Called to Mission: Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini

Combining faith with works, Mother Cabrini undertook a missionary epic of tremendous importance in an era marked by the Industrial Revolution. She passed into eternity on this day in 1917.

Newsroom (22/12/2021 14:40, Gaudium Press) On the evening of March 31, 1889, accompanied by six disciples, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini arrived in New York.

Due to a breakdown in communication, the arrangements that had been requested of Archbishop Michael Corrigan before they departed Italy had not been made. No one was present on the quay to receive Mother Cabrini and her sisters when they arrived in New York.

It was growing dark and the little group did not know where to go. In such a dramatic impasse, the religious women trusted in the clear eyes of their Foundress and in the trace of her smile, which never left her: everything would work out for the greater glory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus!

In this situation, it was up to Mother Cabrini to take immediate action. Determined to clarify the matter with the Archbishop the following day, she accepted the dinner offered by the Carlist Fathers, after which she spent the night with her daughters in a very poor dwelling. There, while the sisters dozed off, the Superior on her knees prayed and awaited the dawn. The noises of the city accompanied the whisper of her prayer.

A mission born of obedience

From her youth, Frances dreamed of being a missionary to bring the name of the Savior to distant China. But as she matured, the aspirations of her soul were directed towards a single ideal: to be totally united to God and to be a docile instrument for the execution of His will.

From this generous attitude of self-giving resulted an equilibrium and intrepidity of character that marvelously complemented her natural modesty. This combination of qualities did not go unnoticed by Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini of Piacenza, who discerned in this young nun an efficient collaborator for his initiative in favor of the Italian immigrants of New York.

At the time, Mother Cabrini was in Rome to seek both pontifical approval for the rules of the missionary institute she had founded, and permission to go to the East. She was not attracted by Bishop Scalabrini’s proposal. She considered it impractical and fraught with danger, while clashing with her innermost desires.

“The world is too small to limit ourselves to just one point in it. I want to embrace it and go everywhere,” she told the prelate in response to his invitation.

But she took pains to implore the Divine Light and to consult persons of virtue and prudence about the project proposed by the insistent bishop. Before long he took up the matter again, and this time he smiled with satisfaction as he heard her recount a dream she had had: a long procession of Saints was parading in front of her, followed by Our Lady and the Sacred Heart of Jesus Himself, Who said to her: “What are you afraid of, My daughter? You will carry My Name to distant shores; therefore, take courage and do not fear. I am with you”.

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In the end it was the Pope’s voice that served as a compass to guide her missionary desires and to prove the unconditionality of her obedience. Leo XIII was aware of the sad situation of the thousands of Italian immigrants reduced to mere parts of the industrial machine in the New World. With few clergy able to attend to them in their mother tongue, many abandoned the Catholic Faith.

Looking at the charismatic nun kneeling at his feet, the Supreme Pontiff said to her: “Not to the East, but to the West. Go to the United States and you will find the means and a great field of work!”

Entering America with pride

One can understand, then, the spirit in which Mother Cabrini headed for the Episcopal Palace that first morning on American soil. The Archbishop received her with evident sorrow and explained that a letter had been sent to him informing him that a series of setbacks had made the plan to open the orphanage that would be her first field of action unfeasible and that it had not arrived in time. “I see no other solution, Mother, than that you and your sisters return to Italy,” he added.

There was a heavy silence, during which Bishop Corrigan observed his interlocutor. But he did not expect the woman’s sharp reply: “Your Excellency, that is impossible. I have come here by order of the Holy See, and I shall remain here.”

Having said this, she closed the matter simply, handing the prelate a dossier of reference letters from high Roman ecclesiastical authorities.

Having overcome the first obstacle, the Saint began her vast missionary work. She soon forged a lasting friendship with Bishop Corrigan, who in turn became her admirer and advocate.

In New York she found ample space for her missionary zeal. It was necessary to awaken the immigrants from their spiritual lethargy, encourage them to assume their responsibilities in the City of God, and help them to rediscover the consolation and strength that only the Sacraments and the life of grace confer.

Mother Cabrini’s performance created such a stir that it attracted the interest of the local press. A newspaper of the time thus reported the curious news:

“For several weeks now, a group of dark-eyed ladies, dressed as Sisters of Charity, have been seen all over ‘Little Italy’, climbing narrow staircases, descending to filthy underground passages, venturing into places where even the police dare not penetrate. […] They are directed by Mother Francisca Cabrini, a lady with big eyes and an attractive smile. She does not speak English, but she is a woman of firm purpose“.

Indications of a special vocation

In the eyes of her family, some special design hovered over Francisca, the graceful youngest of numerous children. It was not by chance that her entrance into this world on July 15, 1850, coincided with the flight of a flock of very white doves around the Cabrini home.

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Her parents and relatives were soon able to see that they had in their care a primeval child of innocence and, in time, they discovered in her something more: she was the seed of a great vocation as a Foundress, with a charism to attract, influence, persuade, impact her surroundings, and move hearts.

Missionary call

At school, Frances used to look at the great atlas and mentally trace the routes of the missions in distant lands. When she was 13, upon hearing the preaching of a missionary, she could not contain her enthusiasm and confided in her sister:

“Rosa, I want to be a missionary!”

Being 15 years older, Rosa was in charge of giving her young sister’s character a solid foundation. Fearing that she was becoming a dreamer, she replied: “You, so small and ignorant, how dare you think of becoming a missionary?”

Francisca said nothing, yet she redoubled her fidelity to the promises that grace was making to her. She was unstinting in her devotion to prayer, to the reception of the Sacraments, to study, to her work, being strict with herself and friendly to others.

During the years preceding the foundation of her Institute, her soul was troubled by “persecutions, misunderstandings, ill-treatment and the need to live with people who were not at all capable of religious life.

While waiting for a clear sign from Providence, she was forced to temporarily renounce the realization of her high ideals, obeying ecclesiastical authorities who were eager to take advantage of her extraordinary gifts at a local level. In this crucible, she attracted and formed a nucleus of young followers, encouraging them with the promise: “Be patient. One day you will be rewarded by going to the missions”.

Finally, in 1880, the reward of waiting arrived, through her diocesan bishop, Monsignor Domenico Gelmini: “You want to become a missionary: the time is ripe. I don’t know of any institute of missionary sisters; found one then“. Her reply was short: “I will look for a house”.

Features of her charism

Mother Cabrini, referred to as a true general, rejoiced in sensing her possibilities, and sympathized with admiring and generous spirits.

She was governed by the Jesuit principle: acting as if everything depended on herself, aware that everything depends on God; she chose the Apostle of the East, Saint Francis Xavier, as her Patron; and she made the Sacred Heart of Jesus the oblation of her being. For her, whoever wished to enlist in the service of the Divine Heart had only to detach himself and depend on God in everything.

An example that proves her detachment was the foundation of hospitals. She felt much more inclined to work in the field of youth education than in the health sector. However, when in a dream – or perhaps in a vision – she saw Our Lady with Her veil pulled back, walking along rows of sickbeds, she began to build hospitals that would become model institutions.

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While on mission in Colorado, her Sisters would descend into the bowels of the earth to bring a word of hope to the miners, reminding them to attend Mass, go to confession and send their children to catechesis. In the prisons, she pulled the souls out of despair, even bringing the last Sacraments to some of those condemned to death.

Tireless missionary

It was not her plans but a supernatural impulse that took her to England in 1898, a country she called the ‘Nation of Angels’. In London she noticed traces of a Catholic past in the courtesy with which passers-by treated her and her nuns, simple foreign travelers dressed in black.

In 1901, returning from Buenos Aires, she stopped in Brazil where she felt that “the Lord had already prepared for us a vast arena of undertakings”. When she returned to the port of Santos seven years later, in 1908, she was moved by the sight of boats carrying her beloved daughters, accompanied by young students from the college of São Paulo, who welcomed her enthusiastically.

She also had the pleasant surprise of being welcomed by the girls’ families at the Luz Station in São Paulo. She made two more powerful foundations in the Land of the Holy Cross: in Tijuca and in Flamengo, in Rio de Janeiro.

For over 23 years Mother Cabrini travelled throughout Europe and the three Americas, crossing the ocean dozens of times. Her congregation was at the forefront of education, health and social assistance, fields in which the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart continue to act on the five continents.

Embarking on the eternal mission

Having accomplished the mission entrusted to her, the last thread that separated her from the definitive union with the Sacred Heart of Jesus was severed on 22 December 1917, at Columbus Hospital, which she herself had founded in Chicago. As if out of respect for her way of being, death did not catch her in bed, but alert and working, preparing small Christmas presents for the children admitted there.

Feeling unwell and realizing that her end was near, she unlocked the door to her room, sat down and rang a bell to call her sisters. By the time they came, a stroke had already taken her life. Even at this last moment her spirit had shone lucid and firm, more concerned for others than for herself.

Such a sudden passage was in keeping with the impetus of her heart, for she was sure that she could do all in Him Who strengthened her:

“You know, O my Jesus, that my heart has always been Yours. With Your grace, most loving Jesus, I will follow You to the end of my days, towards eternity. Help me, O my Spouse, for I want to go with ardour and in haste!”

Text excerpted, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 180, December 2016.

Compiled by Sandra Chisholm

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