Fr. Ed Dougherty, M.M.
On November 13th, we celebrate the Feast of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. Many people know her simply as Mother Cabrini, and her story exemplifies how perseverance and faith can produce the most amazing fruits.
Born in 1850 in the region now known as Lombardy, Italy, she grew up in a farming family in which only four of thirteen children survived beyond adolescence. Her survival amid such a difficult life seems like a miracle given that she was born two months prematurely and was known to have a delicate constitution throughout her life.
But it’s clear that God had a plan for young Cabrini and that her strength of spirit made up for whatever she lacked physically. When she was a child, it is said that she would make little boats out of paper and place flowers in them. She would call those flowers “missionaries” and launch the boats into a canal with a swift current, sending them off to far flung places of the world to share the faith.
This story demonstrates the dream she had of becoming a missionary, and in 1870, she asked to join the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, who had been her teachers and inspired her to pursue religious life. But the Daughters of the Sacred Heart deemed her too frail to join their order, so she pursued a different path into religious life, one that initially did not afford her the opportunity to become a missionary.
But Mother Cabrini did not give up on her dream. We see from her life story that sometimes God denies a person one path to lead them in another direction and to a more important mission. So, in 1880, ten years after being denied entry into the order of her choosing, she joined with seven other women religious to found the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She wrote the Rule and Constitutions and served as the order’s superior general for her entire life. In their first five years, they started seven homes for orphans, along with a free school and nursery. They also pursued endeavors to help fund their charities, such as opening a day school, offering classes in needlework, and selling embroidery.
The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus became so prolific that they gained the attention of Pope Leo XIII. Never one to let an opportunity pass her by, Mother Cabrini seized upon this attention from the Pope to petition for the opportunity to establish missions in China. But the Pope famously said to her, “Not to the East, but to the West,” deciding to send her order to the United States, where many Italian immigrants were arriving by the day, often in states of extreme poverty.
This is how Mother Cabrini’s mission to our country was born. She has left an amazing mark in so many places where her order established schools, hospitals, orphanages, and played an important role in serving those on the margins of society. She died in 1917, and when she was canonized in 1946, 120,000 people packed into Chicago’s Soldier Field for a Mass of Thanksgiving.
Mother Cabrini’s life exemplifies how God can work through a person of good will and lead them to accomplish more than they ever dreamed. Let’s pray for her intercession so that God might guide each of us in our efforts to bring good into the world, and may those efforts be blessed and lead to even greater things than we dreamed.
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