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Maria Cabrini was born in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, in northern Italy, the youngest of 13 children, only four of whom survived to adulthood. She was determined from her childhood to make religious work her life’s vocation.
When Frances was 18, she applied for admission to the religious congregation of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart but was turned down because of her poor health. Instead, a priest asked her to teach at the House of Providence Orphanage in Cadagono, Italy. She taught at the girls’ school for six years and drew a community of women in to live the religious way of life. She took her vows and changed her name in honor of St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionaries.
When the House of Providence Orphanage closed in 1880, her bishop asked her, along with six other women from her orphanage in Cadagono, to found the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart to care for the poor children in both schools and hospitals. Frances composed the Rule and Constitution for the religious institute. Soon after, she became known as Mother Cabrini.
She planned to found a convent in China, but Pope Leo XIII directed her to “go west, not east,” and she sailed with a small group of sisters for the United States in 1889. Their work in the United States was to be concentrated among the neglected Italian immigrants.
Right from the beginning she encountered many disappointments and hardships. The house originally intended for her new orphanage was no longer available, but Frances did not give up, even though the archbishop insisted she return to Italy. After she refused, Archbishop Michael Corrigan found them housing with the convent of the Sisters of Charity. Frances then received permission to found an orphanage in what is now West Park, New York and now known as St. Cabrini Home.
She took a series of trips that brought her through the Americas and into Europe. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1909. Although plagued by ill health most of the time, Mother Cabrini established 67 houses — one for each year of her life — in such cities as Buenos Aires, Paris, Madrid, and Rio de Janeiro. She also founded several schools, hospitals, and orphanages. On Dec. 22, 1917, Frances died at age 67 due to complications from dysentery at the Columbus Hospital, one of her own hospitals, in Chicago, Illinois.
Frances’ body was originally placed at the St. Cabrini Home but was exhumed in 1931 as part of her canonization process. Her head is preserved in Rome at the chapel of the congregation’s international motherhouse. One of her arms is at the national shrine in Chicago, and the rest of her body rests at a shrine in New York.
Frances has two miracles attributed to her. She restored sight to a child who was believed to have been blinded by excess silver nitrate, and she healed a terminally ill member of her congregation.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was beatified on Nov. 13, 1938, by Pope Pius XI and canonized by Pope Pius XII on July 7, 1946, making her the first United States citizen to be canonized. Her feast day is celebrated on Nov. 13 and she is the patron saint of immigrants.