By MARIA DITTAMI
BUT how could she be a saint? She was rejected from a convent for bad health, she spoke with a thick Italian accent in her adopted land, she traveled all over to found schools, hospitals, orphanages and other social institutions, she was a U.S. citizen and she drank wine!!!
Mother Cabrini, as she is popularly known, came from peasant stock – the sturdy stock -the sturdy life blood of every country. A little farm girl who had very pious parents but who had to work on the farm, especially after her father died. But she did manage to get somewhat of an education and when she sought admission in a Convent, they told her she wasn’t healthy enough; they didn’t want to accept a candidate who would be sickly and a liability.
She did manage an education before her parents died; actually at the age of eighteen she finished the equivalent of our high school, took the exam for a teaching license and passed. This was the key to her future.
First her father died and that left the running of the farm to her mother and the children; then her mother died and soon after her crippled sister, Maddalena; and so the three children were on their own. Frances was twenty-two.
A mile from her home was a small town and the pastor of the parish wa4 a family friend. The teacher in his school was ill and he asked Frances to substitute; she stayed two years! Again she sought entrance in a convent she applied to two and both turned her down. Another priest friend then asked her to help out in an orphanage where there was trouble with the directress – it was an orphanage for girls. While life there was extremely difficult, she made friends with some of the orphan girls. For three years she took the abuse of the directress, then at the age of twenty-seven, she and seven of the orphan girls made their vows: The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart were born – it was September 14, 1877 – Francesca (Frances) was on the road. For three more years she endured the ill-tempered directress – finally the Bishop founded a new orphanage and Mother Cabrini and her seven sisters in Christ started on their own – their first foundation.
The worth of Mother Cabrini was soon evident and other priests asked her to start schools and orphanages. In seven years, she made as many new foundations. More girls had entered and so Frances sought for stability. In a dream, she saw Christ who said to her. ‘Go to that ground where they crucified Peter – Rome is your portal.” The Bishop and priest friends advised against it. Rome was having much trouble – the Papal States had been seized by the Italian liberals, most of whom were anti-clerical and the Pope had become the ‘prisoner of the Vatican’.
With the determination that was to characterize her all through her life, she went and sought Papal approval of her order. At first a refusal – she was not ‘practical” and she stayed on in Rome and knocked on every available door. This went on for a month, then finally the Cardinal Vicar of Rome agreed – with the approval, a request to found two houses in Rome!! Her Order was recognized.
Now her fulfillment – missionaries to the Orient. She had dreamed of her sisters going to foreign lands where they could work with pagans.
But such was not to be. She was asked to found an orphanage for Italian children in New York, but she refused, It was the Orient where her eyes were set. Then in an audience with the great Pope, Leo XIII, he asked her to go to America: “Francesca Cabrini, go to America. Plant there and cultivate the beautiful fruit of Christ.”
Here was an immigrant saint going to work among immigrants. For two decades. Italian labor was solicited for the New World. Italy held no promise for the poor – here was a land of opportunity. So, many went, hoping to make enough money to eventually send for their families and have a better life. But the New World was not all that easy. Those who came were poor, spoke no English and had no education. They were just raw labor and used as such. They clung together for some type of fraternity – but they were lost in this foreign land; even the priests they met couldn’t speak their language. These were the days before safety regulations and union protection, the days of child labor and sweat shops. The toll was taken on these foreign laborers and many children were orphaned -who would care for them? For this, Mother Cabrini came to New York.
The lower East side of New York was Little Italy” and it was here that she started. Soon she had enough funds for an orphanage. To finance the orphanage meant begging and working long hours, but it meant acceptance by all and success. Success came in a strange way. Some of the elite complained about the orphanage being so close to their nice homes – and Francesca would prefer the country anyhow. In Peekskill, the Jesuits had a large estate no longer practical for them – they would sell – she would buy, “at a bargain of course.” No real estate man was a wiser shopper for land. She did get the estate, and for a bargain too, and her orphans were moved to the country. It was also a novitiate for her sisters; many girls joined and her Order grew by leaps and bounds.
Of course, there were miracles in her life. One of the nicest has to do with the purchase of this big estate oh the Hudson at Peekskill from they Jesuits. They sold because there was no available water on the property (water systems were not yet established) and they told her about the lack of water. But undaunted and trusting in the Lord, she tramped over the property and at a certain spot she said, “Dig here! and abundant water was found.
Strange, but interesting, how this little immigrant nun bought her houses. She would be asked to found a house in a city. She would go there, walk all over town and see what was available. Then, after having tramped the length and breath of the city, she would settle her sights on a piece of land. Invariably, this was where the future of the city would go and the land became valuable. Also interesting was how she learned English – she would read the Italian paper and the corresponding story in an American paper and so she learned English though till her death she spoke with an accent.
But she did not test on her laurels – a foundation in Nicaragua, then New Orleans, then other cities where there were Italian colonies. But the problem was more than the care of children – where did the immigrants go for medical treatment They could not speak the language; they had no money to pay. So Mother Cabrini, with no hospital experience, founded a hospital and had her sisters trained as nurses to care for the poor immigrants. First, Columbus Hospital in New York; then a hospital in Chicago and Seattle. Her group grew by leaps and bounds – in twelve years of existence, there were fourteen houses and two-hundred nuns
Any US corporation would have been glad to have her at the helm. She set goals that all said were impossible and, oddly enough, achieved them. When she told Archbishop Quigley in Chicago she was going to start a hospital with $1000, he laughed kindly at her and asked her if she knew how much she really needed. She nodded. ”Surely I know, but to start is to win. I have begun houses with less, with no more than the price of a loaf of bread and prayers; for with him who comforts me, I can do anything.” When she remodeled the hotel she bought in Chicago to be Columbus Hospital, the contractors cheated her roundly what would a nun know, a foreigner at that – they were fooled by her Italian accent! How they found out! She checked, called in engineers and summoned the contractors to a lawyer’s office. Still, they hoped to get away with their fraud by questioning her authority. “Lady, just who are you?” they said smugly. Out came a paper signed by Pope Leo XIII to Mother Cabrini, Superior General of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. This was one foreigner they couldn’t out-talk. And how shrewd she was in dealing with people! One time in New Orleans, she went to a wealthy Italian and asked him to come to visit her orphanage that was rickety and crowded. His heart was moved and he promised to erect a new orphanage in his generous mood. She went back the next day and had him sign a contract! “First, I will retire his generous soul by assuring him of some high decoration from Pope Pius X. Then I shall direct his hand to sign with pen and ink an ironclad contract before a lawyer, holding him irrevocably to his promise for the good life of his soul.” How wise! Some Italian liberals badgered the man and sought to get him to renege – but she was too smart for that. One of the liberals himself went to coerce her; and when he returned in failure, he said:
“Little Mother Cabrini, who seems mild as a dove, stormed at me with the mien of a lion – you just do not fool with this woman Cabrini.”
By 1917 – Mother Cabrini was now sixty-seven, her strength was Spent. She had traveled all over founding houses – Italy, France, England, Spain, Argentina, Brazil and the U.S.. By the time she came to die, there were sixty-five houses and fifteen-hundred nuns! The delicate little girl who was. refused entrance in two orders of nuns. The little immigrant who could out-talk bishops, contractors and city officials. A shrewd business woman who could even act as a Contractor to build a building. A brave soul who would approach the great’ of the land – Catholic, Protestant or Jew and successfully win their support and contributions. The foreigner who loved America enough to become a citizen. This is Mother Cabrini, great because she and the Sacred Heart could do everything. She died in Chicago just a few days before Christmas 1917, the immigrant who is the United States’ first canonized saint.