Mother Cabrini Beyond the Movie: With ‘Unwavering Love of Jesus,’ She Trusted Christ Completely

Executive director of the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine in New York City outlines the strong faith of the remarkable saint.

(L-R) Mother Cabrini sits near a photo of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Last known photo of St. Cabrini, in Dobbs Ferry, New York, in 1914.
(L-R) Mother Cabrini sits near a photo of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Last known photo of St. Cabrini, in Dobbs Ferry, New York, in 1914. (photo: Courtesy photo / St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine)

With Cabrini opening in theaters across the United States, viewers will get a strong glimpse of St. Frances Cabrini in her early years as she establishes an immoveable foothold in New York to help orphans and immigrants. 

But one movie cannot answer all the questions about this first American citizen to be named a saint. To expand somewhat on the person of Mother Cabrini, the Register spoke with an expert, Julia Attaway, the executive director of the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine in New York City, who is also very familiar with Cabrini.


You say the movie reflects Mother Cabrini’s character well. The shrine says, “It’s a stunningly gorgeous movie that depicts Mother Cabrini’s compassion, resilience, and resourcefulness with great beauty and energy.” What does it miss?

I don’t think the movie misses anything it intended to hit. It’s intended to portray Mother Cabrini’s character and to help people be inspired by the kind of person she was. It was not intended as a faith-based movie. And that’s okay. A movie doesn’t have to cause instant conversions. When you put things out there that are good and true, God will work with them in the hearts of people. I think that what the movie puts out there can plant many seeds.

Cabrini is not specifically a religious movie. While it shows Mother Cabrini’s strength, resilience and compassion, it only hints at how she came to be that way


Can you explain a bit more about what drove her?

All of her charitable works, all of her perseverance, everything that she ever did was driven by the desire to draw people to the heart of Jesus. That was her sole reason for doing anything.

She was not an issues person. She was a heart person: She sought to draw people closer to God. That was it. And for all the schools, hospitals and orphanages she founded, she herself would say she only did one thing. It was the only thing she ever wanted to do, which was whatever God asked of her. He asked a lot.


What do you see from her life as her strongest trait?

The way she handled difficulty. There’s a wonderful quote from her: “My Dear Jesus, I shall not make any distinction between one cross or another, or whether they come from expected or unexpected sources.” To her, every cross was an opportunity to become more like Christ.

It was partly because of her poverty and her poor health and many disappointments that her trust in Jesus became absolute. Most of us tend to look at difficulties as bad things. Sometimes we use the energy that we need to carry a cross to try to push it away. Mother Cabrini immediately and thankfully accepted any cross that was given to her. She advised the Missionary Sisters, “It does not matter what kind of wood the cross is made of. It is enough to know that it comes to us from Jesus.”

I see the resilience that we see in her in the movie as akin to when Jesus falls carrying the cross. She gets up, and she goes on because she loves so deeply.


What made her bold and compassionate?

Her love of God. Nowadays we talk about compassion fatigue. You see those scenes in the movie — never mind the hundreds of other frustrations and setbacks in her life that weren’t depicted — and wonder, “How is it that she didn’t wear out?” The answer is that her heart was so much like Jesus’ that it was his compassion flowing through her. And that compassion is endless. The answer is, the boldness and compassion we see in her is Christ.


The new movie based on the amazing work and life of Mother Cabrini is in theaters today.
The new movie based on the amazing work and life of Mother Cabrini is in theaters today.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

What formed Mother Cabrini in that resilience?

First off, she was born two months prematurely in 1850. Today anyone born two months prematurely is still in for a tough time. But in 1850, that was pretty much a death sentence. She grew up in a very loving and faithful family. But by the time she was 10, she had seen three of her siblings die. Her parents both died when she was 20. The following year, the town came down with smallpox. She saw a lot of her neighbors die. She herself got smallpox, but obviously survived.

And you see other challenges in the movie. It’s true that she nearly died as a young girl because she almost drowned. That left her with a lifelong fear of water. We all have those deep fears. But what she did with that fear is fascinating.


What was Mother Cabrini's attitude toward fear?

When she gets on the boat to come to New York, she is facing 10 days of traveling over water, a whole ocean of fear. And God is calling her to the other side of it. And that’s exactly why she got on that ship — because she knew that Jesus would be with her in the fear, through the fear, and on the other side of the fear. And that’s true for every single one of us, too.

Jesus is never going to ask us to stay in our bubble of fear, to stay in our comfort zone, because he exists beyond that, and he wants more for us.

If we’re honest, the times that we pray the best and the hardest and grow the closest to God is when we’re knocked to our knees. When Mother Cabrini started a mission, she would say it was a good sign for things to be difficult because it meant that the mission had been sealed with the cross, which is a terrific way for all of us to look at things. At the worst times, the hardest times, at our lowest times, even if we don’t feel Jesus, we know he's with us.


As she did. That certainly comes out strongly in the movie in the crosses she faced.

Yes, she had plenty of crosses. And if we think of difficulties as crosses, and even if we think of uncertainty about what to do next as a cross, then it has a shape, and we can pick it up — which she did, well.


What was Mother Cabrini’s strongest trait?

It’s that unwavering love of Jesus. It’s endless. We love Jesus within the parameters that we know how to, and she opened her heart tremendously beyond that. One of my favorite quotes from her is, “Make my heart as wide as the universe.”


Was there anything particular about Mother Cabrini that the movie really highlighted well?

Both her resilience and, I would say, boldness. She was never bold for her own sake. She was always willing to suffer alongside others. She never looked down on them. She never judged them. She simply took action. And I think the movie did an extraordinary job of conveying what that looks like. In society today, where compassion is often lacking, having the example of how to do that, and what it looks like, is very powerful.

So often, we’re afraid. She wasn’t afraid because she knew Jesus was with her, especially with her in difficulty. And as long as Jesus was there with her, that was the most important thing in her life. She wanted to be completely united with him. She didn’t think, “I have a problem, and Jesus will make it go away.” She looked at it as, “I love Jesus. And I will love him in this difficulty.” That, I think, is really extraordinary.


Can you give an example from her life to illustrate that?

She spent most of her early life wanting to be a religious, knowing she’s called to be religious. When she is finally accepted at an order, it’s horrible. The superior of the order was very jealous of her and really tormented her. It was incredibly hard. We’ve all had situations where we’ve dreamed of something for a long time and we get there and it’s not what we thought it would be. Most of us might simply think, “I guess I made a mistake. Get me out of here!” In today’s society, if we have a problem, we tend to think, “Let’s get rid of it. Let’s walk away; let’s break the marriage; let’s leave the job; let’s do something else.” She did not have that attitude.

She’s determined to learn to love Jesus in every person and in every situation. She wrote, “Jesus, I intend to offer each suffering as if it could remove a thorn from your heart and gain one more soul to give you glory.”


Some have said that the movie depicts Mother Cabrini as being almost a feminist. Was she one?

I think everybody’s going to try and claim the part that they like best! The word “feminism” is too limiting to explain her mission. And it’s too small to describe the vision of what she was called to do in the world.

She once said, “It’s too small a world for what I intend to do.” That’s one of the famous lines of hers. “Feminism” is too small a word to describe what she is. Does she have courage? Does she challenge her fears? Does she challenge social stereotypes and prejudices and systemic injustice, inequalities? Sure. Does that make her a feminist? Well, she wouldn’t do it just for women. She’d do it for anyone if it would draw souls to God.


If there’s one thing you hope people ask about St. Frances Cabrini, Mother Cabrini, after seeing the movie, what is it?

How can I be more like her? How do I get what she had?