Toward the end of the 1880s, Francis Marchese, publisher of the New York Italian newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano, wrote about his fellow countrymen in New York: "The Italian colony are exploited economically and morally by other Italians and by Protestants. The Italians are hated, treated like animals, persecuted worse than the Negro."
In 1891, the Jesuit Father Nicholas Russo, ministering to Italians in New York City, estimated that they numbered 100,000 in that city alone. "A very small number practice their religion," he wrote. "There is a glimmer of faith still in their religious processions, such as in honor of Our Lady or St. Roch. But this little spark seems not to have life enough to reach to the soul and the heart. Their spiritual life is really extinct."
The person who would do more than any other to alleviate the vast social and spiritual needs of these unfortunate people, almost all of them from Italy’s impoverished south, was a pint-sized nun, scarcely five feet in height and in frail health, from Italy’s more prosperous north. Her English name was Frances Xavier Cabrini.
She was born two months premature in 1850, the tenth and next-to-last child of well-off farmers in a small town some 20 miles south of Milan. Seven of her siblings died in infancy or youth. At age seven she had a brush with death herself when she fell into a swiftly flowing stream and almost drowned. The accident gave her a lifelong fear of water — which did not prevent her, however, from making no fewer than 23 transatlantic crossings.
Trained as an elementary school teacher, she wanted to become a nun but was rejected because of poor health. At age 30, with encouragement from her local bishop and the help of seven companions, she founded a religious congregation for women: the Salesian Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. The term "missionaries" raised eyebrows; in the 1880s, this title was considered the exclusive property of men.
A missionary was what Mother Cabrini was determined to be nonetheless. She thought first of going to China. The dynamic bishop of Piacenza, Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, urged Mother Cabrini to look westward and join the Italian priests he was sending to New York to care for Italian immigrants. On March 31, 1889, Mother Cabrini and six of her sisters sailed into New York Harbor, singing the Marian hymn Ave Maris Stella ("Hail Mary, Ocean’s Star") as they passed the Statue of Liberty. Within days they had joined the priests sent by Bishop Scalabrini and were instructing the children of the parish entrusted to them and visiting families in their crowded tenements.
It was the beginning of a vast enterprise that, in less than thirty years, would lead to the recruitment of more than a thousand sisters in 67 houses in the United States, Nicaragua, Panama, Argentina, Brazil, and Europe. They taught in schools, ran orphanages, and established hospitals. It was uphill work, often hampered by the opposition of Irish-American clergy, who looked down on Italians as poor, ill-clothed, ignorant, and unwilling to support the Church financially. Like Mother Teresa in a later day, however, Mother Cabrini refused to knuckle under to anyone. When Archbishop Corrigan of New York suggested, not long after her arrival, that she return to Italy, she told him to his face that this was out of the question. God had sent her and her sisters to the New World, and there they would stay.
Mother Cabrini was constantly on the go, in her nun’s garb, by transcontinental train and transatlantic steamship. From the start she urged her Italian sisters to obtain American citizenship, but she was not naturalized herself until 1909, most likely because she never found time for the paperwork.
She became an expert at real-estate deals and banking. One amusing account from 1915 involves her purchase of a Seattle hotel to use as a hospital. The agreed price was $190,000 — the equivalent of several million today. When Mother Cabrini and two of her sisters met with the lawyers to close the purchase, they heard one of them whisper: "Will she have the money?" When Mother Cabrini produced a cashier’s check for $90,000, with a guarantee from the benefactor she brought with her of a loan for the remaining $100,000, the lawyers were flabbergasted. "Poor things," Mother Cabrini whispered in Italian to her two companions. "They can’t believe that we are able to do a little business."
Inflamed with God’s love, she longed to do ever more for her beloved Italian immigrants. "With God I can do great things," she wrote in her spiritual journal in November 1892. "Help me then, my Jesus. I feel consumed with love for you, and for me it is a great sorrow, a slow martyrdom, not to be able to do more for you." No less urgent was care for her own sisters. "I dedicate myself to the service of the Sisters," she wrote during a retreat in 1891. "I trust you, my Jesus. Speak in me and through me for the good of those whom you have entrusted to me."
"How marvelous to witness Mother transact business," one of her sisters wrote.
In struggles she remained tranquil and steady in her confidence in God. She would say: "We are obliged to do everything possible to defend our cause, which is the Lord’s. In the end he will arrange things as he considers best." But she didn’t stand idle. On the contrary, in difficult situations her strength of soul and courage would grow in proportion to the difficulty.
Mother Cabrini’s health was never good. In December 1917 she stopped off in Chicago, during one of her many train journeys, to visit her sisters at their Columbus Hospital. Though glad to see her, they were concerned to find her unusually tired and run down. At midday on December 22, as she sat alone in her room at the hospital, Mother Cabrini’s heart stopped beating. Canonized in July 1946 by Pope Pius XII, she was the first American citizen to be so honored, and was declared to be Patroness of Immigrants by the same pope four years later.
A novice in her society, one of the hundred American-born sisters at the time of Mother Cabrini’s death, wrote what is perhaps her most fitting epitaph:
Hers was a life lived for God alone. No task was too great, no labor was too hard, no journey too long and fatiguing, no sufferings were unbearable when saving souls and succoring humanity were in question. May God be forever thanked and praised for calling me to serve Him in the institute which she founded.
Preaching in Munich on October 6, 1978, at a requiem Mass for the recently deceased Pope John Paul I, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said: "The saints are the columns of light who show us the way, transforming it into the path of salvation while we pass through the darkness of earth." As we thank God for the light that shines from the life of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, we need to remember that it is our responsibility to pass on this light to others.