I’ve grown in friendship with this remarkable saint a lot since visiting the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colorado earlier this fall. The more I’ve read about her, the more I’ve realized the surprising paradoxes that pepper her story!
1. The founding of her order
She was too sick to become a nun, so she founded her own orderMaria Francesca Cabrini was born in the small village of Sant’ Angelo Lodigiano, near Milan, Italy in 1850. She felt a call to religious life from a young age, but struggled with chronic poor health. This physical frailty led her to being rejected, twice, by already established religious communities. But if God wants you to be his spouse and you keep your heart open, no matter what the adversity, you will be his! It will just be in his own timing. And so it was in Cabrini’s life.
After being the headmistress of an orphanage in Italy for six years, Cabrini received the call from the Lord to start her own missionary community. She felt at the beginning particularly called to serve the orphans. Jesus finally fulfilled her desire to give herself totally to him! For her religious name, she took the name “Frances” in honor of St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionaries. Her community, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, is still active today.
2. Her literal direction in life
She wanted to go East, but she was called to go West. When Frances was a child, she would make paper boats, fill them with small flowers that she called “missionaries,” and sail them on the water, imagining them going off to the far East. Consider her surprise—and ponder her great docility to the will of God—when she was asked to go in the opposite direction! In 1887 Cabrini went to Rome to ask Pope Leo XIII permission for her community to go to China. He famously urged her, “Not to the East, but to the West!” He saw the potential in her and her community to profoundly help the Italian immigrants in the United States.
Cabrini submitted her will to the will of the Lord and took a small band of sisters west to America. She worked all over the States, founding 67 missionary institutions. Cabrini eventually found herself as far as West can be in Los Angeles, and was particularly active in Chicago, Manhattan, and Denver. She became a U.S. Citizen in 1909.
3. Fears of water
She was terrified of water, but crossed the Atlantic 30 times. Afraid of water all her life, the Lord allowed her to face her fears and conquer them- again and again and again. What with voyaging between the United States and Europe, as well as between North and South America, she travelled enough to earn the nickname of “God’s Gypsy”!
4. Patron for the very thing that killed her
She died of Malaria, but is now the patron of all who suffer from the disease. Mother Cabrini lived an extraordinarily active life, despite her poor health, and she died in like manner. Working to her last breath in service of the orphans whom she loved so dearly, she died of complications from malaria on December 22, 1917.
Mother Cabrini had a big heart wide open to the poor, the immigrants, and the orphans. Her generosity is an inspiration and a challenge for all of us to also live with hearts wide open. Cabrini trusted in God, his will, and his timing over her own thoughts and desires. This is a testament to the truth that he “works all things together for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28). The Catholic Church in America celebrates her feast day on November 13. May we pray with her own words, that we too live with her same generosity of spirit:
“Stretch every fiber of my being, dear Lord, that I may more easily fly towards you. May your Spirit, which once breathed over the chaos of the earth, give life to all the powers of my soul.”St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Pray for Us!