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Saint of the week

The frail but tireless Sister who worked in the slums of New York

St Francesca Cabrini (December 22) became the first American to be canonised in 1946

By on Thursday, 22 December 2011

A stained-glass window depicting St Francesca  (Photo: CNS)

A stained-glass window depicting St Francesca (Photo: CNS)

Franscesca Cabrini (1850-1917) dreamed when she was young of working as a missionary in China. In fact, her calling would take her not to the East but to America.

She was born near Pavia, the 10th of 11 children of an Italian farmer and his wife. The family was not poor; it was, however, singularly unfortunate.

Seven of Francesca’s brothers and sisters died in childhood, and another was brain-damaged. Francesca herself was physically frail, and under 5ft tall; her determination and spirit, by contrast, were boundless.

Having qualified as a primary teacher, she began work at a school in Vidardo. The secular inspector of schools had forbidden the teaching of Christian doctrine. Francesca, though, soon persuaded the mayor to lift this ban.

Eager to take the veil, she applied to two convents; neither, though, would admit a woman in such doubtful health. Her parish priest, by contrast, did not hesitate to recommend her as the director of an orphanage.

The venture proved insufficiently funded to succeed, and Francesca now explored the possibility of founding a house devoted to foreign missions, especially in China.

At first she came up against a seemingly implacable prejudice that women should not run missions abroad. She was, however, allowed to join with seven others to create the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

The aim was to combine the rescue of the poor with regular periods of prayer, meditation and silence. Otherwise there were no prescribed austerities: Sister Francesca believed that a proper discharge of the Christian duty to the unfortunate would be quite testing enough.

Under her guidance the Missionary Sisters were soon doing outstanding work, and by 1867 they had houses in both Milan and Rome. As it happened, though, this was just the period when Italian emigration to America was beginning to take off.

Soon not merely New York, but also other towns such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit had a considerable Italian population. Many of these immigrants, uneducated countrymen, found life desperately hard in American cities. 

By the 1880s the Archbishop of New York was calling for “good Italian priests” to provide religious support. So when, in 1887, Mother Cabrini had an audience with Pope Leo XIII, the Holy Father directed her attention across the Atlantic.

Arriving in New York in 1889, Francesca proved herself a tireless worker and a shrewd businesswoman. After performing outstanding rescue work in the slums of New York, she extended the Missionary Sisters’ parish to New Orleans and Chicago, even to Valpairaiso, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro in South America.

By the time of Mother Cabrina’s death in 1917 the Missionary Sisters numbered over 1,500 nuns. Having changed citizenship in 1909, in 1946 she became the first American to be canonised.