Born prematurely as the youngest of 13 children to a peasant Italian family in the year 1850, Francesca Cabrini was inspired by stories of the missionary life and developed a deep love for the missions at an early age, despite her fragile condition. After her studies at a private school run by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, she applied for admission into the convent with hopes of going to the Orient as a real missionary. However, she was not admitted due to her poor health.
She spent the next few years of her life teaching and was quickly recognized for her love of God and remarkable leadership skills. As a result of her abilities and enthusiasm, she was given the opportunity to revive a struggling orphanage in Codogno, Italy. The Bishop then proposed a new idea for Frances: he wished her to found a missionary order of women to serve in his diocese. In 1880, Frances, now Mother Cabrini, assumed the habit together with other young women under her guidance and adopted “Xavier” as her religious name in honor of St. Francis Xavier, the patron of missions. Thus the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart were born!
Mother Cabrini quickly embraced the work of orphanages and education, giving classes in needlework on the side and selling the embroidery to pay for the expenses of her ministries. With many new vocations and a passionate desire to become missionaries in China, the Far East, she visited Rome to obtain an audience with Pope Leo XIII. The Pope, known as “the working-man’s pope”, told Frances to go “not to the East, but to the West.” She was asked to go to New York and, together with six other sisters, she boarded a ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. This was the first of 30 times she would travel across the Atlantic throughout her life, overcoming her deadly fear of water. A true missionary at heart, Mother Cabrini said, “I will go anywhere and do anything in order to communicate the love of Jesus to those who do not know Him or have forgotten Him.”
Although the Archbishop of New York was not ready to receive the sisters when they arrived, Mother Cabrini valiantly refused to return to Italy and, amidst the chaos and poverty of New York City, resolved to begin building an orphanage. Her devout prayer life allowed her to work tirelessly with thousands of Italian immigrants and to open schools, orphanages, and hospitals. In 35 years, Mother Cabrini established 67 institutions committed to taking care of the poor, the abandoned, the uneducated, and the sick. When she died in 1917, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart were present in England, France, Spain, the United States, and South America. In 1946, she became the first United States citizen to be canonized. Pope Pius XII declared, “Although her constitution was very frail, her spirit was endowed with such singular strength that, knowing the will of God in her regard, she permitted nothing to impede her from accomplishing what seemed beyond the strength of a woman.”