The Real Mother Cabrini Remembered: ‘Her Confidence in God Was Great’

In wake of new theatrical release, devotees of St. Frances encourage the faithful to learn more about her and recall her faith-focused mission: ‘Her passion was for Jesus to be known, loved and served.’

(L-R) Altar inside Chicago Cabrini Shrine; parishioners pray while visiting the shrine in Golden, Colorado.
(L-R) Altar inside Chicago Cabrini Shrine; parishioners pray while visiting the shrine in Golden, Colorado. (photo: Courtesy photos)

Maria Francesca Cabrini (1850-1917) was born in Italy and from a young age desired to live the life of a missionary. In 1877, she and seven other women took first vows in the newly formed Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, devoted principally to the Christian education of girls. She started her work in Rome, but at the request of Pope Leo XIII, traveled to the United States to serve its Italian immigrants.  

Beginning in New York, she traveled to Catholic cities, founding a variety of Catholic institutions — work that would soon spread to other continents.  

By 1907, the year the Vatican approved the community’s constitutions, the community had more than a thousand members serving in eight countries. 

Mother Cabrini was canonized in 1946, the first American citizen declared a saint.

Mother Cabrini came to Denver in 1902 and bought property in the suburb of Golden for a summer camp for girls cared for in the city’s orphanage. On that site today is one of the nation’s three Cabrini shrines (the other two being in Chicago and New York). 

In 2020, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed into law the state’s recognition of Cabrini Day, honoring St. Frances “Mother” Cabrini, to be observed henceforth on the first Monday in October, replacing Columbus Day. 

Many people devoted to Mother Cabrini welcomed the decision and see it and other means of sharing her life, such as the newly released film Cabrini, as long overdue in recognizing the life of a remarkable saint.

JoAnn Seaman, the executive director of Colorado’s Mother Cabrini Shrine, described Mother Cabrini to the Register as “compassionate, kind, determined, bold and ready to proclaim her love for the Sacred Heart. ‘All for the Sacred Heart of Jesus’ was her saying.”

Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colo.
Faithful attend Mass at Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colorado(Photo: Courtesy photo)

She is pleased with the Cabrini movie, as she believes the film shows her “humanitarian” side, and continued, “We’re thrilled with its release, as more people will be able to learn about her.” Today, the Colorado shrine offers daily Mass, welcomes visitors and has retreat facilities. More than 100,000 people visit annually.

Seaman added about the new film, “It accurately tells about her time in New York and all she was able to accomplish, despite the many obstacles she had to overcome.” Some have criticized the film for its lack of emphasis on spirituality, she conceded, “but my take is that we see her actions were fueled by her faith. Her humility, service and love for people has to come from somewhere, and that is clear in the movie. We can’t expect a typical saint documentary. Put it on the big screen, and get people to see it.”

Besides viewing the film, to learn about Mother Cabrini’s life and community, she recommends visiting the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus website


‘Phenomenal Faith and Trust in God’ 

Missionary Sister Eileen Currie is a retired member of the community who first entered in 1966. She noted that Mother Cabrini’s community still works with immigrants today, as well as in education and pastoral and elder care. While the community is not drawing vocations in the U.S., it is seeing some new members join in Africa.

For her, Mother Cabrini is a woman “who had a phenomenal faith and trust in God, who could handle hardships, illnesses and disappointments.” She recalled to the Register how one sister met Mother Cabrini, Mother Ursula Infante (1897-2001), who was one of the last sisters Mother Cabrini welcomed into the order in 1915. As Sister Eileen recounted, “In the short time she had to get to know her, she recalled that Mother Cabrini was devoted to the Sacred Heart and was doing everything with her life that Jesus asked her to do.”

Mother Cabrini poses with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Mother Cabrini poses with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

She, too, praised the Cabrini film, but noted that it only represented a portion of her life.

Sister Eileen added, “Mother Cabrini was a diminutive person, but her confidence in God was great. With his help, she could do things beyond her natural capacity and shows us that we, too, can do that.”

Missionary Sister Laura Baldini joined the community in 2000. She is from Argentina, but like Mother Cabrini, is of Italian descent. Today, she works at the National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Chicago. It has a beautiful church, the room of Mother Cabrini from Columbus Hospital (now closed), preserved as it was when she died there in 1917, and a prayer garden. Visitors come for prayer and Mass, devotion and educational opportunities. There are also resources to help immigrants.

Sister Laura told the Register she admires Mother Cabrini “for her missionary spirit and spirit of inclusivity.” Mother was a “bridge-builder between cultures who helped them integrate and understand one another. Her goal was to have people become good Christians and good citizens.”

She lauds Cabrini Day and the Cabrini film for sharing the story of Mother Cabrini, but noted, “She would not want people to see her as the end, but as the means, to Someone bigger, Jesus Christ. Her passion was for Jesus to be known, loved and served.”

She watched Cabrini twice, and had the opportunity to meet its filmmakers, and called it “the best human portrait of Mother Cabrini I have seen.”  

She called it a “life-changing” movie that allowed her to know Mother Cabrini better: “It reminded me how important she has been in my life and that she can be an inspiration for others.”


Prayerful Witness

Daniela Gurrieri was director of the 2019 EWTN film Mother Cabrini and today lives in Rome. She said the idea of creating a movie about Mother Cabrini first occurred to her when she saw a picture of the saint as a young woman alongside an image of the Sacred Heart.  

“I sensed, through that photo, that she must have a mix of a strong temper and a faith that fascinated me,” she recalled to the Register. “I was filled with the desire to know more myself and to let her life be known to a large audience so the idea of a movie came up.”

Mother Cabrini in the EWTN film based on the saint. courtesy
A scene shows Mother Cabrini in the EWTN film based on the saint.(Photo: Courtesy photo/EWTN)

Gurrieri sought not only to present the saint, but the backdrop of events in her life that helped form who she was. For example, she learned that when Mother Cabrini was a girl, her father read to her stories of great Catholic missionaries. “This is how she got to know the story of St. Francis Xavier and fell in love with it, to the point of developing a vocation, adding the name ‘Xavier’ to her own and desiring to go to China.”

Gurrieri also noted that Mother Cabrini believed that the chief adversary to her work was not poverty or social injustice, but “those who wanted to eradicate Christ from our world, freemasons in the first place, who were contributing in leading the Western culture to relativism. Pope Leo XIII had already written explicitly about the diabolic work of freemasonry in encyclical letters.”

She also noted that Mother was “independent but not a rebel,” giving up her wish, for example, to be a missionary in China and instead going to America at the request of Church leadership. Her journeys would take her across the ocean 24 times, a challenge for her, as she was terrified by water, “but she was confident because she knew it was the mission received by God through the Pope.”

She noted that her movie depicted the saint and her nuns in prayer, as “even if many take for granted that a saint should pray, I am convinced that a movie needs to show that aspect as well.”

Gurrieri praised the technical aspects of the new Angel Studios film now in theaters, as well as the acting, but expressed criticism that its script “didn’t give space to faith.”  

“Sometimes [Mother Cabrini] looks like a desperate woman, alone against the male world, which is very far from the idea I got of her,” she explained. “This aspect is worsened by the ‘blurred’ presence of her nuns in the [new] movie.”

Mother Cabrini’s sisters played an important role in her mission, Gurrieri underscored, noting that they managed her many institutions during her frequent travels: “So she trusted them to be able to carry out all the activities on their own, even if many problems arose on the way. Their insufficient presence and role in the movie makes the sense of Cabrini’s spiritual solitude bigger.”

Mother Cabrini aboard the ship heading to New York. courtesy
In EWTN film, Mother Cabrini speaks with young people aboard ship heading to New York.(Photo: Courtesy photo/EWTN)

Gurrieri noted that she hopes to make a sequel to her first Mother Cabrini movie, which will continue Mother Cabrini’s life story after her time in New York.  

She believes Mother Cabrini’s story is one that can benefit all Catholics, as her life is “a witness of how faith in Christ can transform your life and make you do humanly impossible things, not out of stubbornness but out of faith. The efforts, the fatigue, the threats, the refusals and oppositions she and her nuns endured were many, but the beautiful thing is that everything was offered in reparation to the wounds of the Heart of Christ.”