Mother Frances Cabrini: An immigrant who shows us the way

America’s first saint was an immigrant — who didn’t want to go to the United States.

This Dec. 22 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), the Italian-born nun who longed to be a missionary to China. Instead, she crossed the Atlantic to minister to Italian immigrants in America.

No doubt she arrived with the same determination that gave her the courage — the faith — to found her own congregation in 1880: the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This after being turned away by two other congregations because of her frail health.

Why New York City and not Peking? Because when she shared her plans with Pope Leo XIII, he told her to head West, not East. To America, not China. And so Mother Cabrini arrived in 1889, to a land where native-born citizens, political leaders and bishops were concerned with the number of immigrants who had come during the previous decade. A number, a torrent, that showed every sign of growing.

Coming to America

Five years earlier, it had been the bishops, at their third plenary council in Baltimore, who called for an increase in religious instruction in the languages of these new arrivals. And who gave a “tip of the miter” to the ministries and social services providing help to the tens of thousands of newcomers.

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Centennial Prayer
O Gracious God,

It was into this America that Mother Cabrini came, saw and conquered hearts and minds from coast to coast. From New York City to Seattle, where she became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1909.

In fact, by the time of her death at age 67 — in her room in the sisters’ convent within Columbus Hospital in Chicago — she had opened 67 institutions providing care not just across the United States but around the world. (A replica of that room, which includes the wicker chair in which she died, is now a treasured part of Chicago’s National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.)

Care for immigrants

In 1946, Mother Cabrini was canonized by Pope Pius XII. Four years later he declared her the universal patron saint of immigrants.

She remains that patron in a world now teeming with immigrants and refugees. In a country — her adopted homeland — where debates, long-established laws, executive orders and Catholic social teaching are clashing. Where elected officials say one thing and U.S. bishops say another. Where protecting a nation and showing Christian compassion (showing common decency), seem to tip the scales first one way and then the other.

What’s a person, a parish, a diocese, a country to do? In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

“Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens” (No. 2241).

In other words, the challenge is huge, the problems are many, but — to use Mother Cabrini’s motto — “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). A person, a parish, a diocese — and a country — can do something. Each is called to do something.

Sometimes it will be what others say we aren’t capable of doing. (Like the religious congregations who told Frances her poor health prevented her from becoming a nun.) Sometime it will be others, who have a better grasp on the situation, telling us no, not this, but that. (Just as Pope Leo did.)

But always, always, it will be finding a way, big or small, to help others in need. Others who have left their homeland to make a new home, a safer home, a more financially secure home, in a new and foreign land.

A land that, yes, seems promised, but can also be overwhelming. And frightening.

Pope Francis’ message

When Pope Francis addressed immigrants in Philadelphia during his 2015 visit to the United States, he told them:

“Many of you have emigrated (I greet you warmly!) to this country at great personal cost, in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to this nation. Please, you should never be ashamed of your traditions. Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land. I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your life blood.

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“You are also called to be responsible citizens, and to contribute fruitfully — as those who came before you did with such fortitude — to the life of the communities in which you live. I think in particular of the vibrant faith which so many of you possess, the deep sense of family life and all those other values which you have inherited. By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.”

What basic advice and reminder does Mother Cabrini offer all us, both those who are longtime American citizens and those who are new to the country?

“Prayer is powerful! It fills the earth with mercy, it makes the divine clemency pass from generation to generation; right along the course of the centuries wonderful works have been achieved through prayer.”

True in 1917. True in 2017.

There are more wonderful works yet to be achieved.

Bill Dodds writes from Washington.

Additional Resources
For more information about St. Frances Xavier Cabrini shrines and centennial celebrations contact:

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine