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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Frances Xavier Cabrini

November 11, 2014 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Since the United States is a relatively new country compared to the rest of the world, we do not have as many canonized saints as do France, Italy, or Spain. Elizabeth Ann Seton (died 1821) was the first person born in the United States to be canonized, although she lived many years after Kateri Tekakwitha (died 1680) who was canonized in October 2012.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was the first U.S. citizen to be canonized when Pope Pius XII elevated her to sainthood in 1946.
Not surprisingly, Frances Cabrini was born into a large family in Sant’ Angelo Lodigiano, Lombardy, in northern Italy. Her father, Agostino, was a farmer and her mother, Stella, stayed at home to care for the children. Frances was born the tenth of 11 children, only four of whom survived into adulthood. Frances, born on July 15, 1850, also was a sickly and frail child; she arrived two months prematurely.
When she was a child, her father would read stories to her from the Propagation of the Faith. When he read the stories about the adventures of the missionaries, Frances would dream of becoming a missionary.
About 150 years before this time, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque had received the visions instructing her to promote devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. During Frances’ youth, this devotion had reached its peak. Hence, Frances developed a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart.
These two experiences resulted in Frances’ yearning to join a religious order. She applied to several orders, but each one rejected her because of her poor health. In 1863, she left to attend a boarding school in Arluno, located about 50 miles northwest of her hometown.
The school was run by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart. They had Frances join them in their devotions, since she stayed with them until 1868. This exposure to the religious life only deepened her desire to become a nun; however, they, too, refused her admission to their order, suggesting that perhaps the Lord wanted her to start her own order someday.
Upon receiving her teacher’s diploma in 1868, she returned home to help her sister run her private school in Sant’ Angelo. She spent her spare time tending the sick and the poor, and caring for other suffering souls.
In 1871, her pastor asked her to take over a school in Vidardo. She spent three years teaching in Vidardo before she relocated to Codogno to take over the House of Providence. In 1874, Frances assumed responsibility of this home, which took in orphan girls. She never taught again, as she and five other women consecrated themselves to God to care for orphans.
In 1877 she took on the name of Xavier — in honor of the great Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier — as she and her five friends professed their religious vows. Although the bishop had named St. Frances Xavier Cabrini superior of the small group, in 1880 the diocese rejected her application to become a religious community.
At the same time that she was rejected by the diocese, the bishop requested she find a new institute with her women. She did so in 1881, naming them the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Although her bishop envisioned her group to be local, Frances wanted it to be worldwide.
When she went to Rome, she met Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini of Piacenza, who showed her a letter from Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York, begging for assistance with Italian immigrants. Although she had wanted to go to the Far East to do missionary work, Pope Leo XIII urged her to go West to the United States.
Instead of arriving in China, she and her six sisters arrived in New York. The Sisters of Charity helped them find lodging and support in New York. St. Frances received permission from Archbishop Corrigan to accept a house offered by the Countess de Cesnola. On Palm Sunday, 1890, the first orphanage for Italian children opened.
On the lower east side of Manhattan, they opened a free school for Catholic children. In addition, they walked through the Italian ghetto, tending the poor, inspiring the Italians to return to the Church, and begging alms to support their work.
In a few months, the women were well established in New York, so St. Frances returned to Rome with the first American postulants and met with Pope Leo XIII again. She returned to New York where she opened another orphanage in West Park, N.Y. This larger building also became the house for the novitiate of her order in 1891.
In 1892, she and a few sisters traveled to New Orleans to establish another school and orphanage in the Italian quarter. Meanwhile back in New York, the problems of Italians who had no access to hospitals came to the attention of Archbishop Corrigan.
He asked Mother Cabrini to found a hospital. At first she refused, but after having a dream where she saw the Blessed Virgin tending the sick because Mother Cabrini refused, she began the work. The sisters’ work met with great success. Soon they started hospitals in both Chicago and Seattle.
Although the work in the United States had hardly begun, St. Frances decided to open schools, orphanages, and hospitals in Central and South America. Before long, she had foundations in Nicaragua and Argentina.
As her work expanded in both the United States and Latin America, she turned her eyes back to Europe. In 1898 she opened a residence for students in Paris, explored the possibilities in London, and in 1899 she opened a school in Madrid.
The early 1900s saw her order open more schools, hospitals, and orphanages in such places as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, upstate New York, Colorado, and California.
In 1909, when in Seattle, she received her United States citizenship. For the next eight years the strong woman who had once been rejected because of her frail health journeyed extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Latin America.
Her final work of charity took place in Chicago, as she made Christmas candy for young children. On December 22, 1917, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini died. At the time of her death, her institute had houses in the United States, Italy, France, England, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, and Nicaragua.
Throughout her travels, she wrote extensive letters to her sisters at the various establishments. These became a rich source of information about her accomplishments and spirituality.
Her feast day is celebrated on November 13.
Dear St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, although you did not possess strong health, God worked many wonders through you as you traveled tirelessly throughout Europe and America to help the poor and sick. Pray for us that we too, though tired and discouraged, will seek always to perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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