Americans differ fiercely concerning the role of schools in assimilation: Should we cater to foreign-born students or demand that they learn English? Many believe that immigrants pose serious risks to American wellbeing—and there are disease epidemics and violent crimes to support their argument. The Church itself is caught up in the fray, as Catholics debate how to minister to incoming believers who share the faith but differ in other respects.
If this sounds like a description of 2014, then that is proof of the perennial pertinence of the past. For it actually describes 1889, the year Frances Xavier Cabrini became an immigrant herself, setting foot for the first time in the nation to which she would eventually pledge allegiance as a citizen. Though she died nearly a hundred years ago, the life of this patron saint of immigrants is strikingly relevant to our own time.
Maria Francesca Cabrini, the tenth of eleven children in her family, was born July 15, 1850, in a small town south of Milan. Seven of her siblings died before adulthood, and Frances also struggled with poor health throughout her life. Although the anti-papal sentiment that accompanied Italian unification was spreading in Italy, Frances grew up as a faithful Catholic in the devout Cabrini household, where stories of missionaries were read and discussed. Frances was educated by the local sisters, the Daughters of the Sacred Heart. She felt the call of God early and sought entry to the Daughters’ convent, but was refused. Not easily daunted, she would find another way.
As she searched for her path to consecrated life she began working as a teacher in a nearby school. In 1870 both her parents died and she tried another congregation—again no luck. Ironically, her own evident quality was her undoing; the priests of the parish at which she worked didn’t want to let her go so they urged the sisters to reject her application.
In 1874, at last, it seemed that she had found her home: the Sisters of Providence. (She took the name Saveria in honor of Our Savior and later identified herself as “Frances Xavier.”) Her joy was short-lived, as a faction formed against her and the backbiting was so severe that not only the peace but even the survival of the convent was thrown into question. She decided to take the action that others had been prodding her to take for years, and in 1880 formed a new religious institute, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
One hesitates to apply the term type to any saint, but there’s something about holy, diminutive nuns who are models of charity and kindness and at the same time, when sure of God’s will, immovably stubborn and adept at getting their way. (Teresa of Calcutta springs to mind, but there are many others.) The five-foot tall Frances never steered away from controversy. Even the title of her new band of sisters did not come easily. The centuries-old Catholic tradition of consecrated life dictated that male religious were missionaries, traveling about the world to preach the gospel and make new converts. The concept of women religious who were not contemplatives but active in the world was still novel to many Catholics, the hierarchy included. “If the mission of announcing the Lord’s resurrection to his apostles had been entrusted to Mary Magdalene,” Frances argued against the skeptical, “it would seem a very good thing to confide to other women an evangelizing mission.” Missionaries it would be.
But first she needed to go to Rome to beg the approval of the pope for her congregation. At the tomb of the dynamic missionary saint and her namesake, Francis Xavier, she prayed for approval and pledged her sisters to the service of the gospel in the East. Her meeting with the Holy Father did not alter her ambition to be a missionary but it did literally change her direction. “Not to the East, but to the West,” Leo told her. In Rome, too, she met the nearly eponymous episcopal sponsor who would both encourage her apostolate and confirm the pope’s advice, Bishop Giovanni Scalabrini.
Scalabrini had formed a society of priests to address what was called at the time the “Italian problem.” Beginning in the 1880s, millions of Italians poured into the United States. Most of them were nominally Catholic, but many were poorly catechized and risked complete separation from their faith as they floundered in a strange, pluralistic religious culture where even the Catholic Church—dominated by Irish and German priests and bishops—seemed distant if not hostile. Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York joined his pleas to Scalabrini’s. In the New World, he assured her, there would be “a vast field for your zeal.”
Thus, on March 31, 1889, after a weeklong steamship voyage, Frances Cabrini and six other MSC sisters arrived in New York harbor. When they beheld the Statue of Liberty, they joyfully sang “Ave Maris Stella.”
Again a common theme appears, as founders of religious orders seem always to endure struggles of one sort or another with Church authorities. Mother Cabrini had a mercurial relationship with Archbishop Corrigan, who was often supportive but occasionally obstructive. Existing American religious orders could also be difficult. Though the Missionary sisters enjoyed generous assistance from several groups of women religious, others dismissed their work as “only taking care of a few dirty Italians.”
Even within the beleaguered Italian-American community there were serious tensions. Frances and her sisters were northern Italians, while most of the immigrants they served came from southern Italy. Frances confessed that she found the southern mentality difficult to comprehend. She even had a falling out with her allies the Scalabrinian Fathers; in the context of “the Roman Question” then roiling the home country, she found the Scalabrinians too nationalistic and insufficiently loyal to the pope’s position.
The next three decades of Frances’s life were consumed with a breathless succession of travels and institution-founding as she strove—never successfully—to keep up with entreaties from across the western hemisphere for the services of her sisters. She personally oversaw the establishment of her sisters in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, and Newark. (It was in Seattle, in 1909, that she became a naturalized U.S. citizen.) Argentina was also a magnet for Italian immigration in this period (thus “Pope Bergoglio’s” ancestry), and she went to South America several times as her sisters spread to Buenos Aires and beyond.
In these places Frances personally and her sisters collectively served the poor with home visits, ministered to the sick in hospitals, cared for children in orphanages and educated them in schools, and offered tender charity to inmates in prison.
Their schools became part of an extraordinary empire of American parochial education. Parochial schools were a form of charity in this period: Schools were usually free and the sisters were compelled to find their means of sustenance elsewhere. Frances navigated the shoals of the Americanist controversy by insisting on a middle ground of bilingual education—angering both the anti-immigrant crowd who wanted English only and the Italian nationalists who feared assimilation and demanded Italian only.
Health care, too, was a charitable enterprise, as borne out by statistics from the sisters’ Columbus Hospital in New York. In 1904, out of a total of nearly 1300 patients, 53 paid “full board” and 78 were “partly free.” The rest were treated at no charge. Seventeen years later, the astonishing restoration of an infant’s ravaged eyes at a Columbus Hospital facility would furnish the first miracle in Frances’s cause of sainthood.
Frances Cabrini’s labors in service of her fellow human beings and her God came to an end December 22, 1917, in her congregation’s hospital in Chicago. She was beatified in 1938 and that day, November 13, became her feast day. In 1946, Pope Pius XII made her the first American citizen to be canonized as a saint.
The author gratefully acknowledges as his source for much of the preceding the outstanding biography, Mother Cabrini: “Italian Immigrant of the Century,” by Mary Louise Sullivan, MSC (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1992).