National Catholic Register


A Place to Remember America’s First Citizen-Saint

BY Jay Copp

May 31-June 6, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/31/98 at 2:00 AM


Chicago's Columbus Hospital honors Mother Cabrini, a fine friend to immigrants at the turn of the century

Columbus Hospital in Chicago treats multitudes of poor people, telecasts daily Mass to patients, and proudly recalls its heritage as one of the 67 hospitals, schools, and orphanages founded by Mother Cabrini, America's first citizen-saint. The legacy of Mother Cabrini is especially alive at the hospital. The room at the hospital where she lived and died has been preserved as a shrine.

The sparse room looks as it did when Mother Cabrini collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1917. On display is her simple bed, the wicker chair in which she died and even the bloodstained gown she wore at the time of her passing. In a glass case are personal items like her religious habit and eyeglasses. Visitors can view a videotape chronicling miracles attributed to her.

Next to the room is a lovely chapel decorated with black and gold Italian marble. Dramatic frescoes, banners, and stained-glass windows depict important events in the saint's life. The chapel has daily Mass, a weekly novena and occasional concerts.

The room is smaller than most people's living rooms, but St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was a true giant in U.S. Catholicism. She lovingly cared for society's poor and outcasts and founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart religious order. Her death in 1917 touched off widespread mourning, not unlike the grief that came with the loss of Mother Teresa. The diminutive, frail but tireless nun, a native of Italy, ministered in Chicago, New Orleans, New York City, and elsewhere. Her ministry was among immigrants, particularly Italians, and she is the only woman honored by having her name inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

She founded Columbus Hospital on Lakeview Avenue on Chicago's North Side in 1905. Mother Cabrini was quiet and humble, and rarely consented to having her photo taken, but she could be indomitable if necessary, whether haggling with a merchant for a better price or beseeching a bishop or benefactor to back a new project. The building of Columbus Hospital is a case in point. She had purchased the North Shore hotel to convert it into a hospital. Sensing something was amiss, she showed up at dawn one morning and measured the property with a clothesline. Her suspicions were confirmed: The owner tried to cheat her by secretly trimming the size of the lot.

Later, the contractor also tried to cut corners. She promptly fired him and took over as general contractor. She then gladly hired Italian trades-men to complete the project.

A small and sickly child, Maria Francesca Cabrini was born two months prematurely July 15, 1850, in Lombardy, Italy. Her devout parents encouraged her childhood aspiration to be a missionary in China. As a young woman she ran an orphanage before she and seven orphans consecrated themselves to God in 1880, took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and called themselves the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

The order spread rapidly in Italy, and Mother Cabrini met with the great Pope Leo XIII in 1887. He had heard about this relentless nun from Lombardy who wanted to evangelize China, but he also had been receiving reports of the great difficulties of Italian immigrants in America. As Mother Cabrini knelt before him, he told her, “Not to the Orient, Cabrini, but to the West. Your China is the United States.”

Mother Cabrini, who feared water because of a near-drowning in childhood, eventually crossed the ocean 25 times. She left her mark on many cities. In New York City, she raised funds for orphans by walking through the streets of “Little Italy.” Her sisters saved many lives in New Orleans during an epidemic of yellow fever. In Scranton, Pa., where Italian immigrants toiled long hours in dangerous coal mines, she paid for a school, enabling parents to help their children climb out of poverty. No mountain was too high to climb for Mother Cabrini. Traveling to Buenos Aires, she crossed the Andes riding high atop a mule.

She also opened schools and orphanages in New Jersey, California, Washington, and other states. It was in Seattle, Wash., where she was naturalized as a citizen in 1909.

Her presence was particularly strong in Chicago. She first came to the city in 1899 at the request of the Servite Fathers at Assumption Parish. The priests were desperate to begin a good elementary school for the terribly impoverished Italian immigrants who crowded their North Side neighborhood. As many as a dozen families were forced to live in a single-family home. Mother Cabrini founded Assumption School, where children attended for free and began their steady rise out of poverty. The future saint unceremoniously taught religion to thousands of school-children.

The school closed in 1945 when the area turned industrial. The old school building on Erie Street (a few blocks from Michael Jordan's restaurant, Planet Hollywood, and other trendy places) now houses a cinema museum. Still visible on the facade are the words Assumption School. Next to the old school is the former convent where Mother Cabrini once lived.

Assumption Church on Illinois Street still looks as it did many years ago. Notable are the exquisite stained glass windows, colorful statues, and old-time confessional where Mother Cabrini regularly made her confession. The church is a popular choice for weddings because of its down-town location and old-fashioned look.

Mother Cabrini died Dec. 22, 1917, one day after filling bags of candy for hours. These were Christmas treats for children at Assumption School who otherwise might not get presents. Around noon the sound of her chair toppling over was heard, and she was found in eternal peace.

One of her first students at Assumption later recalled her saintly presence: “When you looked at her you could see holiness and greatness there.” A documented miracle that paved her way for sainthood involved a baby, accidentally blinded in 1921 at a New York hospital named after Mother Cabrini. A nurse had washed the baby's eyes with too strong a silver nitrate solution (then routinely used to guard against infection). That night the nuns prayed fervently to Mother Cabrini, who had died four years earlier. The next day doctors were astonished: The baby's sight was restored. Peter Smith grew up to be a priest and lives in New York.

Mother Cabrini was declared a saint in 1946, igniting huge celebrations in Chicago at St. Frances Cabrini Church and at Soldier Field, where 100,000 people gathered to honor her. She is not forgotten. More than 20,000 people visit the chapel and room at Columbus Hospital annually.

For further information, telephone the Shrine at 773-388-7338.

Jay Copp writes from Chicago.