The Word Among Us

June 2011 Issue

Doing What Needed to Be Done

The Life of Mother Cabrini

By: Ann Bottenhorn

The nineteenth century was an age of grand accomplishment: electricity, telegraph and telephone, automobiles. Perhaps some of the most astonishing accomplishments, however, came from a diminutive, frail Italian woman. In twenty-seven short years, she established sixty-seven schools, orphanages, and hospitals.

She founded a religious order worldwide that, at her death, numbered nearly two thousand. She did it all simply by “doing the work that needs to be done.” She believed absolutely that she could do all things in Christ who strengthened her—even ordinary duties.

“If we’d stayed in Italy, we’d have had to eat each other.” Italy in the nineteenth century was struggling financially, with overcrowded cities and rampant unemployment. In the meantime, industrial expansion in the rest of Europe and in America offered a tantalizing promise of prosperity. So millions of Italians headed west. Between 1889 and 1917, Italian immigrants to the United States alone topped four million. The vast majority of these crowded into ghettos, filled low-paying jobs, and scratched out a menial existence without the benefit of teacher, doctor, or priest.

Into this desolation stepped “Mother” Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917). Mother she was to the immigrants, clothing and feeding orphans, tending the sick, housing and teaching the poor. Though tiny and frail, she had a large, loving heart for her countrymen, so many of whom had lost touch with God amidst their poverty. Beyond simply easing their physical suffering, she longed to restore their faith. “They had to come to the United States to earn a living,” she said. “What breaks my heart is to see how often they think of nothing else.”

“I Know It Was the Holy Ghost.” As a child in Lombardy, Italy, Maria Francesca Cabrini dreamed of being a missionary to China. When she played, she filled handmade boats with flower-blossom “missionaries” and dispatched them to the East. She hoped one day to follow. Sailing after her violets seemed unlikely for Francesca, however. She had been born two months early and was delicate and infirm. The first time she mentioned being a missionary, her older sister, Rosa, replied scornfully: “You a missionary? One so small and ignorant as you a missionary?” But Francesca’s resolve was bolstered permanently at her confirmation. “The moment I was being anointed with the sacred chrism,” she confessed, “I cannot say what I felt, but I know it was the Holy Ghost.”

From then on, Francesca considered that her heart belonged to Christ. She finished school, obtained a teaching certificate, and immediately applied for admission to a religious order. She was refused. The sisters believed that Francesca’s constitution was too weak to stand up to religious life. So she did what immediately presented itself. For the next eight years, Francesca lived and helped out at home, quietly sharing the routine chores with Rosa. The dream of being a missionary to China seemed to recede. Then Francesca was asked to substitute for two weeks as a teacher in the village school at nearby Vidardo. She did, and two weeks stretched into two years.

Around this time, she attracted the notice of Vidardo’s parish priest. He was about to be transferred to Codogno, and he had a job in mind for Francesca. Codogno’s orphanage was in desperate need of reform. The two women who directed the orphanage had proved unfit. They had received training as religious sisters, but made no pretense of living like nuns. They made no pretense, either, of caring for the children. Francesca was asked to bring order into the chaos. At first she refused, citing her desire to be a missionary and her patent lack of authority over these two so-called nuns. Eventually, however, she took the opportunity at hand and agreed to go—again for just two weeks.

Against All Odds. Six bleak years passed. Francesca brought cleanliness, kindness, and a semblance of order to the orphanage. She gathered around her a small group of devout young women whom she trained as religious sisters. Eventually, the two nuns were excommunicated, and the orphanage was dissolved, along with the “religious order” that was running it. But what was to be done about Francesca and the young women whom she had been training?

The Bishop of Codogno— who knew of her desire to be a missionary—sent for Francesca. Knowing of no missionary order for women, he suggested that she start one herself. And so she did. Almost as quickly, Francesca began a determined seven-year campaign from Codogno to Rome, establishing convents along the way. She had two goals for her journey. She wanted papal approval of her order, and she wanted to open a house there from which she could direct all future operations. In just a few months after arriving in Rome, and against all odds, Francesca had accomplished both objectives.

Doing What Needed to Be Done. This was to be the pattern of Francesca’s life. She saw what needed to be done and set out at once to do it. It was virtually her way of life: pressing forward immediately from prayer to action. Confident that what she needed would eventually be available, she refused to delay merely because it was not immediately accessible. “Don’t worry,” she would say with a smile. “If I were to think too much about procuring the means, the Lord would withhold his graces.” She simply began with what she could do—what needed to be done—be it keeping house, teaching school, or laying bricks. The Lord supplied the rest.

After she had founded her missionary order—the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus—Mother Cabrini had still planned to go to China. However, the pope, concerned for the Italians in the New World, urged her to head west. And so west she went, never looking back.

Large Heart, Large Agenda. Departing from Rome, Mother Cabrini launched her loving assault on the New World. She began in New York City, where she brought the truth of God’s love and compassion for his children. She delivered this message in mostly practical ways—establishing orphanages for destitute children; opening hospitals for people unwelcome at existing institutions; founding schools that would teach the gospel as well as reading and writing.

Soon, even New York became too small to contain the love Mother Cabrini bore in her heart. She traveled to New Orleans, Newark, Scranton, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and Los Angeles, opening schools and orphanages. When she died in 1917, she had also personally carried her work throughout Europe and to Central and South America.

Governed by Love. Mother Cabrini manifested the love in her heart through her work. “Rest?” she would exclaim, “We will have all eternity to rest. Now let us work.” And the source of this love was not hidden or unattainable: It stemmed from prayer. She once wrote: “I would become weak and languid and risk losing myself if I were to occupy myself only with exterior things . . . or if I were to be without the sleep of prayer . . . in the heart of my beloved Jesus.”

Her rallying cry was “Come what may, I shall close my eyes and not lift my head from the heart of Jesus.” Still, her “repose” manifested itself in activity. Love was the power behind her work. It kept her going, and it kept her humble. “Neither science nor speculation has ever made, or ever will make, a saint,” she claimed. “Better to be an idiot capable of love, because in love we will sanctify ourselves.”

Mother Cabrini sanctified herself in love, certainly, but she was far from being an idiot. She was a shrewd, iron-willed businesswoman when she needed to be. She campaigned through each city, studying maps like a military general, walking the streets, learning the neighborhoods, contemplating trends, so that she could find the best location for a new school or orphanage. Intelligent and practical as she was, her prayer was “Convert me, Jesus, convert me completely to yourself, for if you do not make me a saint, I will . . . end by betraying your interests instead of rendering them successful.”

A Witness to God's Infinite Power. It would seem that she did render many of Jesus’ interests successful. Whether through dreams and visions or by ordinary begging and tramping the lengths and breadths of cities, Mother Cabrini opened doors of compassion for countless immigrants. When a venture started out badly, she rejoiced, sure that it was a sign of blessings to come. “Difficulties, difficulties,” she would say. “They’re merely scarecrows to frighten children!” She believed absolutely that she could do all things through Christ who strengthened her. Looking back over her own life, Mother Cabrini was convinced that she wasn’t even God’s instrument. She was only a witness of his infinite power.

Ann Bottenhorn lives in Saint Johns, Florida.