedicated to the education of Christian girls. Some years later, the bishop of Piacenza suggested that Mother Cabrini, as she was known, should go to the U.S. to work among the Italian immigrants. She had always wanted to do missionary work in China, so she rejected his suggestion.

When the Archbishop of New York sent her a formal invitation, Walsh writes that she consulted with Pope Leo XIII, who told her to go “Not to the East, but to the West.”

In 1889, she and six sisters crossed the Atlantic to organize an orphanage and an elementary school for Italian children in New York. Sadly, they were not welcomed. The archbishop withdrew his invitation because he felt the work was not suitable for women and suggested she and her sisters return to Italy. Richard McBrien writes in Lives of the Saints that Mother Cabrini said, “No. The Pope sent me here, here I must stay.”

At that time, there were 50,000 Italian immigrants in New York, many living in poverty and apart from the church. Mother Cabrini and her sisters received no support from the diocese as they taught the children, visited the sick and fed the hungry. As the sisters’ reputation grew, McBrien writes that local shopkeepers donated to their mission. Sarah Gallick writes in The Big Book of Women Saints that Mother Cabrini was blessed with a gift for bringing out generosity in others; she also shrewdly negotiated with landowners and contractors.

Mother Cabrini opened orphanages and schools in New York. She also founded a hospital. For the next several years, she established foundations in Chicago and New Orleans. Her mission spread to Italy, Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Brazil, France and England with 67 houses of her congregation throughout the world. She became an American citizen in 1909.

Mother Cabrini, a petite woman, battled ill health all her life. She had difficulty learning English and spoke with a heavy accent.

Mother Frances Cabrini died in Chicago on Dec. 22, 1917. Canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946, she was the first American citizen to be canonized. She was named the patroness of immigrants by Pope Pius in 1950. Her feast day is observed on Nov. 13 in the U.S. (Dec. 22 in the rest of the world). Mother Cabrini’s legacy lives on in the 16 countries where her Missionary Sisters live and work.

Mary Lou Gibson is a freelance writer who loves to explore the lives of saints. She is a member of St. Austin Parish in Austin.