Mother Cabrini and the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Eucharist & American Saints: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), Patroness of Immigrants

Mother Cabrini and the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Mother Cabrini and the Sacred Heart of Jesus (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Statue of Liberty overlooks New York Harbor. An iconic symbol of a nation’s new identity emerging throughout the 19th century on the American continent. Perhaps more significantly, a beacon, one glimpsed by so many entering that harbor from the decks of crowded immigrant ships. The statue represented the freedom many coming from Europe hoped they would find upon disembarkation.

Today another smaller statue now stands facing the Statue of Liberty. This statue of this Italian immigrant, erected in October 2020, is of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini — declared a saint in 1946, but known simply to many as Mother Cabrini. She is the patron saint of immigrants.

Maria Francesca Cabrini was born to devout parents in 1850 at San Angelo in Lombardy, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was the youngest of 13 children. She had been so frail that her parents had her baptized immediately. The stability and relative peace of the Cabrini home contrasted sharply with the world outside. During her childhood the country that would become known as Italy was being born. The first 20 years of her life were marked by political turmoil. It resulted in many being forced to emigrate abroad to America.

From an early age, Maria Francesca had begun to dream of foreign lands. A visiting missionary had preached on the Catholic missions to China. Thereafter, the girl was consumed with the desire to join this heroic and, as it seemed to her, romantic effort abroad. Geography became her favorite school subject. But Divine Providence had other designs.

Upon completing her schooling, she did not join the missions. Instead, Maria trained as a teacher. Thereafter, she was to teach for several years at her local village school.

Nonetheless, throughout this time, a sense of a religious vocation persisted. By the time both her parents had died, she had applied for entry to two religious orders; on both occasions, she was rejected due to her frail health. She continued to teach; she continued to engage in charitable works of mercy among the local poor; she waited.

Finally, a mysterious movement of sorts manifested itself. She was asked by both her local parish priest and bishop to go to the House of Providence at Codogno. It was initially a temporary posting but the then 24-year-old was to spend the next six years of her life there teaching school to orphans.

Although this tenure at the House of Providence appeared to be another time of waiting, it was, in fact, the beginning of her life’s mission as by 1877, she had taken vows. And, in addition, she had begun to attract other women to a religious life in common, as yet still ill-defined. It was also at this time that she added the name Xavier to her Christian names in honor of St. Francis Xavier, the great apostle of the East. Her choice of patron was a statement of intent. At last, things were moving, it seemed her wish was to be fulfilled: she would become a missionary sister in China.

During this time that the local bishop reignited her longing for the missions. As no missionary order would have her, he suggested Maria start her own. Looked at in purely practical terms, the idea sounded as preposterous as it was unobtainable. Yet, the young woman’s response was one of faith and so her few words in response to this suggestion speak volumes: “I will look for a house.” And, so, she did. And, in 1880, as the orphanage closed, she founded the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. The new community consisted of seven sisters and Maria, who was now Mother Cabrini.

The community’s first convent lacked the basic necessities. This lack of material means was to be a recurring pattern in the life of Mother Cabrini, but just as recurring was her trust in Providence, and a humble confidence that the means to carry out her mission would be provided. Yet, what was missing in material means for the new community was in stark contrast to that which they felt they needed most. The new community in November 1880 may have had no light, no logs for the fire and nowhere to sleep, but upon hay strewn on the bare boards of their convent, Holy Mass was offered the very next day in a room hastily turned into an oratory. This order and its founder had a clear hierarchy of priorities.

The order flourished. Postulants came and the community grew. New houses of the community were opened in different towns across Italy. And although Mother Cabrini had no money, she seemed to lack nothing. She was never to waver in her faith in Divine Providence. Not surprisingly her new religious congregation was dedicated to the Sacred Heart — and in that Heart’s promises and care she never faltered in placing her trust.

Still, her desire to evangelize China went unfulfilled. In 1889 Mother Cabrini had an audience with Pope Leo XIII. She hoped he might bless this long-cherished goal to work for the foreign missions to the East. But the meeting had an unforeseen outcome. The Pope told her to look not to the East but to the West, specifically to the United States. Hearing the divine call in the Pope’s invitation, with six sisters, Mother Cabrini prepared immediately to go by ship to New York.

In March 1889 she landed at New York Harbor. The sea crossing had been difficult, not least because of Mother Cabrini’s fear of water. Still, she had persevered but had come to a place that proved even less welcoming than she could have imagined. The reason that the Pope had asked Mother Cabrini to take her order stateside was on account of the thousands of Italian immigrants heading to those shores. The combination of war and poverty at home had caused many Italians to seek a new life in the United States. Like other immigrants, for time immemorial, they were met with a combination of contempt and hostility and were easily exploited. Pope Leo XIII knew of the great pastoral challenge this represented. He was also aware that some of the prejudices against these new arrivals were shared by even their co-religionists: the local bishop had made it clear he did not feel his diocese needed the services of Italian nuns.

Mother Cabrini spent her first night in a down-at-heel Chinatown hotel so full of bugs that the sisters were unable to sleep. The next day she met the local bishop, Archbishop Michael Corrigan. He told her to return to Italy. Her reply was forthright: “No, your excellency, this I cannot do. I came here by order of the Holy See, and here I must stay.”

For better or worse, time and again in the life of this holy woman, we see Church authorities playing a decisive part. The initiative of her local parish priest and bishop had set in motion the course that would lead her to the founding of a religious order. Her obedience to the Pope’s request caused her to set out for new lands. In both instances what we see is a woman of cast-iron faith for whom the will of God was manifested through the requests of legitimate religious authorities. But what we also glimpse is how she distinguished the real from the counterfeit — such as the papal “go” from the prelate’s “return.” It was the will of God that she served, not the whims of man, no matter how exalted in human terms.

She pressed on with her mission in this strange new city. A contemporary newspaper notes the arrival of these new religious sisters as follows:

This week young ladies with radiant faces dressed in plain black religious hoods and robes were seen coursing the overcrowded streets of Little Italy between the Ghetto and Chinatown, befriending and soliciting the Italians. They left no stones unturned, climbing the dark narrow-hallways of poverty to the top floors, descending murky cellar-ways into filthy basement flats, boldly entering questionable alleys, backyards and obscure areas into which not even the police would venture. They are the pioneers of a congregation called the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and in the short period of a month have already founded a school and orphanage. It is not unlikely that after their devoted rounds these young religious ladies are rewarded with scant alms and the care of more of our vaunted city’s shamefully neglected orphans. These young nuns hardly speak English. The Directoress of their congregation is ‘Madre Francesca Cabrini,’ a diminutive, youthful lady with great eyes and an attractive smiling face. She does not know the English language, but she knows the universal language of the human spirit.

Mother Cabrini did return to Italy three months after her arrival in New York. But by then she had started her mission in the West with both a school and orphanage established and she would return to the United States. While her links with Europe and her mission there continued for the rest of her life, her energy would be focused principally on the Italian immigrants in America.

For a woman who suffered from a fear of water and severe seasickness, she would cross the Atlantic Ocean 25 times in her lifetime. Each time, on her arrival at the entrance to the New York Harbor, she glimpsed the Statue of Liberty. She would have witnessed, too, on board the ships she traveled, the poverty and sufferings of the “huddled masses” who stood with her and who viewed that same statue with so much hope. By the time of her death in 1917, aged 67 years old, it is reckoned she had founded some 67 such institutions across the United States.

On one level Mother Cabrini’s story recalls that of many European immigrants who came to the United States and, against seemingly impossible odds, triumphed. On a different level, by some, the story of Mother Cabrini had been co-opted as one of a “social activist,” a woman whose aim was to alleviate human suffering through charitable ventures. Although she did wish to alleviate sufferings, this was not her true motivation. Whether in Italy or America, she was a missionary for the Gospel. Every school founded, every orphanage opened and every hospital operating was but a means to an end that was purely spiritual. She was often heard saying: "I am only a spectator of God's work."

Saints understand each other in ways the world cannot do. In 2000, Pope John Paul II wrote to the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart on the motivation of the order’s founder. The Pope was clear that the momentous activity of this Italian nun, who suffered from ill health all her life, was on account of her total dependence on the Sacred Heart and her devotion to the Holy Eucharist:

Her extraordinary activity — as you well know — drew its strength from prayer, especially from long periods before the tabernacle. Christ was everything to her. Her constant concern was to discern his will in the directives of the Church’s Magisterium and in the events of life themselves. In particular, she had a deep devotion to the Sacred Heart. Mother Cabrini’s tireless apostolic work was more and more inspired by her desire to bring salvation to all, and in a hurry. She used to say: ‘The Heart of Jesus does things in such a hurry that I can barely keep up with him.’

Inside the Statue of Liberty, a plaque is engraved with words from "The New Colossus," an 1883 poem by Emma Lazarus:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.

 But Mother Cabrini’s life calls to mind a different invitation: “Come to me all you who labor and are over-burdened.” That invitation was not to an ideal or even to a new country, but a call that continues to this day and to all mankind: to find rest in the Eternal Heart.