Mother Cabrini accomplished amazing things during her lifetime. She traveled the world for 25 years zealously spreading God’s Word. At the same time founding orphanages, schools, and hospitals on 3 continents.
Everywhere she traveled, amazing stories followed her. Tales of harrowing trips across oceans and mountains. Examples of her limitless energy despite her poor health. Accounts of her deep devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus from followers who recognized her saintliness.
Read about some of these stories. And please feel free to share your own.
Those familiar with the life of Mother Cabrini know of her many wonderful accomplishments: Founding hospitals, orphanages, and schools for immigrant families and others in need in New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, and in Western Europe, and Central and South America. Many are unfamiliar with the obstacles America’s first Citizen-Saint had to overcome.
Born 2 months premature to a large family in Sant’ Angelo Lodigiano, province of Lombardy, Italy on July 15, 1850, Francesca Cabrini was in delicate health most of her life. As a young girl, she nearly drowned, resulting in a lifelong fear of water. Yet, she crossed the ocean 27 times, often at great peril, to continue doing God’s work.
At an early age, she decided to dedicate her life to becoming a missionary.
Led by her passionate love for God and his people, and her zeal to make this love real in the lives of those she served, Mother Cabrini lived her life inspired by the words of Saint Paul in his letter to the in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.”
Not surprisingly, Columbus Hospital went on to become a pre-eminent healthcare institution in Chicago for the next 97 years.
Born to a farming family in the Lombardy area of Italy, Francesca Cabrini was educated at home by her older sister Rosa. Although frail from her premature birth, she worked fervently at her studies, and years later, after her parents died, she became a teacher. She had always dreamed of becoming a missionary, but was rejected by existing religious communities because of her poor health. However, a local bishop recognized her zeal and boundless energy, and encouraged her to start her own religious congregation. Thus were born the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Over the next years, Mother Cabrini founded several schools, orphanages, and even supervised a hospital in her home country. Her dedication, hard work and passion brought her to the attention of Pope Leo XIII, who helped Mother Cabrini realize her lifelong desire of becoming a missionary to China. It was not to be in a way she, or anyone else, would expect.
As the 19th century became the 20th, Mother Cabrini walked our Chicago streets. Her mission was to help local Italian immigrants who were in desperate need of spiritual and educational support. Soon, she would help River North’s Assumption Church start its first school dedicated to the needs of the Italian community. She later began to worship at Assumption, and became well known to the congregation. Not surprisingly, years after her death and subsequent canonization, Assumption Church became the first institution to erect a statue in Mother Cabrini’s honor. This was not without some controversy.
Her boundless energy and missionary heart caught the attention of Bishop Scalabrini of Piacenza. He spoke of her with Pope Leo XIII. Both felt that Mother Cabrini’s true path led to America, where millions of Italians had already emigrated. Many of them were in need of basic education and healthcare and a way to practice their faith the New World.
It was Pope Leo who said to Mother Cabrini, “Not to the East, but to the West”. So it was that she and 6 of her sisters embarked for America in 1889, leaving Codogna by train, arriving eventually at Le Havre, where they would depart on the good ship Bourgogne with 1500 other immigrants for New York City.
The Sisters travelled in second class. Their daily journals speak of rough seas, constant seasickness, and the difficulties of those traveling in third class, whose accommodations they described as “No better than a stable”. Yet despite their discomfort, the Sisters spent their days helping out the less fortunate on the vessel. Freezing weather and a near deadly storm followed the ship on its 12-day trip across the Atlantic. When it arrived in New York the weather was warm, the day clear. And Mother Cabrini’s work in the New World was about to begin.
Assumption School, part of the Near North’s beautiful Assumption Church, was finished in 1899 and staffed by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It served the neighborhood’s Italian speaking community until the 1940’s.
The school was always tuition free for its nearly 400 students. Mother Cabrini and the Sisters worked hard to keep it that way, often by begging for funds from the neighborhood. She also had to struggle with Italian Community leaders to keep the school bilingual. She felt strongly that for Italians to succeed in America, they would need to speak English.
When Mother Cabrini first arrived in New York City with her Sisters in 1889, they soon found the bustling city not very welcoming. Far from their home in Codogno, Italy, and unable to speak English, they were still full of hope and anticipation for their missionary work. However, their New York hosts had not fully prepared for their visit. As a result, their first night in the New York found the sisters huddled in a filthy room in the Italian ghetto, as their lodgings had not yet been readied. The next thing they discovered was that their missionary stipend, the money they needed to live and eat, was also not available to them.
Undaunted, the Sisters went forward with their work. When necessity called, they would beg for food and supplies door to door in the Italian neighborhoods of the lower West Side.
It was not long before benefactors came forward, inspired by the tireless efforts of the Sisters. Valuable property near 59th Street was donated by the wealthy Countess of Cesnola. The sisters soon opened an orphanage there, and it became their living quarters also. Within two years, the sisters helped open Columbus Hospital on East 19th Street and secured land for an out-of-town home for the orphans in upstate West Park, New York.
Word of their success spread quickly. And soon the Sisters would be called to other parts of the United States and the world to continue their remarkable work.
Mother Cabrini’s success in New York soon brought her to Chicago, which faced many of the same immigrant issues. Chicago’s poor-but-growing Italian community desperately needed schools for the young, and better access to healthcare and spiritual guidance.
Within a few years of her arrival, Mother Cabrini had opened Assumption School, the first Italian school in the city, followed by Columbus Hospital on Chicago’s Lakefront, and another hospital on the west side. These two hospitals became part of the 3-C’s (Columbus, Cuneo and Cabrini) which later became part of Catholic Health Partners in 1995.
After founding Columbus Hospital in New York to serve the large population of poor Italians who had emigrated there, Mother Cabrini traveled to Chicago to with the intention of building an orphanage. But Bishop Quigley urged her to build a hospital on Chicago’s North side instead.
Mother Cabrini soon found a suitably sized building in Lincoln Park, a former hotel with over 100 rooms. However, they could not afford to buy it outright. But they trusted in God’s providence and went forward anyway, making sure that the hospital had the best doctors and facilities possible.
She named the new facility Columbus Hospital after Christopher Columbus, which was a source of great pride for the Italian community. But soon she would come under criticism, because about three quarters of the hospital’s patients were well-to-do local residents, while only about one quarter were needy Italian immigrants.
Mother Cabrini moved forward however, as she had an even bigger plan in mind. Five years later, she founded the Columbus Extension Hospital in a low-income Italian neighborhood on Chicago’s west side. Surplus funds from the original Columbus Hospital supported this new hospital, which offered full healthcare services to the mostly poor immigrant community. This resourceful financial template would prove to serve the Missionary Sisters well in the years to come.
Mother Cabrini often worshipped at Assumption Church during her time in Chicago. No wonder, its interior inspires awe to anyone who visits it. The current building opened its doors in 1886, and its vaulted ceiling rises dramatically many stories above you as you enter. Magnificent stained glass windows adorn the east and west sides, and the statue of Mother Cabrini sits to the left of the altar at the front. The church is known for its inspiring liturgies, friendly service and welcoming spirit, which it offers to any and all who visit there.
As Mother Cabrini and her Missionary Sisters arrived in the US in 1889, they had little funding and a poor command of the English language. But it did not take them long to establish remarkable success by tirelessly working with poor Italian immigrants wherever they lived. The Missionary Sisters delivered basic education, healthcare and spiritual guidance to poor Italian communities across the United States. So amazing were the results of her efforts that she became in demand everywhere Italian immigrants settled.
The great emigration of the late 19th and early 20th century saw millions of Italians leave their home country and relocate to both North and South America. In the US, there were large colonies in New York, the Midwest, Colorado and on the West Coast, anywhere labor was needed for factory work, building railroads, mining metals or farming. Wherever these settlements were established, Mother Cabrini and her Missionary Sisters were in called to tend to their spiritual and educational needs.
Not long after Mother Cabrini’s success in New York, leaders of the Italian church requested that she expand here missionary work beyond the East Coast. By 1895, she had traveled to many cities in North America and had even been to Nicaragua to establish a school there for Italian children. To accomplish this, Mother Cabrini needed to attract more women to join the Missionary Sisters, which she did through the example of her endless energy and devout piety. Those who joined her order over the next two decades would soon swell to an amazing number worldwide.
In the 1890s, the large Italian community that had immigrated to New Orleans faced prejudice and fear from local residents. That fear eventually led to violence and the lynching of a group of Italian men. Mother Cabrini and her Missionary Sisters were asked to visit the city to intercede. What they found was the entire region caught in the grasp of a yellow fever epidemic that had claimed the lives of many Italian parents. The Sisters soon established an orphanage there to care for the children, though they themselves were exposed to danger from the rampant and deadly disease. They faced theses difficulties willingly in the true missionary spirit of their order.