The Unsinkable Saint Who Missed the Titanic

Divine Providence guided Mother Cabrini away from icebergs and other hazards throughout her life.

A photograph of St. Frances Cabrini, from 1880, the year she founded her order, is seen against a 1913 painting by Harry J. Jansen, ‘The Steamship Titanic.’
A photograph of St. Frances Cabrini, from 1880, the year she founded her order, is seen against a 1913 painting by Harry J. Jansen, ‘The Steamship Titanic.’ (photo: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In April 1912, Mother Frances Cabrini was in Italy with her sisters. Her plans were to visit her foundations in France, Spain and England before sailing back to the United States in mid-April to continue work in New York City. Her sisters in England were eagerly awaiting this visit from their 62-year-old founder and superior. To help make her journey back to the U.S. more comfortable they had bought her a ticket and booked passage on a new ocean liner, the RMS Titanic.

Although an intrepid traveler who would eventually make 24 transatlantic crossings to establish her foundation, hospitals and orphanages, she was not a fan of ocean voyages since she had almost drowned as a youngster.

While the sisters in England waited, word got to Mother Cabrini that there was trouble at the Columbus Hospital she had established in New York. It was overflowing and there was urgent business to settle connected to a new expansion. She could not wait. She had to get back to raise desperately-needed money to proceed with the project. So she decided to change plans and leave early, sailing from Naples, disappointing the sisters in England who had booked her passage on the Titanic.

The prefix “RMS” in “RMS Titanic” stood for “Royal Mail Ship” because it would also carry mail under contract to the British Royal Mail — an important bit of context for something she wrote in a May 5, 1912, letter to a Sister Gesuina Dotti:

Only two of your letters I have received so far, and if you have sent five, then it must be said that it went down into the depths with the Titanic. If I was going to London, I might have left with it, but Divine Providence, which is constantly watching, did not allow it. God be blessed.

Another Close Call at Sea

This was not St. Frances Cabrini’s only miss with an iceberg.

In 1890, on her second trip to New York, she was among 1,000 passengers on a ship called La Normandie. The seas were very heavy one night and most skipped dinner and stayed in their cabins — except Mother Cabrini and five other souls, quite surprisingly. She knew of the dangerous situation and back in the cabin remained ready to save her sisters and herself if the call came to go to the lifeboats. She would later report that “the Good Lord … lulled us all to sleep on a great seesaw, rocking us back and forth.”

But that was only the beginning. As the storm raged on the next day, she braved going on deck, finding a chair in a relatively safe place, and continued writing a letter. In it, she wrote:

You should see how beautiful the sea is in its great movement, how it swells and foams! It is truly a marvel! … If you were all here with me, daughters, crossing this immense ocean, you would exclaim, ‘Oh how great and wonderful is God in His works!’

Now that is enlightenment from someone who did not like sailing one bit. Maybe because two days earlier she had, as told in an article about her, “compared the tranquility of the sea to the joy experienced by a soul abiding in the peace of God’s grace. No matter what the circumstances, she was able to see the love of Jesus shining through.”

That was not all on this trip. Next, around midnight, “We felt a strong jolt and the ship stopped suddenly,” she would write about one such event after another on this journey. She and her sisters dressed and readied to board lifeboats if necessary. The trouble turned out to be something wrong with the engine. At that point “the sea became calm and beautiful” and the ship remained practically motionless until the engine was fixed by the morning and the ship was again able to continue. The breakdown caused an 11-hour delay — a delay that likely saved the ship and passengers from a disaster.

Two days later, said Mother Cabrini, “Toward eleven we saw ourselves surrounded by icebergs on every part of the horizon … they were about twelve times the size of our ship.” The captain reduced the ship’s speed to weave slowly and carefully through the ice field to avoid colliding with the “immense, jagged fortresses.”

A story recorded at her shrine described it this way: “Mother Cabrini noted that though they had complained when the engine broke, the crisis was a great grace. Without that delay, the ship’s encounter with the icebergs would have occurred in the dark, most likely with dire consequences.”

‘Supported by My Beloved’

Then there was the time the train she was riding from one orphanage to another was shot at outside Dallas by enemies of the railroad. She remained unruffled and recounted later how one bullet “aimed at my head fell to my side, while it should have pierced my cranium.” When those aboard were aghast about her escape, she told them “It was the Sacred Heart to whom I had entrusted the journey.”

Shortly after this incident, she wrote a letter stating, “Didn’t I write and tell you that I am alive miraculously?”

From the Titanic to La Normandie to Dallas, there was no question about Divine Providence for her. As she would write, “Supported by my Beloved, none of these adversities can shake me. But if I trust in myself, I will fall.” And “In whatever difficulty I may encounter I want to trust in the goodness of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who will never abandon me.”