"Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, pray for us!" This invocation, pronounced for the first time by His Holiness, Pope Pius XII on the day of her Canonization, found an echo throughout the entire world. On that memorable Sunday, July 7, 1946, the banner of the new saint was triumphantly carried into the Vatican Basilica amidst the applause of 40,000 people. Ordinarily, the Canonization of a saint takes place many years, centuries even, after that person's death. Mother Cabrini's Beatification, however, took place in 1938, only twenty-one years after her death. Pope Pius XII signed the decree of canonization in 1944, and the ceremony elevating her to the altars of the Church was the first one celebrated after the close of World War II.
It would seem that God wished to give the Catholic faithful an example of industriousness. Indeed, those who do the most for God are those who have the desire (if not always the ability or opportunity) for getting things done efficiently and with the utmost dispatch. Such an individual soul was Mother Cabrini. With astonishing swiftness, she accomplished wonderful works for God, surmounting obstacles that would frustrate and halt the activity of less generous souls. She left nothing undone in order to accomplish the Divine Will, once it was known to her, even though the task seemed far above human strength.
Frances Cabrini was born on July 15, 1850, in Lombardy, in northern Italy, in the town of Sant'Angelo, in the Lodi region, south of the Po River, the tenth of eleven brothers and sisters. Only four of them survived beyond adolescence. Her parents, Agostino Cabrini and Stella Oldini, were peasants who were possessed of great faith and piety, which they transmitted to their children by word and example. From the time Frances had the power to reason, she would see her mother pray fervently at the beginning and the end of each day. This powerful example made a lasting impression on her, something every parent would do well to remember.
Italy in the mid-l9th century was drenched in a Freemasonic political ideology, which held out the goal of "national unity" by way of Secularist and revolutionary Liberalism, which was totally anti-Clerical in its relation to the Church. There was a severe repression of the influence of the Church and of religious education. To confront this challenge, the zealous Bishop of Lodi extended throughout his diocese two particular devotions which left their permanent mark on Frances: 1) the work of the Missions, and 2) devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. From her early childhood, Frances Cabrini was immersed in this climate of profound piety.
The example of her older sister Rosa and the influence of Father Luigi Oldini, her priest-uncle with whom she spent the summers, further nurtured this piety. Truly, Rosa was a model of Christian life. Trained as a schoolteacher, she taught in Sant'Angelo. Her free time was devoted to works of charity and participation in the apostolates of the parish. In the midst of her tasks, she dedicated long moments to prayer.
At first, when Frances learned to pray, she may have been imitating Rosa, but soon she began to experience first-hand the sweet friendship of the Heart of Jesus, Who was the center of her prayer. She dreamed of being a heroic missionary, inspired by the stories of missionary life read aloud by her father to the family as they gathered together in the evening.
In 1858, when she was eight years old, Frances received the Sacrament of Confirmation, and with it, the grace which further developed the foundations of her spirituality. She was experiencing something she could not explain in mere human terms. It seemed as though she were no longer of this world; her heart was filled with the love of God, and a desire to perform His Holy Will. She knew without doubt that it was the grace of the Holy Ghost, operating in her through the powerful graces of the Sacrament of Confirmation. From that moment, she sought to respond completely to the love of Jesus, not denying Him anything, and sacrificing her own self-will as proof of her love.
In 1863, when she was thirteen, a Franciscan missionary spent a few days in Sant'Angelo. Frances communicated to him her ambitions to be a missionary, seeking the salvation of souls. He suggested she should share these desires with her sister. But Rosa did not take her very seriously. Given her attachment to her elder sister, who had been such an inspiration for her, it was a harsh blow; but it was only the first cross of the many vocational contradictions which the future Mother Cabrini would undergo.
She registered at the School of Arluno, a village close to Sant'Angelo, to qualify as a schoolteacher. This was run by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart. Frances lived with them in the Convent, where the Sacred Heart was the center of devotion. Her deep love of Jesus broadened into a singular affection for His Most Sacred Heart. Her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus developed in breadth and height and depth.
Before ending her studies, Frances took the obvious step: she requested acceptance as a Daughter of the Sacred Heart. But she experienced yet another tremendous sorrow: the Superior did not accept her. She advised her to wait until later, when she would found another Institute to bring new glory to the Heart of Jesus. Whether it was an excuse or a prophecy, Reverend Mother Grassi was not mistaken.
In 1868, Frances received her teacher's diploma and returned to Sant'Angelo. Like her sister Rosa, she taught in the parish school there, and later taught in Vidardo, a village close to her hometown. In 1870, within months of each other, her beloved parents died. Still bereaved of their loss, she became gravely ill with smallpox, having contracted it while she helped in the epidemic which raged throughout the region. When she suddenly recovered her health, she took it as a definite indication that she was to enter the Religious life. But alas, the Canossian Sisters of Crema also refused her admittance, this time in order not to deprive the Pastor of Vidardo of his capable teacher and lay apostle.
Frances' next move in 1874 was to the House of Providence in Codogno, a diocesan girls' orphanage, which was administered by two lay women. At the Bishop's insistence, they reluctantly promised to provide the work with the structure and spirit of a Religious institute. Their delay and failure to accomplish the Bishop's instructions caused the diocesan authorities to seek someone more obedient and capable of doing this: Frances Cabrini.
Once again, Frances accepted this sacrifice asked of her by Our Divine Lord. She broke all ties with her past and left the classroom. However, this time there was one compensation: it would satisfy her intense aspiration to the Religious life. The Bishop's desire of transforming the orphanage into a Religious institute would be accomplished. He was aware that at least five others in the House of Providence also aspired to give themselves to God as Religious sisters.
The complete story of her trials and contradictions during this period of her life will never be fully known, since Mother Cabrini was always extremely reserved about her interior life. Nevertheless, in 1877, aged 27, Frances Xavier Cabrini made her Religious Profession together with the other five young women from the orphanage.
A greater cross was in store for her, however. The Bishop, aware of the deplorable conditions at the institute, took drastic measures to try to save the community at the House of Providence. Upon accepting Sister Frances Xavier's religious profession, he named her Superior of the community. This was of great advantage to the community, but greatly to the disadvantage of Frances. The two women, formerly in charge, stooped even to the extreme of spreading slander and malicious gossip. Frances drank the bitter chalice of Gethsemane. But at the same time she experienced, as never before, the fact that the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Whom she loved so much, was a pierced and bleeding Heart.
This painful situation lasted until 1880. The same Bishop, whom Frances had obeyed perfectly at the cost of great sacrifice, finally lost all hope that the House of Providence could be made into a true religious community, because of the pride and obstinacy of the older women. He asked Mother Frances to found a new religious missionary institute, taking with her the group of devout young Sisters who had been professed with her. Together they occupied a house in Codogno, which they transformed into a Convent. Thus began, without a formal Religious Rule, and without any material resources, what later would be the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Frances was thirty years old. The years of labor in the Codogno school of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, obedient to the sacrifice of the Cross, had prepared her for her mission. Her personality, purified in this same school, already represented the integration of the paradoxes which characterize the spiritual maturity of the saints. By temperament humble, or even reserved, she moved forward with an amazing vitality and perseverance in the performance of the service of God. Docile and obedient from childhood, she was stubbornly autonomous and independent when necessary to withstand those who resisted the Will of God. Contemplative and prayerful, she was nevertheless a skilled organizer, able to establish a foundation in only a few days time. Although up to that time, she experienced contradiction after contradiction with regard to her religious vocation, she emerged from all this a truly holy nun. From never having gone beyond the confines of Lombardy, she became a missionary who traveled tirelessly.
At the age of thirty, the young Foundress already knew what it meant to take up the Cross and deny herself to follow Jesus. Her asceticism became progressively inspired by her desire to imitate the attitudes of the Heart of Christ. She developed her missionary spirituality by penetrating into the Mystery of Our Lords Most Sacred Heart, which led her to understand human hearts. It was this love of Jesus that inspired her obedience to the Will of the Eternal Father, often without understanding the reason, and when it seemed contrary to her fondest ideals. She desired to imitate His patience, meekness, and charity in the midst of the trials and frustrations which she endured in her travels, works, foundations, and missions from the time she left her native town to the very hour of her death.
On November 14, 1880, the first Mass was celebrated in the Convent at Codogno, at an altar presided over by an image of the Sacred Heart. By decree of Papal approbation, granted eight years later, Mother Cabrini and her companions officially became Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Frances herself adopted "Xavier" as her name in Religion, in memory of the holy patron of the missions and of the new Congregation, St. Francis Xavier, to whom she had a deep devotion. The Institute was established as a diocesan Congregation in 1881, with a school and orphanage established adjacent to the Convent. The education and care of orphans was an apostolate Mother Cabrini highly preferred.
Meanwhile, many novices were being received and personally formed by the young Foundress. They would later become the pillars of the congregation. From her they learned Sacred Heart spirituality, comprise of prayerful intimacy with Jesus, compassion, and unconditional self-denial. By her example, and her often-repeated and favorite scriptural phrase, "I can do all things in Him Who strengthens me," they developed the trust in Our Divine Lord which led them to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
In November 1882, Mother Cabrini established a second foundation. Two years later she established one in Milan. The institute was now extended throughout all the province of Lombardy. Frances Xavier had her eyes fixed on Rome, since she wanted an institute truly universal and missionary. This required a house in the Eternal City, and Papal approval of the Rule. The Archbishop of Milan, on the other hand, wished her to remain in Lombardy. Nevertheless, he allowed her to set out for Rome in September, 1887. Never before had she ventured outside the region. Her first action was to pray at the altar of St. Francis Xavier in the Church of the Gesu.
Her transactions in Rome can be summed up as a contest between her naive enthusiasm and determination, and the slow pace and caution of the ecclesiastical authorities. The Cardinal in charge of these matters did his best to dishearten and dissuade her. In the end, however, he asked the respectful but determined little nun to found two houses in Rome instead of one. In March 1888, the Institute was granted the approval of His Holiness, Pope Leo XIII. Surprisingly, the procedure had taken a remarkably short time.
During her stay in Rome, she met Monsignor Scalabrini, Bishop of Piacenza. He was the founder of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, an order dedicated to help Italian immigrants in America. Bishop Scalabrini wanted religious women to help and complement the priests of the Institute of St. Charles. He succeeded in obtaining a letter from Archbishop Corrigan of New York, formally inviting the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart to establish a house there. Shortly after that, Pope Leo XIII, in an audience with Mother Frances, asked her to make New York her mission, declaring, "You will go not to the East, but to the West!" Instead of China, as she had once dreamed, in blind faith and perfect obedience, with a group of her sisters, she embarked for America almost immediately.
In many of her new foundations, Mother Cabrini encountered obstacles which would discourage anyone, and the beginning in New York was no exception. Archbishop Corrigan did not expect her so soon. At the first meeting, he suggested that she return to Italy, to which she replied that, in obedience she could not, since the Pope had sent her to New York. To make matters worse, the Scalabrini priests had made no provisions for them, not even any living quarters. The Convent which their benefactress, an Italian Countess, had prepared for them, had not met the Archbishop's approval. They were brought to spend the night in a forbidding shelter in the heart of the Italian ghetto, with the beds so dirty that they could not sleep in them, and spent their first night in America awake, tense and tired, yet peacefully engaged in prayer. On the following day, the Sisters of Charity agreed to house the missionaries as long as it was necessary, and helped them in their first steps through the city.
In another world, another culture, not knowing exactly how to proceed, and without knowing the language, Mother Cabrini immediately put her faith and her hands to the task. She convinced Archbishop Corrigan of the value of her mission, gaining his support, friendship, and permission to live in the convent prepared by the Countess. She immediately opened an orphanage and free school where the poorest Italians lived, in the lower east side of Manhattan. The sisters began to teach catechism classes in the Italian parish. Young Italian women who showed an interest, joined in helping them. Mother Cabrini and the sisters constantly walked the streets of the Italian district, visiting families, offering help, bringing God nearer, and strengthening them in the Catholic Faith of their fathers. Soon the orphanage housed more than 400 orphans, maintained by alms the Sisters received by begging every day, because the help they received from other religious congregations and donations from the rich were not enough.
Mother Cabrini and the first group of Sisters arrived in March. Amazingly, by July everything was in order in New York. She went back to Italy with the first North American Postulants for the Novitiate in Codogno. She visited all of her houses in Lombardy, and then went to Rome, where she had an audience with Pope Leo XIII, by this time her devoted friend. This Pope, one of the greatest pontiffs of modern times, was known as a man of vision. He surely demonstrated this admirable quality when he sent Mother Cabrini to the United States.
She returned to New York in April, 1890, with seven more sisters. She was then forty years old, and her young institute ten years old. During this voyage, she began her custom of writing letters to her Sisters in the form of a travel diary, which today is preserved as valuable biographical documentation. Doubtlessly, she was inspired by the letters St. Francis Xavier wrote from the Orient to his brothers in the Society of Jesus.
She stayed in New York only three months, the necessary time to found, at the request of Archbishop Corrigan, an ample orphanage in West Park, on the banks of the Hudson River. It was an ideal, healthful site, well suited for the orphans and for the North American Novitiate which opened in 1891. The land formerly was owned by the Jesuits who sold it at a very low price because it lacked sufficient water. A few days after their arrival, the sisters "discovered" an underground spring which was more than sufficient to provide water. Not surprising, considering the oft-repeated axiom of their Foundress!
In successive trips -- she crossed the ocean 25 times -- she visited New Orleans, Brooklyn, Denver, Newark, Philadelphia, Scranton, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, Central and South America, England, France and Spain. She founded extensive institutions for the benefit of the poor, with the ease and speed of one who plants trees. Governments construct many buildings; great companies found dozens of hotels or factories everywhere; any education minister is apt to found more schools than those founded by Frances Xavier Cabrini. But Mother's Cabrini's activities cannot be explained in terms of her human qualities, nor by her discipline as a nun, or in terms of a merely human desire for success. Frances Xavier had no other ambition except to do what God asked of her.
She had neither money nor resources, but she placed her entire trust in that which held a greater power than money: the Divine power to move the hearts of those who could help the poor. The foundations of Mother Cabrini bear no comparison whatsoever with the foundations of the world. If she possessed some praiseworthy human traits, they were never proportionate to the final results. If she succeeded in raising funds, they were never sufficient. If she counted, finally, on her Sisters, who were the ones who made possible every new enterprise by their abnegation, they were frail and limited. In reality, Mother Cabrini counted on nothing, not even on herself; the love and the grace of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ were enough for her.
It is insufficient and deceptive to try to understand Mother Cabrini only by her tireless activity, which might give the impression of a compulsive activist, impatient, always "on the go." In her missionary spirituality, the Blessed Virgin Mary was her model. She was a woman of much prayer, a real contemplative, to the extent of wishing to pass her final years dedicated to prayer. This contemplative quality, to communicate to others the object contemplated, is typical of any truly authentic apostolate.
The key to understand the miracle of her accomplishments is that she identified with the loves, desires, and attitudes of the Heart of Jesus. Her love for Him, and those for whom He shed His Precious Blood, led her to realize wonders. It led her to hope against all hope, and to obtain results which others thought impossible.
To seek the glory of the Heart of Jesus has always been a constant goal of all the great mystics who lived this devotion. Seeking His glory is to offer to the Incarnate Love of God all that is due to Him. It is to offer all that He yearns for from us, which too often we are unwilling to offer. Above all, He yearns for our love, thanksgiving, adoration, trust in His mercy, reparation, the surrendering to Him of our entire lives. As the Foundress of an Institute consecrated to the glory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, this is the spirituality which Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini and her religious embraced, and expressed in their missionary activity throughout the world.
In the last years, in the measure that her body progressively wore out, her spirit reached that degree of maturity attained by the saints before their entry in Heaven. Her recent trials had renewed and deepened her mystical relationship with the Heart of Jesus in the manner she had always understood and experienced it: an identification of hearts and immolation for love, for the glory of the Sacred Heart.
When she did not get up for Mass on December 22, the sisters were worried. One of them brought her breakfast and stayed with her briefly. Then she asked to be left alone. She had probably awakened with the premonition that this would be the day the Bridegroom would call her. Mother Cabrini at no time lost her lucidity or the consoling Presence of Our Lord. When she suffered the fatal pulmonary effusion, she rose from her armchair and rang the usual bell, summoning the Sister taking care of her that day. Sister responded, bearing her lunch tray. But Frances Xavier Cabrini had already begun her final journey, this time to Heaven. She was 67 years old.
Throughout the years since her death, hundreds of pilgrims, many of them new immigrants, have sought strength for life's journey by visiting and praying at one of the three Shrines to Mother Cabrini, in New York City, Chicago, or Golden, Colorado. Membership in the Mother Cabrini League, founded in 1938 to spread devotion to Mother Cabrini, is another way the Catholic faithful chose to bear witness to her lasting legacy--the power and efficacy of prayer.
On the day of her canonization, some 60,000 people visited her shrine in New York and the room where she died in Chicago. Another place where crowds gathered was the shrine in Golden, Colorado. Even today, many pilgrims go to these same places to ask for favors or to express their gratitude for graces received: the Shrine Chapel in New York City, the National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Chicago, Illinois, and Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colorado.
When Mother Cabrini died, she was buried in the cemetery at West Park, New York, according to a desire she had earlier expressed. In the fall of 1933, however, her body was placed beneath the main altar of the chapel in Mother Cabrini High School in New York City. The chapel was first located in the school until a larger chapel dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was constructed on the same grounds. It is the destination of many who go to pray at the altar and admire the mosaics which depict her life.
The room in Chicago, Illinois, where Mother Cabrini died was opened to the public in 1948. On August 10, 1955, the chapel honoring her was dedicated. In 1992, they received recognition as a National Shrine by the "National Registry of Shrines and Places of Pilgrimage Today." Hundreds of visitors from all parts of the world have come through the bronzed etched door to pray in the majestic Romanesque chapel which has colorful dome fresco paintings depicting important events in the life of Mother Cabrini. The entrance of the Shrine is in the hospital's south lobby. Patients and their visitors benefit from its inspiring, healing environment.
Not long after Mother Cabrini in 1906 established the Queen of Heaven Orphanage in Denver, Colorado, she purchased a tract of mountain land in Mount Vernon Canyon, about 20 miles west of Denver, for a summer camp for the girls.
On an outing, Mother Cabrini, two sisters, and some girls climbed on foot to the highest point of these Rocky Mountain foothills where they ate their lunch. The sisters and the girls gathered large white quartz stones which Mother arranged on the ground in the shape of a heart surmounted by a cross.
Professionals were hired to look for water, which was very scarce. None was found until Mother Cabrini's last visit to Colorado in 1912. During a walk with the Sisters, she pointed to a red rock and indicated that they would find water there. In that dry spot, a spring trickled forth which has never stopped.
An outdoor Shrine developed, as from all parts of the country, many flocked to the miraculous spring. Then they climb 373 marble steps to the summit. The stations of the cross and 15 mysteries of the Rosary are represented in an ascending order on the right side of the steps. At the summit, there is a great statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at whose base is the heart of stones fashioned by Mother Cabrini.
Pilgrimages to special shrines such as this are unique, grace-filled experiences. But even more importantly, in the words of Mother Cabrini, is that you "make a shrine in your heart", and that all of your actions and desires flow from that life of intimate union with God, Who is wonderfully attainable to us in the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
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