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The first saint of the United States

The first saint of the United States

Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini

St. Frances was born in Lombardi, Italy in 1850. She was sickly and frail as a child, and her poor health kept her from being admitted to the first two religious orders she tried to join. She studied to be a teacher, and when the local priest asked her to teach in a girls’ school, she agreed but secretly yearned to be a missionary. Her bishop sent her to run a poorly-managed orphanage where she was unable to fix the problems caused by the former superiors. After six years, the bishop decided to close the orphanage. However, the bishop told St. Frances, “You want to be a missionary. I know of no institute of missionary sisters, so found one yourself.”

And so she did. Together with six girls from the orphanage, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1880. She took the name Frances Xavier in honor of the great missionary to the Far East, where she longed to serve. But a more pressing cry for help came from the United States, where millions of Italian immigrants had flocked in the 1800s.

Pope Leo XIII told Mother Cabrini that she was needed in America, and she obeyed. She expected to find an orphanage, school, and convent waiting for her and her sisters, but arrived—like many Italians before her—to find nothing. In fact, New York’s Archbishop Michael J. Corrigan told her and her sisters to go home to Italy. But he had not reckoned with the strength of Mother Frances’ missionary zeal—or her obedience to the pope. With or without the archbishop’s help, she was going to do the work she had been sent to do. Within a few months, she had secured the land and buildings for an orphanage and school. When he saw what she could do, the archbishop became a strong supporter.

Mother Cabrini traveled throughout the United States, founding schools, hospitals, and orphanages in New York, Chicago, Denver, and Seattle. Although she had no means of support, she knew that God would provide her with whatever she needed to do His work.

For instance, she once dreamed of a great house on a hill that would be perfect for an orphanage in Seattle. The next day, as she and her sisters were walking, she flagged down a passing limousine and asked for a ride. The wealthy woman in the car agreed, and as they drove, Mother Cabrini told the woman of her dream. When they arrived at the convent, the woman said “Sister, that house you dreamed of is my house. I had not thought of selling it but if you allow me to come into your convent for a drink of water in Jesus’ name, I will gladly give it to you for your orphans.”

Mother Cabrini and her sisters also opened houses in Central America, Argentina, Brazil, France, Spain, England, and, of course, Italy. Mother Cabrini traveled across the ocean from Europe to America several times. However, she always considered the United States her home. And so, in 1909, she became a U.S. citizen. She continued her work until the day of her death Dec. 22, 1917, in Chicago. During her lifetime, Mother Cabrini founded 67 institutions—one for every year of her life. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was canonized in 1946 and became the first U.S. citizen to be proclaimed a saint. Her feast day is Nov. 13.