For someone who started life in precarious health, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini certainly proved herself to be a powerhouse when it came to the mission she felt called to fulfill.

Maria Francesca Cabrini – her given name – was born two months premature in 1850 in the town of Sant’ Angelo Lodigiano, Lombardy, Italy. The youngest of the family’s 13 children, she and three of her siblings were the only ones to survive past adolescence. As a young girl, she nearly drowned, which lead to a lifelong fear of water; despite that she ended up crossing the Atlantic Ocean nearly 30 times in service of God and her vocation.

Francesca Cabrini was a well-educated young woman, studying at a convent school run by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart. Having achieved high honors and a teaching certificate, Francesca sought admission to the order but was turned down, not once, but twice, because of her frail health. Instead, she went on to teach for six years at the House of Providence Orphanage in Cadagnono, Italy. A local bishop, admiring her zeal, suggested that she found her own religious order and, in 1880, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was born.

When the orphanage closed, Francesca, who had added Xavier to her name in honor of St. Francis Xavier, went on to establish seven homes and a free school and nursery in her native Italy. However, it had always been her dream to become a missionary and she had set her sights on moving her order to China. When she approached him about it, Pope Leo XIII had another idea; telling her “Not to the East, but the West,” he prevailed on her to journey to America, to minister to the Italian immigrants who were flooding into New York.

Following a harrowing trip across the ocean, Sister Frances Cabrini and six other sisters arrived in the New World in 1889.They did not have an auspicious beginning; the home that was originally set aside for an orphanage turned out to not be available. The local archbishop suggested very forcefully that they turn around and head back to Italy.

That, however, was not Sister Frances Cabrini’s way. The sisters went ahead with their work anyway, and, when necessary, begged for food and supplies door-to-door in the poor Italian neighborhoods of the lower West Side. In time, their tireless work was noted, and the wealthy Countess of Cesnola donated a valuable property near 59th Street to serve as an orphanage and housing for the sisters. They soon increased their presence to two other addresses in New York and subsequently went to Chicago. Mother Cabrini, as she was now known, now found herself and her work in demand throughout North America.

She became a naturalized United States citizen in 1909 and died in one of her own hospitals in Chicago in 1917. Canonized in 1946, she became the first American saint.  Patron of immigrants, her feast day is celebrated Nov. 13.

Sources for this article include:

Schreck, Alan. “Catholic Church History from A to Z.” Michigan:  Servant Publications, 2002.