How a Holy, Humble Nun Captured a City’s Heart
A Visit to the National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
BY Jay Copp
Nov. 3-16, 2013 Issue | Posted 11/9/13 at 9:26 AM
When Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini died in 1917, at the age of 67, in her modest living quarters at a Chicago hospital she founded, her religious sisters alertly saved the blood-stained floor mat underneath her wicker chair.
Mother Cabrini’s boundless energy, uncanny organizing skills and deep love for the poor enabled her to found 67 hospitals, schools and orphanages over the course of her life.
Her colleagues knew for certain she was special; they suspected she was a saint. They were right.
Mother Cabrini, America’s first citizen-saint — who we honor on Nov. 13 — was canonized in 1946.
Her national shrine in Chicago, rededicated a year ago, after being shuttered for a decade, includes the floor mat and a host of other artifacts and personal belongings in her preserved room, as well as poignant historic photos and a gorgeous, pin-drop-quiet chapel with images of steamships and the Statue of Liberty shown in its stained-glass windows — testaments to her tireless service to haggard immigrants in teeming cities a century ago.
The shrine was once part of Columbus Hospital, where she lived and died. Its Lincoln Park neighborhood became gentrified, and the hospital closed in 2001. In its place rose a ritzy condo high-rise. The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the order founded by Mother Cabrini, hammered out an agreement with the high-rise developer to reopen the shrine and chapel, and a peaceful garden was added.
The end result is an opulent condo tower, with units that sell for more than $10 million, whose ground floor is graced with a moving tribute to a humble, frail nun who brought God’s love to bedraggled immigrants.
A whirlwind of good works, Mother Cabrini served the poor in the Americas and Europe. Though fearful of water because of a near-drowning experience in childhood, she crossed the Atlantic Ocean 24 times.
Quiet and self-effacing, she became indomitable when helping others. Leery of being taken advantage of by money-hungry developers when converting the North Shore Hotel into Columbus Hospital, she showed up at the property at dawn one day with a clothesline to measure the size of the lot. Her suspicions were confirmed by her measurements: The owners had tried to cheat her by secretly trimming the size of the lot.
Mother Cabrini needed that kind of steely resolve to surmount the obstacles and disadvantages that confronted her throughout her life.
Her holiness grew out of hardship and disappointment. Born two months prematurely in 1850 in Lombardy, Italy, she was a small and sickly child. She was intent upon being a missionary in China, but two religious communities rejected her, telling her she wasn’t healthy enough.
So she became a teacher and worked at an orphanage, where the three women in charge jealously peppered her with insults.
The local bishop, convinced of her strong character, encouraged her to found her own order. In 1880, she and seven orphans took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and took over an abandoned Franciscan monastery. In 1887, she met with the great Pope Leo XIII, who knew of the struggles of Italian immigrants. As Mother Cabrini knelt before him, he said, "Not to the Orient, but to the West. Your China is the United States."
So Mother Cabrini’s struggles were just beginning. She and her six missionary sisters knew no English when they arrived in New York City. Housed in a ghetto and afraid to sleep, they prayed until morning on their first night in America. The archbishop who had invited them to the city concluded the whole idea was a mistake and advised them to return to Italy. With her trademark determination, she calmly replied, "In America I stay."
After founding institutions for the poor in New York, she rooted herself in Chicago. Italians there were crowded into slums. Wages were paid in pennies. To give families a way out of poverty, she founded Assumption School, the city’s first school for Italians. There was no tuition. The sisters taught and fed the children. Mother Cabrini unceremoniously taught religion at Assumption School. In one sense, she was just another humble nun.
After her canonization, a Chicagoan who had known her casually told a newspaper how surprised she was that this "kindly nun" was a saint.
Yet those who knew her well told another story. "When you looked at her, you could see holiness and greatness there," said Mrs. Louis Gross, a member of the first graduating class from Assumption School in 1902.
A visit to the shrine reveals the simple life led by Mother Cabrini. Displayed are her plain black dress and cape. In her glass-enclosed room are a metal bed, a ceramic statue of Baby Jesus, two chairs, a dresser, a crucifix and a prayer book.
On her desk are her glasses, two hair brushes, a postcard of Pope Benedict XV and a statue of Mary enclosed in a glass globe, which she took with her on her ocean crossings.
"Her bedroom reminds us of the eternal rest that is now hers, while her desk reminds us of her dedication on behalf of the Kingdom of God," says a quote on the wall by Chicago’s late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
Mother Cabrini did not like getting her picture taken, and few photographs of her exist. When Columbus Hospital was dedicated in 1905, she reluctantly consented to a photo. "This is the last time I will take one in my lifetime," she insisted.
On display at the shrine is an arresting portrait based on that photo. Her hands are folded below a cross. She smiles slightly and looks off into the distance, peering perhaps down the road at works of mercy to be undertaken.
Thousands have visited the reopened shrine, and the chapel is favored by local residents who slip in for a few minutes of quiet prayer away from the bustle of Chicago life.
A 10-minute video for shrine visitors explains how, after Mother Cabrini died, pilgrims flocked to the hospital because they "wanted to be close to the woman who was close to God."
Pilgrims still come for the same reason, nearly a century after her death.
Jay Copp writes from
La Grange Park, Illinois.
National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
2520 N. Lakeview Ave.
Chicago, IL 60614
Planning Your Visit
Mass is offered in the chapel on weekends, although a special Mass will be offered at 6pm on Wednesday, Nov. 13, to commemorate Mother Cabrini’s feast day. An organ music concert will be held the following Sunday, Nov. 17, at 1:30pm.
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