St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Pray For Us!
Mother Cabrini succeeded for one reason only: nothing she accomplished was her idea.
I do not remember when I first learned of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the patroness of immigrants. I grew up in New England, too far northeast to be familiar with the myriad of organizations her order established throughout the United States. Eventually, though, I heard her name and realized I should know more about America’s first canonized citizen.
From her arrival in New York City from Italy in 1889 to her death in Chicago in 1917, St. Frances Cabrini and her nuns worked tirelessly to serve Italian immigrants in the New World, ultimately establishing 67 institutions around the country, including orphanages, hospitals, convents and schools. Determined to bolster the faith of Catholic Italian immigrants as they assimilated into the predominantly Protestant American culture, she organized religious education classes for children and adults.
But as is often the case with so many of our saints, it was not her monumental works that amazed me when I read about her life. America can certainly boast a number of brilliant philanthropists and entrepreneurs. It was rather one little quirk that stopped me in my tracks, and made this long-deceased woman leap from the static pages of history.
She was terrified of water. As a child she had nearly drowned in a canal, and the experience left her with an enduring and powerful fear of drowning, which haunted her throughout her life.
Her fear itself was nothing noteworthy. I was struck because the following sentence I read confirmed that St. Frances Cabrini made nearly 30 transatlantic crossings after her initial trek from Italy to serve the poor in New York. Well, one might reason, the Pope did tell her to cross the ocean, and she could hardly defy the Supreme Pontiff. But Pope Leo XIII did not suggest Mother Cabrini go abroad — yet she did. Granted, her original plan was to travel to China, like her great patron St. Francis Xavier, and it was the Pope who redirected her to “go west, not east,” but the notion of an overseas mission was all her.
More accurately, it was the Holy Spirit, whispering in the heart of the little Italian nun. There was no earthly reason why St. Frances could expect to meet any kind of success in America. She was small, frail (being born two months premature to a poor family in 1850 set her up for a lifetime of health trials), and had a near-paralyzing fear of overseas travel. Yet everywhere she went, her work bore tremendous fruit, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.
St. Frances Cabrini succeeded for one reason only: nothing she accomplished was her idea. She merely consented to God’s will, even when what he asked seemed not only impossible, but indeed contrary to all of her natural desires and instincts.
In reading about St. Frances Cabrini’s indefatigable efforts, I immediately thought of the words of EWTN’s late foundress, Mother Angelica, when she said: “I am not afraid to fail, I am scared to death of dying and having the Lord say to me. ‘Angelica, this is what you might have done had you trusted me more.’”
That fear, that our own shortsightedness may thwart what we could allow God to do in our life, clearly motivated Mother Cabrini more than her fear of drowning or her own physical limitations. Her life story could be reduced to that of a remarkably effective — and even ambitious — community organizer and businesswoman. But instead we can envision her, holding white-knuckled to the rails of a ship, braving the dark Atlantic Ocean, entrusting her life and work to her Creator, all for love of him and his children.
Now, over a century after her death, her work lives on and her life reminds us to focus not on our own fears, but on what God could do with us, if only we let him.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, pray for us!