When I was a student at O’Dea High School in Seattle, I used to attend Masses at St. James Cathedral, which is across the street from my school. In the side aisle of the church is a statue depicting a little nun, whom I learned was St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. One of her hands holds a schoolbook and a bunch of violets, and the other is raising the simple silver cross that hangs around her neck. When you look at her face, you immediately have the impression that if she asked you to do something, you would fulfill her request. It’s a striking statue.
As a young woman in the 1880s, Maria Francesca Cabrini had founded an order of religious sisters in her home country of Italy to minister to orphaned children, but she had bigger dreams of becoming a missionary to China. When she asked Pope Leo XIII for permission to establish a convent of sisters in the Far East, he asked her instead to head to America to minister to the many Italians who had braved the ocean crossing to seek their fortune. “Not to the East, but to the West,” was the Pope’s request.
Mother Cabrini headed to America with six sisters in tow. Arriving in New York City in 1889, they were not welcomed with open arms but were turned away and discouraged from staying, even by priests and bishops. And yet she persisted, as they say. Starting from a donated walk-up apartment on Fifth Avenue where the sisters cared for and taught a growing group of orphaned girls, Mother Cabrini eventually talked the Archbishop of New York into allowing her to establish an orphanage, the Sacred Heart Orphan Asylum. She had the confidence of knowing that she had been assigned a mission on behalf of the Church, and that God would bring that good work to completion. This confidence was reflected in her personal motto: “I can do all things in him who comforts me.”
The orphanage was just the first institution that Mother Cabrini would establish to help address the needs of her fellow Italian immigrants in the United States. In 1892, she founded Columbus Hospital in New York City, near the then-Italian neighborhoods of Greenwich Village and East Village. (Eventually Columbus Hospital merged with Italian Hospital and was renamed “Cabrini Medical Center.”) By the time of her death, Mother Cabrini and her sisters had established 67 institutions to serve those on the margins of American society — not just in New York City, but coast-to-coast and beyond, including Buenos Aires, Paris, Rio de Janiero, and Madrid.
Through her force of personality, Mother Cabrini convinced bishops, business owners, philanthropists, and even non-believers to donate or lend her the resources to build dozens of orphanages, schools, hospitals, and clinics to serve the poor. In Seattle, my hometown, she established a mission parish for the Italian residents of the city, built a school for girls, and cajoled a real estate magnate into donating a hotel for use as a hospital, which was located across the street from the cathedral where we both prayed (nearly a hundred years apart). And it was in Seattle in 1909 that she became a naturalized United States citizen.
Mother Cabrini’s service to the immigrant communities of her day is a model for us. She spoke up for the dignity of every person, no matter their legal status nor their social class. She saw and loved Christ in every person she met, whether she was making a bed for an orphaned girl or asking a businessperson to give her a building to care for the sick. And she continued her relentless ministry of charity until 1917, when she died while preparing Christmas candy to give to local children.
Mother Cabrini’s holiness was recognized immediately by the Catholic Church, leading to her canonization in 1946 as the first American citizen to be named a saint. In 1950, Pope Pius XII bestowed the title “Patroness of Immigrants” on Mother Cabrini. On this November 13 feast of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, let us lift up in prayer every immigrant and orphan, especially those who have no one to care for them. And, like Mother Cabrini, let us also recognize that every person we meet, no matter their legal status nor social class, bears the face of Christ.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, pray for us!