Mother Cabrini’s Legacy Lives on 75 Years After Canonization

In many ways, the first canonized U.S. citizen remains more relevant than ever to the U.S. and the world.

The Mother Cabrini Memorial is seen in Battery Park City in Manhattan.
The Mother Cabrini Memorial is seen in Battery Park City in Manhattan. (photo: STRF/STAR MAX/IPx / AP)

UNITED STATES – Seventy-five years ago, Pope Pius XII canonized St. Frances Xavier Cabrini and declared her the patron saint of immigrants. Across the U.S., devotees of “Mother Cabrini,” as she was known, are kicking off celebrations of this Italian-born nun and first U.S. citizen saint and bringing attention to her legacy today.

In Chicago, the National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini is beginning a jubilee year, where pilgrims to the shrine can obtain a plenary indulgence. 

“We are celebrating what we call the opening of the holy doors,” Sister Bridget Zanin, executive director of the National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, told the Register. She said the shrine will have its opening Mass attended by a representative of Cardinal Blaise Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, and 16 concelebrating priests for a congregation of 300 — the maximum capacity of the Shrine’s chapel — to kick off the jubilee year. The jubilee year concludes on the saint’s feast day in November 2022.

“This shrine is right in the middle of the country, and I think many people will really profit from coming to visit the National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini and find out who this woman is that made a such a tremendous change in society and for justice at that time” Sister Bridget said. “And she’s still equally important today because we are faced with the challenges of many, many people who are in need of our help.”

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, born in 1850, founded a missionary order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and 67 institutions, including orphanages, schools and health-care facilities, from New York to Burbank, California, before her death in 1917. Her canonization in 1946 made Mother Cabrini the first naturalized U.S. citizen-saint. 

Sister Bridget said she joined Mother Cabrini’s order 50 years ago after viewing many orders and being drawn to the sisters’ missionary charism and simplicity. 

“I love their devotion and dedication to people that really are in need today,” she said.

Also planning a yearlong celebration is St. Frances Xavier Cabrini parish in Allen Park, Michigan, which claims to be the first U.S. parish named for Mother Cabrini. Founded months after her canonization, the parish is also celebrating its 75th anniversary. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini’s Nov. 13 feast day in 2021 and 2022 bookends a year’s worth of celebrations the parish has planned.

“We’re trying to always incorporate the ministry and the focus of the ministry of Mother Cabrini, which has been our focus as a parish these past 75 years, too,” Father Tim Birney, the pastor, told the Register. 

The parish has planned over the course of the year presentations on the Catholic faith, a parish mission, pilgrimages to the Cabrini shrines in Chicago and New York, and a 75th anniversary Mass with the archbishop of Detroit.

Father Birney said Mother Cabrini’s canonization 75 years ago generated a lot of enthusiasm among Catholics. He speculated that fact — and the community’s Italian-American heritage — were huge motivating factors in the parish choosing St. Frances Xavier Cabrini as its patron and getting out in front of other potential Catholic parishes. 

Father Birney said the work of Mother Cabrini is reflected in Catholic parishes, but especially at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini parish, where the faithful have dedicated efforts to live out her witness of serving the poor, immigrants, the sick and the orphan and education. The parish has a very active St. Vincent de Paul Society, has parishioners active in social-service groups throughout the Detroit area, supports a grade school and high school, and helps stock soup kitchens and food pantries — all in the spirit of Mother Cabrini.

“Who she is and what she did is very much the DNA of our parish,” he said. “Her favorite line from Scripture we use a lot around here as kind of our motto and slogan: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’ from Philippians 4:13.”

 

Increasing Importance Today
Mother Cabrini’s stature in the U.S. has continued to grow since her death in 1917 and her subsequent canonization in 1946. A new statue to Mother Cabrini was established in New York City’s Battery Park, looking out toward the harbor and the Statue of Liberty, where the immigrants would arrive. In Colorado, the state has replaced Columbus Day with Cabrini Day as a state holiday.

The work of Mother Cabrini is not simply over and done, the memory of a bygone era, but continues today. 

Missionary Sister Pietrina Raccuglia, president and chair of the board of the Cabrini Mission Foundation, told the Register that the Cabrini order is present in 17 countries, carrying on the work of Mother Cabrini’s ministry in the “big three” of social services: immigration, education and health care.

“We have our sisters working in Uganda at this point, working with some refugees from South Sudan. We have one sister working in a cooperative ministry in South Sudan, doing some spiritual guidance to the people who serve there,” she said. “Now more than ever, there’s the need.”

The Cabrini Mission Foundation continues to support Mother Cabrini’s ministry by supporting efforts to care for immigrants, such as New York’s Cabrini Immigrant Services, and working with various ministries and groups to aid refugees and migrants on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sister Pietrina said the world’s challenges in the 21st century are even more challenging than they were for Mother Cabrini in the 20th century. 

 “You could argue displaced people is the biggest issue in the world right now,” Christopher LaBianco, the foundation’s executive director, added. As a result of global poverty, military conflicts and changing climates making regions unsustainable to live in, he told the Register, “There are more displaced people now than probably any other time in global history.”

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (also known as UNHCR), more than 82 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homelands. The numbers of displaced have increased year after year since 2011. 

Sister Pietrina said the Cabrini Mission Foundation allows them to support the work of Mother Cabrini, especially in areas where their sisters cannot be present. 

 

For the Love of Jesus

In New York City, the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine is celebrating the 75th anniversary of Mother Cabrini’s canonization with five Masses in four different languages. And the shrine provides Catholics an opportunity to discover for themselves the charism of Mother Cabrini. 

Julia Attaway, executive director of the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine in New York, told the Register the shrine puts an emphasis on outreach, and since the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions lifted, the shrine has seen a massive amount of pilgrimages over the summer, including 19 pilgrimages in one week. Pilgrims learn about Mother Cabrini, the miracles that led to her beatification and canonization, and the ongoing testimonies of how Mother Cabrini has brought about favors in their lives through her intercessory prayer. 

“What she did was love Jesus. And all of that she did was the fruit of the love of Jesus,” Attaway said. “I think she can teach us a lot about how to think, in terms of helping others and serving others wherever we’re called — and to let God do the work."

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