‘A World Too Small’: Mother Cabrini’s Witness of Missionary Zeal Showcases Soul on Fire for God

Companion books including a biography and a book for children released in time for the movie offer several ways to learn more about the life of this remarkable saint who instructed: ‘Zeal is a great charity but only when it is tempered with great, kind and gentle love like that of the heart of Jesus.’

As the movie comes to theaters this Friday, 3 books about the life of Mother Cabrini are also available from Sophia Insitute Press and Angel Studios.
As the movie comes to theaters this Friday, 3 books about the life of Mother Cabrini are also available from Sophia Insitute Press and Angel Studios. (photo: Courtesy photos / Sophia Institute Press )

As depicted in the film Cabrini, Mother Cabrini famously declared that the world was too small for what she intended to do. Driven by this missionary zeal and sustained by the grace of God, she went on to establish dozens of missions across several continents.

While editing The Mother Cabrini Companion, I delved into Mother Cabrini’s letters home to her sisters from her varied global travels. Chronicling the period after the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart had established itself in New York City, these letters pick up where the film left off, revealing the full extent of Mother’s missionary aspirations. The missives are full of introspection, encouragement and meditations on God’s will.

Several themes emerge from these insightful sources, opening a window into Mother Cabrini’s soul.

‘The House of Cristoforo’

In April 1890, she wrote from a steamship bound for New York: “If the Sacred Heart would give me the means I would construct a boat called ‘The House of Cristoforo’ (‘Bearer of Christ’) to traverse with one Community, little or big, so as to carry the Name of Christ to all people, to those who as yet do not know Him, and also to those who have forgotten Him.”

While such a statement seems hyperbolic, to Mother Cabrini, it was the realistic ambition of a soul on fire for God. Her primary aim was the salvation of souls, whom she loved with an inspired intensity on par with that of her patron, St. Francis Xavier. While the humanitarian aspect of Mother’s work was immensely impactful, it was secondary to her spiritual mission: the eternal good of the people she served. The establishment of permanent communities, with amenities such as schools and orphanages, intended strong Catholic formation and lifelong development of the soul, ensuring continued religious devotion after the humanitarian services were no longer required.

Mother rightly viewed missionary work as the extension of Jesus’s salvific mission. She reflected:

“There was a time when Our Lord went through the streets of Jerusalem drawing souls to Himself by His Divine looks; but, today, it is by His spirit and His loving Heart that He draws souls to His following and inflames them.”

Thus, her love of souls was the natural extension of her love of the Savior, in a true embodiment of the Greatest Commandment. “Your love must be active as that of Jesus on Golgotha. ‘Sitio,’ ‘I thirst,’ cried Jesus, ‘for souls.’” For Mother Cabrini, love was indivisible.

Conversion Is an Ongoing Process

Mother Cabrini recognized that to convert souls to God, one must constantly be undergoing an internal conversion of heart. After experiencing what we can presume was a bad sunburn on a voyage, Mother wrote:

“Today the skin has begun to peel off my forehead and nose. I am changing like a serpent. God wants me to change my life and be converted; to confirm this, my dearest daughters, pray.”

It is characteristic of the saints to, in their humility, never consider their spiritual formation complete. Through her love, Mother Cabrini sought greater degrees of holiness so that she could reach as many souls as possible. She recommended two examinations of conscience per day.

She also continually examined how to best reach the hearts of potential converts. In addition to the marginalized communities she served, Mother Cabrini constantly sought conversions among all social contacts, from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Interestingly, her letters relate many conversations she had with high-profile Protestants traveling first-class on the ocean liners.

To relate to the Italian immigrants in New York, the orphans of Nicaragua, the workers of Denver, and the highest echelons of English society on the steamers required a certain finesse that was characteristic of her approach. She instructed, “Zeal is a great charity but only when it is tempered with great, kind and gentle love like that of the heart of Jesus.”

Even in situations where only seeds of faith could be planted, ever trusting in God’s providence, Mother considered the victory won. She relates the story of a Protestant passenger she met on a voyage to France who took great interest in the sisters’ work and eventually expressed curiosity about the faith:

“Today I made her a present of a small cross, on which may be seen the picture of Our Lady. She thanked me so much for this cross, and said to me, ‘It may be that one day I shall be a Catholic!’”

The conversion of the whole world is made up of individual interactions, rooted in our internal reconversion. In this light, the world does become smaller: Instead of a vast and hostile abyss, it becomes a blessed land of never-ending opportunities for grace.

With this in mind, we are all equipped to take up the work of Mother Cabrini, which is the continued work of Jesus. No matter how small our contribution, it becomes magnified in eternity.


The Mother Cabrini Companion (with an introduction by Crystalina Evert), The World Is Too Small: The Life and Times of Mother Cabrini, and Mother Cabrini: A Heart for the World are available for pre-order from Sophia Institute Press.

Cover of new children's book about Mother Cabrini.
Cover of new children's book about Mother Cabrini.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

Kristen Van Uden Theriault is the author of When the Sickle Swings: Stories of Catholics Who Survived Communist Oppression. She has degrees in history and Russian area studies and studies religious persecution in the 20th century. She is the media spokesperson for Sophia Institute Press. She most recently edited The Cabrini Companion: A Spiritual Journey with a Courageous Woman of God, a compilation of Mother Cabrini's writings.


Mother Cabrini media and sacramentals from EWTN Religious Catalogue