October 2005 - March 2006, No. 3

Those Who Truly Live, The Saints
“And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me.” (Gal. 2:20)

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
(1850 -1917)

By Mr. Roger Zielke

Roger Zielke


Once, when Pope Leo XIII was speaking to a couple of Mother Cabrini’s (See color picture p. 32) nuns, he said, “Mother Cabrini is truly a saint!” It’s very rare indeed that a Pope would make such a public statement, but Pope Leo did, and with good reason. Like St. Francis Xavier, Mother Cabrini was one of the most active missionaries that the Catholic Church has ever known. She never relied on herself, but on God alone. For her motto she took these holy words, Phil-4:13, “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.” And she was one of those saints who were able to see the fruits of her labors, during her life – she opened 67 charitable institutions and houses of her religious order.

For years, the homeland of Lombardy, where Francesca was to be born, had been repeatedly harassed by war and civil war. Italy at that time was a disorganized assortment of feudal territories, controlled by royal families, and oppressed by France and Austria. The clergy had their lands snatched from them, and they were subjected to various forms of cruel oppression. This resulted in a series of wars and bloody uprisings between peasants and leaders. In short, this period was characterized by bitter dispute between Church and State, and it was into this period that Francesca Cabrini was born.

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini

As has happened in the lives of many saints in the past, God gave a special sign of His benediction on July 15, 1850, the birthday of Francesca Cabrini. A flock of white doves swirled down over the town of San Angelo, in Lombardy, Italy, and then flew in order, like a great crown, above the Cabrini house. One of the doves got entangled in a rose vine on the house. When Agostino Cabrini released the dove, it showed no fear but rested on his chest, as he carried it to his wife, Stella. She caressed the dove and held it to her cheek, and then she released it. As it flew away, Stella gave birth to Francesca, the future missionary.

Francesca’s parents were hard working good Catholics. Agostino was a farmer, devoted to his family. He was a pious man who prayed and kept the commandments. He prayed and worked and worked and prayed – the people of San Angelo called him “the Christian Tower.”

Stella was a devoted home maker who cooked and cleaned and sewed for her husband and thirteen children. She prayed often and went to daily Mass, and she often received Communion. She made sure that the truths of the Catholic Faith ran in the veins of her children. Stella taught her children the great truth that God the Holy Trinity had each of them in mind forever, even before the world was created. She instructed, “God knew you all my children and from all ages of eternity, He loved you. You must be very good, to have deserved the attention of the Blessed Trinity, the great Lord God!”

And she told them, “God does not give life for nothing. You must each look into yourselves, into your hearts, into your lives, to study and see why God brought you here. You mustn’t waste that gift of life – ever!” Please God that we could all have such a wonderful mother! With such excellent instruction the road to Heaven was made very firm and inviting.

When Francesca was born, Rosa, the oldest of the children, was 15. Although she was extremely firm with her siblings, they still loved her. Sometimes Stella had to step in and balance the situation, as Rosa became overbearing, but in the end all worked out fine.

Rosa watched over Francesca like a hawk, supervising all she did. She was very patient, taking time to explain what she had learned at the convent school of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, to her baby sister. One time Rosa was explaining to Francesca about the twelve promises of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary. At the same time she showed pity for France who had become so cold towards Jesus. At this point, Francesca jumped up, “Don’t pity her (France)! Her saints will save her when things go wrong. Perhaps Rosa – perhaps France may need a little whipping; if she’s been naughty. And when she’s been punished enough, she’ll be forgiven, and the loving Sacred Heart will take her back -- happier than ever – with some more saints!” Francesca developed such a great devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus that He became the guiding light of her life.

At night the family would read aloud about saints and good Catholics and Francesca would lie awake listening to the glorious stories of the missionary priests and nuns that had been recorded in the ‘Annals of the Propagation of the Faith’. China especially drew her – China that was filled with many small children.

One day, Francesca visited her uncle; Don Luigi – a priest. His garden extended to the nearby Venera River. Francesca made little paper boats and filled them with flowers. She pretended that she was the Mother Superior and that the flowers were her nuns. Leaning over the river bank and sending her boats downstream, she suddenly lost her balance and fell in. Some people found her lying on the river bank, quite a distance from where she fell in. Her guardian angel must have pulled her out, as she did not get out herself and no person pulled her out. After nearly drowning Francesca questioned herself, “How can I be a missionary when I fear to leave my home and cross the deep sea?” This fear was to remain with her all the days of her life.

On July 1, 1857, Francesca was confirmed. She received extraordinary graces and decided then and there that she would be a bride of Christ, for she felt that He had chosen her to be His bride. Of this time she said, “The moment of the anointing of the sacred chrism, I felt that which can never be described. From that moment I was no longer of the earth. My heart began to grow through space, ever with purest joy.”

Francesca worked hard as a girl harvesting grapes, preserving fruit and vegetables in crocks, making butter and cheese, and baking bread in brick ovens. She salted meats, shelled chestnuts and ground them into flour for polenta pudding. She also sheared the sheep, washed their wool, and spun and wove material for garments.

Under Rosa’s guidance, Francesca completed the primary grades. When she was 13, she was sent to the Daughters of the Sacred Heart School at Arluno. There she studied for five years. She mastered Latin, Italian, French, history, mathematics, geography, and natural science. She passed with highest honors and at 18 obtained her schoolteacher’s license.

She now wanted to become a religious. Francesca presented herself to the Mother Superior and expressed her wish to become a Daughter of the Sacred Heart. But Mother Grassi could not accept the young woman because of her poor health, “It is with regret that I refuse you. Abide and do not be discouraged. He whom you cherish so has His purpose for you.”

Francesca went back home and decided that she would devote herself to the comfort and happiness of her parents until God should call them to Heaven. The next year, in February 1869, Agostino had just got ready to go to Mass when a trembling seized him, and he suddenly became powerless. He stumbled to a chair and sat down; then he became paralyzed. He did not have long to live as God took him a short time later, on February 22nd. And later, before the year had ended, Francesca’s mother died. As Francesca held her dying mother in her arms, her mother whispered, “My child of light….from above my prayers shall follow thy feet.” Francesca did not mourn the passing of her loved ones, because she knew that while they had lived they had ever kept Heaven before their eyes, and she had every hope that they were saved.

After the death of her parents, Francesca worked the farm with Rosa and her brother Giovanni. And after putting in a hard days work, Francesca would cater to the poor and the sick.

The spring of 1872 brought the dreaded smallpox. Bravely, Francesca and Rosa nursed the sick day and night. In time Francesca too became ill with smallpox and Rosa nursed her back to health. After that she became a schoolteacher at Vidardo and taught there for two years. She then offered herself to the Conossian Sisters and again to the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, but both rejected her.

In 1874, when Francesca was 24, her Bishop and her parish priest asked her to go to the House of Providence at Codogno, to work with the young orphan girls there. For the next six years Francesca was to live in this veritable hell on earth! A woman known as Sr. Tondini and her partner Sr. Calza were running the orphanage in a most terrible fashion. Tondini had bought the building to shelter orphans and the parish paid her a sum of money each month to house each orphan, but she was keeping the orphans in a disgraceful condition – they were starved, ragged and physically beaten.

Upon meeting Francesca, Sr. Tondini scowled, “(Mgr.) Serrati told me that he was sending you here! But schoolteacher, saint, fool, spy, dupe, or whatever you are, I did not need, nor ask for you! Serrati has a lot of nerve to thrust you under my roof! ….” Francesca was shocked at Tondini’s attitude and she was shocked even more when Tondini and Calza slapped the poor orphan girls and cursed them. This horrible attitude continued for six long years and Francesca would only bow her head and tell the orphan girls, “Remember always, in your work and study and play and dreams, that you are His (God’s) beloved children. You are the flowers He gave to me.”

Time passed and one day seven of the girls came to Francesca telling her, “We want to become missionaries with you. We want to be His brides by your side!” A few years passed and Monsignor Serrati accepted the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience from Francesca who was 27, and those seven girls who were now young women. And he appointed Francesca – ‘Mother Cabrini’ Superior of the House of Providence. Now all that remained was to become a missionary.

Even after Francesca became Superior, Tondini remained an impossible, uncontrollable woman. Whenever Francesca asked Tondini for an accounting of the orphanage funds, Tondini flew into a rage and threatened to kill her. One night when Mother Cabrini was in a room singing hymns with her nuns, Tondini barged into the room and started smashing the poor nun in the face. Bleeding from her nose and mouth, Mother Cabrini returned this hatred with words of love and charity. Francesca remained at the orphanage for the next three years and discovered that Tondini was stealing from the orphanage funds. At last she informed Bishop Gelmini of Tondini’s thievery and demanded a return of the money. When Tondini failed to return the money, the Bishop excommunicated Tondini and Calza and dissolved the House of Providence. And the orphans were removed to other homes. Then Bishop Gelmini told Mother Cabrini, “… the time has matured for you. There is no institute of missionary sisters in these parts. So Mother Cabrini, found one yourself!” Inspired by God, the next day Francesca went in search of a house for her nuns. She found an abandoned monastery in Codogno, in the woods, behind a Franciscan Church – this would be the cradle for the missionary nuns.

Mgr. Serrati marveled at Francesca’s choice of building and property and he at once arranged for its purchase. And the orphans would not be abandoned – then and there, Francesca decided to take the orphans with her, and make the old monastery a missionary convent and an orphanage combined.

They all moved in on November 12, 1880 – happy to be in their own home. Mother Cabrini wanted her institute to have the spirit of the Holy Family. All would be equal in love without preference, acclaim or favor. Simplicity would be the straight and narrow path.

To her convent came more and more orphans and aspiring brides of Christ. Within a year after Francesca had bought the place, the convent had to be enlarged. Gradually the school and orphanage became known for its scholastic quality, efficiency and spiritual deportment.

In November, 1882, Francesca opened another school in Grumello. Her type of charity and scholarly competence was needed and recognized, and soon calls came to her from other districts to open houses.

By 1887, Mother Cabrini had opened seven houses. She was now 37 years old, and more impatient than ever to do the real missionary work she had dreamed of all her life. She told Msgr. Serrati that she wanted to establish her order in Rome and obtain approval for missions to far lands. At first he was opposed to her idea of expecting Pope Leo XIII to collaborate with her in sending her baby order around the world. But that night Francesca had a dream. Christ appeared to her and said, “Go to that ground where they crucified Peter. Go to the rock where flames, the light eternal. Francesca, Rome is thy portal!”

Again Mother Cabrini approached Mgr. Serrati about her desire to go to Rome, and finally he was convinced. On September 24, 1887, Francesca and one of her nuns boarded a train and left for Rome. But with the serious struggle going on between the Vatican and the government in Rome, who would care to listen to Francesca Cabrini from Lombardy? Who would foster her missionary dreams?

She discovered that the authority to appeal to for her purposes was Cardinal-Vicar Parocchi. She pressed for an appointment and after three days, he consented to see her. He was overwhelmed by her sincere and honest nature. He saw her a few more times and though her order was quite unknown to most of Italy, the Cardinal asked her to open not one, but two houses in Rome!

On March 12, 1888, Mother Cabrini received from the Vatican the recognition and approval of her order. Things were moving quite fast. Later she opened a college in Piacenza and formed a friendship with Bishop Scalabrini of Piacenza. The aspiration of this Bishop’s heart was to give moral and spiritual aid to the huge amount of emigrants who made their way to the United States. He spoke with Mother Cabrini a few times and when she was 38 he offered her a mission across the ocean saying, “Archbishop Corrigan of New York expressed a sincere wish that you bring your mission to New York and assist with Italian orphanage work.”

Finally Bishop Scalabrini arranged for Mother Cabrini to see Pope Leo XIII. When she saw him, knowing before hand that she wanted to go to the Orient, he told her that, “Hundreds of thousands of our Italian souls in America have become lost and battered sheep, isolated from Christ, understanding, and ordinary decency. The New World cries for the warmth and compassion of a mother’s heart, a heart tempered by love and sacrifice, the heart of the apostle. Francesca Cabrini, you have that very heart! My daughter, your field awaits you not in the East, but in the West. I desire very much a great missionary expansion in America. Plant there, and cultivate the beautiful fruit of Christ.” God had spoken through His Vicar. Francesca went about getting credentials and steamship tickets for six of her nuns and herself. And on March 23, 1889, in the port of Le Harve France, Mother Cabrini and her nuns boarded a ship to America. On that ship was a confusing mess of emigrants, mostly Italians, headed to the American land of hopes and dreams.

As soon as the ship got under way, Mother Cabrini’s nuns became frightened and seasick. But they weren’t the only ones to get sick, below the deck there were 700 Italian emigrants. Almost all of them were seasick and depressed, but Mother Cabrini encouraged them and with a group of men, worked with the nuns to help ease the distress of the very young and very old.

When the ship landed in New York, on the evening of March 31, 1889, nobody was there to meet Mother Cabrini and her sisters, so they spent the night in a dingy boarding house near Chinatown. Still exhausted from seasickness, they took turns sitting on one chair all night, for the beds were filthy and the place was crawling with mice, and bugs.

In the morning the poor nuns were dreadfully tired from lack of sleep, but they still went to Mass. After Mass, the sisters called on Archbishop Corrigan, who was greatly embarrassed. The plans for the Italian orphanage had fallen through, and he had mailed a letter telling the sisters to remain in Italy – but they had already left. The Archbishop regretfully advised them to return to Italy on the same ship which had brought them over. But Mother Cabrini firmly told him, “Excellence, I came to America by order from St. Peter’s sacred seat. America is my ordained mission. Excellence, in all humbleness I must say, in America I must stay.”

The poor Archbishop gasped, this woman had great courage! He smiled, “Very well, young Mother, somehow or other you may begin with a small school for Italian children in the Church of San Gioacchino. In the meantime I shall make arrangements for you and your group to stay with the Irish Sisters of Charity.”

On May 3, 1889, Archbishop Corrigan celebrated Mass in the first American orphanage opened by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

Having established an orphanage and a school within four months, Mother Cabrini was obliged to return to Italy for more of her nuns to help expand the American mission. She visited her houses in Codogno, Lombardy, and Rome. And again she went to see Pope Leo, who was delighted to see her and was keenly interested in hearing about her ventures in New York. Then taking a group of seven daughters, she sailed back to New York.

On her return there, Mother Cabrini set about buying a 450-acre property of the Jesuits in West Park, on the Hudson River, for the sake of her orphans. Upon seeing the property she exclaimed, “This is the very place I saw in my dream – the large country houses, the cliff and river, the trees and bushes, the barns and stables, the mountain on the other side of the highway.” Then she told Sister Aurelia, “Here I will be buried, on the gentle slope overlooking the river.” However, there was one problem. The Jesuits explained that their well had gone dry and one well-driller after another had failed to locate water! But this wasn’t a problem for Mother Cabrini – she prayed to Our Lady of Graces to help her locate water, and Our Lady appeared to her in a dream and indicated were the well should be dug.

By this time, her ability had become well known amongst church leaders, and requests came to her to found schools and orphanages in France, Spain, England and Latin America. Soon after the opening of West Park she made another trip to Rome to enlarge her institute and to bring back more nuns. After seeing Pope Leo again, in September 1890, Francesca sailed back to America with twenty-nine nuns.

Before her last trip to Rome, Mother Cabrini spoke with Dona Elena Arrelano who was from Nicaragua. Now Francesca agreed to open a private academy for the daughters of the wealthy in Granada, Nicaragua, because she thought they could use spiritual guidance. She chose fourteen nuns and set sail for that country on October 10, 1891. She set up the private school in Granada and was then off to New Orleans in America.

Mother Cabrini arrived in New Orleans on Holy Tuesday, 1892. There the Italians were ridiculed and treated like beasts of burden. Francesca rented a place for her nuns in the slum area. Before long she bought the place and soon, with the help of enthusiastic Italians, there was a beautiful chapel. To this chapel, immigrants came in such large numbers, that it was necessary to celebrate Mass under a huge canopy outside.

In every city where Mother Cabrini founded a house, she and her daughters went to the prisons to console and convert. They helped those with twisted and broken lives either to amend their life or at least to die in God’s favor.

In 1891, Bishop Scalabrini opened a small hospital for Italians. The Bishop wanted Mother Cabrini’s nuns to work in the hospital. But poor Mother Cabrini found hospitals, nauseating and revolting. She then had a dream in which the Blessed Virgin Mary was changing dirty bed sheets and attending to the patient’s wounds. In her dream Francesca rushed to help the Virgin Mary, but Our Lady smilingly waved her away saying, “Francesca Cabrini, I, I will do this urgent work for you!” After this dream, Mother Cabrini was most willing to help whole heartedly, in the care of the sick.

Francesca knew that her ‘Columbus Hospital’ would not survive without the help of Heaven. The hospital had previously fallen into bankruptcy so she had a hard time finding people to support it. Since charitable organizations would not come to her aid, she appealed to businessmen. After talking to Mother Cabrini, they realized that she was a very sensible, practical woman, and they supplied her hospital needs. In time, the Columbus Hospital was well underway and in the secure trust of good doctors and staff, and Francesca’s nuns.

Again she returned to Italy and visited each house. She saw Pope Leo who again asked her about her growing order and she told him amongst other things that she had been asked to open a house in Brazil. To this he responded, “Brazil! Child you will then see what a vast field for Christ, South America is. Let us labor, Cabrini. Let us labor, for Paradise awaits!”

In spite of all her troubles, Mother Cabrini kept her great sense of humor. She joked with her nuns about the mistakes she made in the English language. And she mimicked the characters of her tales with comic faces and expressions that her nuns would almost die laughing, so funny did they find her.

On September 13, 1894, Francesca and fifteen young nuns left Genoa for New York. But during her absence from New York, civil and religious groups had pressured Archbishop Corrigan into thinking that neither Mother Cabrini’s Columbus Hospital was needed, nor her schools and orphanages, and that she and her missionary nuns would do best to pack up and go back to Italy! When Mother Cabrini heard this, she was shocked to say the least, and replied, “Excellence, in all humility I must remind you that I gave you my reply the first time I had set foot in America: ‘The pope sent me here, and here I stay!’”

God was with Mother Cabrini. She bought an old hospital and had it repaired and renovated. And in 1895, the new Columbus Hospital, with more than 100 beds, modern equipment, and an excellent medical staff, was approved by the State of New York.

Having established her hospital, Francesca began the long trip to South America. On reaching Panama, there, she joyfully embraced her daughters. Taking Sr. Chiara with her, she resumed her trip to South America. Sr. Chiara preferred traveling over the Andes Mountains rather than going by sea, so the two sisters, dressed in fur-lined cloaks, took the narrow mule trail up the mountain. There was what seemed, a bottomless abyss on one side and eternal snow covered heights on the other side.

The two nuns had much to encounter on their journey. Sr. Chiara lost her speech over all this and no matter how often Mother Cabrini told her to bravely sit up straight on the mule, she insisted on laying on the poor beast like a sack of potatoes, with her head buried against its neck. And at one point in the trail, they met with a treacherous crevice, which they had to jump. When Mother Cabrini tried to leap over the crevice, she fell short, but quick as lightning, the guide pulled her to safety. Then they had a day of slipping and sliding down the perilous mountain trail and finally took the train to Buenos Aires. Mother Cabrini stayed for eight months, setting up an Academy in Buenos Aires. By August, 1896, the Academy was flourishing, so Francesca returned to her houses in Italy to encourage her daughters there.

In July 1898, Mother Cabrini met again with Pope Leo who was now quite aged. When she mentioned about going to London to set up her order, the pope sighed, “Ah, England that was once the Isle of Saints, and which through the carnal passions and pride of its king, lost the Faith. Go there child, for England is precious in my heart!” Then he placed both hands on Mother Cabrini’s head and showered blessings on her, and telling her to pray for him, as his heart was overwhelmed with sorrow on the account of the revolutions prevalent in many countries. Francesca left Rome for Paris, and there with the help of two benefactors, found an orphanage. She left for London on October 27th, and after a few days stopover, set off for New York, where she arranged to set up more schools. She also set up a school in New Jersey and in May, 1899, Mother Cabrini went with 14 of her daughters to set up another school in Chicago.

In the year 1900, Francesca turned 50; she could barely walk at times and fever gripped her – her health was slowly diminishing! In spite of this she returned to Italy taking on a colossal amount of work, opening convents and other institutions. In her meeting with Pope Leo during this time, he emphasized dramatically, “God has elected thee. He is with thee wherever thou goest. Cabrini! God has elected thee!”

Mother Cabrini spent seven successful months in the Argentine and then sailed for Rome. Again she saw Pope Leo and after that she visited all the Italian houses, and the house in Paris; and she established the first house in England. Then she was off again to the United States.

In July, 1902, Francesca went to found a school in Denver, Colorado. And while there, she and her nuns went down into the mines to visit the Italian men and tell them about God and the school she was planning to build for their children in Denver.

In July 1903, Pope Leo XIII, died. By the end of his life, Leo XIII had achieved great things. He had not only reversed the intrusion of European Godlessness, but also was responsible for reviving the Catholic Faith in Protestant countries as well. And although Mother Cabrini felt the loss of this dear friend, she believed that now she had a great heavenly intercessor for her mission.

At the end of 1903, Francesca went to Chicago to found a hospital. She went about raising funds, but the money came in slowly. In April 1904, she came upon the North Shore Hotel that fronted Lincoln Park, with the lake beyond. It was a grey stone building, six stories high, and had been one of the most fashionable hotels, until it was ruined by bad management. It was a bargain at $160,000. But though Mother Cabrini only had one thousand dollars to start, she put her trust in the Sacred Heart of Jesus – He would not fail her!

However there was going to be a lot of sweat, blood, and tears in order to finish the hospital. First of all, the owners tried to cheat the Missionary Sisters out of a portion of the land occupied by the hotel. And later, the contractor suggested so many improvements on the hotel, when only a few small changes would have sufficed, that the building was almost completely gutted. Francesca had been away from the scene for a while, but when she saw what the contractors had done, she exclaimed, “You will of course be paid what is just; you will not be paid one penny more! I’m going to take this in hand myself!” One of them asked her what she meant, and she replied, “I mean that you are all fired! I’m in charge from now on!” Francesca did supervise the work and eight months later on April 26, 1905, the Chicago Hospital was formally opened. As in the case of New York, Francesca decided to call this hospital, the Columbus Hospital, again in order to please the Italians; both liberal and conservative. A saint’s name would not have appealed to the liberal Italians. In fact, “Columbus” was the name she was to give all the hospitals she founded.

Though she was suffering from a high fever, Mother Cabrini then headed for Seattle, where she set up a small orphanage, a parochial school and a small church for Italian immigrants; in which she herself used a pick-axe to dig the foundation. Then she acquired a piece of property at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, in Denver, Colorado, where 30 orphans were to be housed. And in the fall she headed for California to establish an orphanage and convent in Los Angeles.

Elsewhere, in 1905, in New Orleans, an epidemic of yellow fever swept through the city. The poor immigrants living as they did in close congestion in the slums, fell victim to the fever. But not one of the Missionary Sisters who were there helping the Italians, caught the infection, though they had been exposed to it more than anybody else.

November 14, 1905, brought the Silver Jubilee of the founding of Francesca’s, Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart – 25 years of unending work. There were now 1000 nuns in fifty different convents, 5000 orphans and thousands of pupils, and 100,000 patients who had been treated in their hospitals. Francesca, who had started on her own, with so little support, was now known as “Mother” to no less than 199,000 emigrants.

Mother Cabrini had become so well known that her name was echoed honorably and affectionately from one end of the United States to the other. And her name was held in love and reverence not only in the United States, but also in South America and Central America, and wherever she had set her foot.

The priests of the diocese said that it had never happened before, in Los Angeles, that the foundress of a religious institute was there at the time of its jubilee. So the priests celebrated it with the utmost pomp but at the same time, Mother Cabrini looked forward to a future day when she could celebrate the jubilee with her daughters in Italy.

After establishing the California foundations, in 1906, Francesca went back to Italy. At this time, Milan was having an exhibition of Italian work that had been done in foreign countries. Francesca was asked to send the products of her American and South American houses. The crowning event of all this was that Queen Margarita came forward and awarded Mother Cabrini with the “Grand Prix”, for work accomplished among the Italian emigrants.

In July 1907, Pope Pius X gave the final approbation of the Rule of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Mother Cabrini carried the Rule through Italy, to France, England and Spain.

At the end of 1907, Francesca was on her way to Argentina to open a larger school in Buenos Aires and after three months she was off to Brazil to start the foundation of two large schools in Rio de Janeiro. An epidemic of smallpox broke out there and several of her nuns caught the disease. Then, on her way from Sao Paolo to Rio, Francesca herself, fell victim to malaria. She was forced to convalesce for a while and then she returned to the United States.

Mother Cabrini spent two years solidifying her foundations in America and building even another hospital in Chicago. But the devil was close at hand and enticed enemies to work particular havoc. They hid themselves in the building one evening, after Mother Cabrini and her sisters had left, and they cut the water pipes. As it was in mid winter, the flood of water froze in the building. Then shortly after this the enemies soaked the floors with paraffin and set them on fire. The fire was discovered in time and extinguished. There was only one thing left to do Francesca went to live in the hospital until it was completed.

When the hospital was finished, Mother Cabrini thought that her work as Superior should end. She put all her affairs in order, and in March, 1910, she set sail for Italy. But her heart was elsewhere – she longed to retire to the hills of West Park, and to meditate there, while preparing for death. When she arrived at the General House in Rome, she announced that she wanted to retire. But God had other plans for her. Without her knowing, Francesca’s nuns had petitioned the Holy Father, and on July 16, 1910, Pope Pius X issued a decree – Francesca Cabrini was to remain Superior General for life! Even though she was wearing out, the holy woman accepted the obedience and continued her work.

From Rome, Francesca went to France, then England and back to Italy. In Codogno, she asked that Antonia Tondini be brought to the convent. Upon meeting her, Mother Cabrini embraced the old woman saying, “Antonia, God bless you. I have thought of you with affection so often, and longed to see you.” Mother Cabrini held no grudges – a lesson of forgiveness for all of us.

Francesca returned to Rome and she suffered chronic anaemia and a severe malarial attack. For months she was too sick to leave her room and now she was thin and weak. Knowing that she could not visit her nuns, in Italy, Spain, France and England, Mother Cabrini sent them a circular instead. Then, sick as she was, on March 22, 1911, she departed for New York. Immediately in New York, she went back to her old life, frailer than ever, but still energetic. Yet despite the fact that she had brought with her a subscription book that Pope Pius X has signed, recommending the Columbus Hospital to public support, she found it difficult to collect much money. But in spite of this she still asked a young architect to draw up plans for a new ten story hospital – she was putting all her trust in Divine Providence.

One morning, in July, when Mother Cabrini was visiting West Park, she thought she was dying. As soon as she was able to travel, the nuns got her to go to Colorado – where she could convalesce. Later that year, Francesca supervised the construction of an annex to the house in Los Angeles. Standing out in the sun and wearing a large hat, she stood leaning on her cane, and took charge of the demolition of another building. She had bought this building cheap, intending to use the materials in the new structure. Francesca found that she had so much brick and woodwork left over that she was able to ship a great deal of it to Denver, where another building was going up.

Early in 1913, she went to Seattle to buy another orphanage. As she had done many times in the past, she took a map of Seattle and studied it closely, and then put her finger upon a spot. At this spot, there was a beautiful mansion, and when Francesca went to look at the spot two days later, she providentially hitched hiked for a ride with the very lady whose husband owned the place! And later, an anonymous benefactor came forward with the $100,000 needed to buy the place.

That same summer, Francesca was back in New York to open another orphanage nearer the city than West Park. She looked at a Protestant Boy’s School that was not for sale; and there buried a medal of St. Joseph in a flower bed. Later, she obtained the property, and changed it into an orphanage. Again Mother Cabrini busied herself; washing the outside walls and doing other things, she was never one to stay idle.

The Sacred Heart Villa no longer exists as an academy, but known as Mother Cabrini’s High School, takes girls of all nationalities. And it is in the chapel in this school that the saint’s body now reposes in a crystal reliquary under the altar.

In all, Mother Cabrini crossed the ocean 25 times and she set up foundations in more than eight American cities as well as in Central and South America.

Mother Cabrini wanted each daughter of hers to be a true mother to the orphans and pupils. And in one of her directions she wrote, “My Daughters, in your hands are the new generations. As educators you are obliged to form not only Christians for the glory of Christ and the perpetuation of Holy Church, but also solid patriotic citizens for the prosperity of the nation and the felicity of the family. Thus it is yours to mould the decorum of spirit, state, family and society.”

And Francesca told her nuns: “Pray much, for the conversion of sinners and sanctification of souls does not depend on human eloquence, or the grace of style and rhetoric, but upon our spouse Jesus alone, who enlightens the mind, moves the will, sows virtue, and animates us to undertake perfect works.”

But one of the most shocking truths that Mother Cabrini ever told her nuns was this, “The world today is going back to paganism. In spite of its gigantic progress, in science and commerce, it has forgotten prayer, and hardly recognizes it any more. And that has come about because with pagan materialistic sentiments, man makes a god of himself and creatures, and loses the idea of the relations that exist between himself and God!” And this truth stands out even more, in today’s chaotic world.

Mother Cabrini had the faith that moves mountains, for she would say, “Not the possible. The thing to do is the impossible!” Beginning with nothing, and quite penniless, she built convents, schools, hospitals, homes and a church. She called herself “nothing and nobody,” not even ‘God’s tool,’ though she was indeed the instrument He used, to do the impossible. She had the talent of a great leader and the ability of a general, all buried beneath the beautiful virtue of humility. Her very soul burned with the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – whose name she incorporated into the title of her community.

Francesca loved humility; the foundation of the saints. Of this virtue she said, “Without humility everything is spoiled. With humility all things can be done. Humble yourselves. Debase yourselves, for in this way the graces of God will come… Love humiliations.” And she wrote in her resolution book, “I shall love humiliations. I shall rejoice in receiving them, thanking God for so precious a gift that helps to keep my soul in balance. I shall be frightened without them.”

The Saint’s reliquary

It’s most wonderful that we have Mother Cabrini for a saint, in these modern times; a saint that proves to us that, yes, it is possible to become a saint in the midst of a modern world and that it can be a joyful experience, even amidst all our troubles, if only we look to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as the focal point of our life. ←

St. Mother Cabrini, Pray for us!