Today Catholics celebrate St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, patron saint of immigrants and the first citizen of the United States to be canonized.* The story of her life is long and filled with amazing accomplishments, all in the service of God. I’ll cover some basics, but check out these books for a thorough look.
The life of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini is a perfect example of how God uses the weak to show His strength. Simply put: every thing that happened to Frances shaped her, prepared her, and led her to God’s goal for her: that she become a missionary and foundress of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Born prematurely in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, a little town southeast of Milan, Italy, Frances was so tiny and weak, she was baptized immediately for fear that she might die. She survived, but remained physically small and weak throughout her life. As a child, she dreamt of missionary work in China. In fact, because she somehow got it into her head that the Chinese didn’t eat sweets, she gave them up too, figuring that she might as well get used to a life without sweets! Despite her great desire to become a religious, her poor health made that goal impossible to reach until she founded her own religious community devoted to missionary work and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She took the name Xavier, after the Jesuit missionary, St Francis Xavier.
Her dream of evangelizing in China was reworked by Pope Leo XIII, who told her, “Not to the East, but to the West.” The rest, as they say, is history. Frances and her sisters devoted their lives to serving immigrants around the United States, founding schools and orphanages in New York, Newark, Chicago, New Orleans, Denver, Seattle, Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and many other cities. They also ministered to countless souls throughout South and Central America, in Nicaragua, PanamÃ¡, Argentina, Costa Rica, Peru, Chile, and Brazil, all while founding even more houses and missions in Italy, France, England, and Spain. How did she do it? She often answered this question by saying, “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). She died in Chicago on December 22, 1917, at the age of 67, her age was the exact number of institutions of care she created around the world. We celebrate her life on the anniversary of her beatification.
I first met Mother Cabrini when I was living in New York City. I had seen her honored at Old St Patrick’s and St. Patrick’s Cathedrals and heard she was buried somewhere at the tip of Manhattan, but although I set out a few times to find her, I never did. (She is buried in a chapel at Mother Cabrini High School.) Years later, after my husband and I had already produced the first season of The Faithful Traveler, I visited the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colorado, with my sister and her family.
Located in the foothills of Denver, the Mother Cabrini Shrine is built atop property found by Mother Cabrini in 1902. It originally housed a small farm run by Sisters of the Sacred Heart and a summer camp for nearby orphans. After Mother Cabrini’s beatification in 1938, it became a pilgrimage site, and in 1946, the year she was canonized, it became a shrine. Today, pilgrims can climb a 373-step stairway, following the path Mother Cabrini took, to the top of the site’s highest mountain, praying the Stations of the Cross along the way. At the top, they are welcomed by a 22-foot statue of Jesus demonstrating his Sacred Heart. Nearby, they can see a small pile of stones below a glass, formed into the shape of Jesus’ Sacred Heart by Mother Cabrini herself.
Pilgrims can also visit the grotto, a replica of the Grotto at Lourdes, which stands atop a small pond discovered by Mother Cabrini back in 1912. There’s the Meditation Walk, the Rosary Garden, and the amazing stained glass windows in the main chapel, which tell the story of Mother Cabrini’s life and vocation. The shrine also houses retreats and weddings. Check out this beautiful video put together by the people at the Shrine.
Given how much Mother Cabrini traveled, it isn’t surprising to see that the beautiful city of Chicago also has a shrine dedicated to her: The National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. Built inside of the now-defunct Columbus Hospital, which Mother founded, the shrine was closed for ten years after the closing of the hospital. It was recently reopened in Fall 2012. Here is a short video put together by the shrine. Here, where Mother Cabrini once lived and worked, pilgrims can visit the room in which she also died, which has been preserved as it was in 1917.
Frances Xavier Cabrini’s mission was to be a “bearer of the love of Christ to the world”. I think it’s fair to say that she achieved that goal, and continues to do so from Heaven.
Art: Photography courtesy of John Gibson Photography (used with permission). Francesca Cabrini (Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini), photographer unknown, undated, PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less, copyright expired, Wikimedia Commons.
* St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is the first native-born U.S. citizen to be canonized.