Mother Cabrini: The First American Citizen to be Named a Saint

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was born in 1850, died in 1917 and was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946.

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The feast day of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), or Mother Cabrini, is Nov. 13.

Maria Francesca Cabrini was born in war-torn and politically turbulent northern Italy, the youngest of 13 children, nine of whom did not survive to adulthood. Her parents were devoutly religious; townspeople referred to her father, a poor farmer, as the “Christian Tower.” She was educated in part by her older sister Rosa, a school teacher, who admonished the talkative and impulsive youngster, “To become an educated young lady, you must learn to listen.” 

While still a girl, young Francesca announced to her family that she would one day become a missionary to China. At play, she dressed her dolls as nuns, and made paper boats manned with violets and floated them down a river, representing missionaries traveling to foreign ports.

When she was older, she applied to enter two religious communities, but both refused her because of her poor health. Providence would instead bring her to the House of Providence, a struggling orphanage directed by a gruff and worldly nun. Despite the abuse heaped on her by the sister, Francesca remained for love of the children, and was instrumental in the institution’s reform.

In 1877, she and seven girls took first vows in a newly-formed religious community, with Francesca its superior. Francesca would henceforth be known as “Mother Cabrini” — she took the name Xavier from her patron, the great missionary St. Francis Xavier. The new community was named the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart (over the objections of those who believed the title “missionary” was appropriate only for men), and it was to be devoted principally to the Christian education of girls. At the request of Church authorities, she founded two houses in Rome.

With her community established, Mother Cabrini sought to begin missionary work in China. However, missionaries were more urgently needed in the United States to serve the large numbers of Italian immigrants who came to America in search of a better life. Pope Leo XIII told her, “Hundreds of thousands of our Italian souls in America have become lost and battered sheep, isolated from Christ, understanding and ordinary decency. The New World cries for the warmth and compassion of a mother’s heart … Francesca Cabrini, go to America!” Despite her fear of ocean travel, she and six of her sisters arrived in New York on March 31, 1889. At the time, 50,000 Italians lived in and around New York City, yet most knew little of their faith and only 1,200 attended Mass regularly.

The sisters’ first task was to found an orphanage for Italian children; however, problems arose and no facility was available. Archbishop Corrigan of New York apologetically suggested the best course for Mother Cabrini and her nuns was to return to Italy. But a firm and confident Mother replied, “Excellency, I came to America by order from Saint Peter’s sacred seat. America is my ordained mission … in America I stay.”

The Archbishop relented, and soon after the work of sisters was prospering. Requests quickly came in asking Mother to found Catholic institutions — schools, orphanages, hospitals, religious houses — in other major American cities, including Chicago, Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles and New Orleans, as well as Central and South America and Europe. In the remaining decades of her life, Mother Cabrini traveled extensively, founding and maintaining a network of Catholic institutions, open to all ethnic groups.

By 1907, the year Rome formally approved the Missionary Sisters’ constitutions, the sisters’ eight original members and grown to over a thousand working in eight countries. By 1912, Mother’s health was failing, but she continued working until her death in 1917. She was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946, the first American citizen to be declared a saint.