Also known as: Francesca Saverio Cabrini
Frances Xavier Cabrini was born on July 15, 1850, in the village of Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, in the diocese of Lodi, in the Lombardy region of Italy. She was the 13th child of Augustine Cabrini, a farmer, and his wife, Stella Oldini. Stella was then 52, and Frances seemed so fragile that she was carried to the church and baptized at once. She was given the name Maria Francesca Saverio, after the missionary St. Francis Xavier. On the day of Frances’s birth, a flock of white doves flew by her father’s farm and circled the house, one of them dropping down to alight in the vines that covered the walls. Flocks of white birds were to appear several more times in her life. She compared them to angels or souls she would help save, or to new sisters who would join the religious community she founded. In 1863, at the age of 13, Frances entered the convent of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart at Arluna, where she made a vow of virginity, and took courses that led to a teacher’s certificate. When she graduated with honors in 1868, she was fully qualified as a teacher. She applied for admission to the convent, hoping that she might be sent as a missionary teacher to China. Her health was not good, however, and she was turned down. Two years later, she lost both parents and 10 of her siblings to smallpox. She herself was stricken the following year, but an older sister nursed her back to health, and in 1872 she began to teach in a public school. After reapplying and once more being rejected by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, she was offered the job of managing a small orphanage at Codogno in the Lodi diocese, then encouraged to turn it into a religious community. She took her first vows there in 1877 and was made the superior by the bishop of Lodi. When he closed the institution three years later, the bishop counseled her to found a congregation of missionary nuns, since he knew of none. Frances then moved to an abandoned Franciscan friary in Codogno and drew up the rules for the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, whose object was to be the education of girls in Catholic schismatic or pagan countries. The Missionary Sisters received episcopal approval at the end of 1880 and the decree of papal approbation in 1888. Bishop Scalabrini of Piacenza, who had established the Society of Saint Charles to work among Italian immigrants in the United States, suggested that Frances go there to support his priests. Archbishop Corrigan of New York sent her a formal invitation; Pope Leo XIII (r. 1878–1903) gave his blessing to the enterprise, and she arrived in New York on March 31, 1889, with six of her nuns. Although Frances was to return to Italy annually in search of new missionary sisters, she was to make the United States her home from then on, eventually, in 1909, taking U.S. citizenship. Besides schools and charitable institutions, she founded four great hospitals, with nurses’ homes attached, one each in New York and Seattle, and two in Chicago. Her Columbus Hospital in New York was opened in 1892, the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. The work of the Missionary Sisters was by no means confined to the United States, however. Frances traveled to, and established orphanages, schools and hospitals, in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Italy, Spain, France and England as well. By the time of her death, her order had grown to include 67 houses with over 4,000 nuns. Frances’s health, which had always been precarious, began to decline in 1911. She was visiting one of her schools in Chicago when, on December 21, 1918, she died of a heart attack, at age 67. At first her relics were placed at the Sacred Heart Orphanage in West Park, New York, her official home, but they have since been moved to a chapel in the Mother Cabrini High School in the Bronx.