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Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini

The Body of Mother Cabrini in NYC



Jennifer McCabe

A significant religious woman of the nineteenth century was the  Frances Xavier Cabrini. Her early recognition of living a religious life manifested itself into becoming a nun then on to founding the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Mother Cabrini's love for the poverty stricken, homeless, and uneducated led her to an intensely occupied life which allowed her to travel all over the world. For a frail woman she led an impressive and challenging life, overcoming obstacles along her journeys, whether it be physical harm to her body or emotional harm to her faith. However, in every situation, Francis Xavier Cabrini followed the Lord's itinerary for her and learned through strict obedience how to purify her own soul with the love of Jesus. She was the major benefactor for the Italian immigrants in the United States as well as in South America. She selflessly felt for others. Her mission for God was to help the underprivileged regain status in a society and time period where so many people fell victim. Her devotion to helping others many times brought her to New York City where immigration was large and the poor were many.

She is now unique in New York  in being the only saint whose entire body is on display for the faithful. Her body was laid to rest forever under the alter in the Chapel at Mother Cabrini High School. (The saint's head is at another location in Italy.)


Frances Xavier Cabrini was born on July 15, 1850 in Sant'Angelo Lodigiano, in the Lodi region in Lombardy, Italy. Her parents, Agostino Cabrini and Stella Oldini managed to instill important values on their children always following Gods intention. Born into a poor family and the youngest of thirteen children where only four, including herself, survived, was enriched with the Catholic faith and a devout love in God. Even the day of her birth a mysterious event occurred. A flock of white doves came down from the sky onto her fathers land. Agostino tried to fight them off but managed to harm one dove. He tended to the Dove's wounds and then set the dove free to go. Since this was uncommon "the family thought of her as a little dove. They made her one by having her baptized the same day."(Maynard, 22)

Frances was born a frail and weak child always becoming susceptible to illness. She was usually tended to by her equally devout sister, Rosa who was fifteen years her senior. This health problem would affect her severely later on in years as she extensively traveled throughout the world. It was from Rosa and her Uncle Don Luigi Oldini of Livagra, a local priest, where she trained and practiced on becoming a faithful Catholic. Frances completed her primary schooling under her sister Rosa who at this time was the village schoolmistress.

One of the most extraordinary events of Frances Cabrini's life was the day she received confirmation. On August 1, 1858 while still only a little girl of eight, Frances was anointed with the chrism and it was "at that moment, she received the special grace of being forever seduced by God."(Galilea, 13) This began her intense training of becoming a good Christian. Obedience was the way Frances could reach God and strict discipline was her answer to be closer to God. Rosa was the instructor for Frances instilling on her such values as humility, modesty and obedience. Frances copied Rosa and continued this until it was like second nature to her. Frances felt the more humble she became the closer she was with Jesus.

At nine years old, Frances was allowed to make her first communion. This receiving of the sacrament elevated her desire to be with Jesus and soon after joined the Daughters of Mary. It was about this time that Frances wanted to become a missionary and help in China. When she brought this idea up to Rosa, she scolded Frances by saying "You, so little and ignorant, how dare you think of becoming a missionary?"(Galilea, 15) This was the type of treatment that Frances received to make her more humble and humiliated. It trained her to no longer have her own self-will rather to allow Jesus to tell her where to go and how to go about things.

Another one of Frances' steps was to take an annual vow of virginity which she did at thirteen and was made permanent when she reached the age of eighteen. On her fifteenth birthday she had to obtain a spiritual director. She chose a Father Dede whom was her Pastor. She did this by stating "Because God wants it." After falling victim to smallpox in 1872, she was denied admission to enter the Daughters of the Sacred Heart because she was too frail. It was felt that if she was admitted she may not endure the demands of the religious life. Confused, Frances began teaching in the Village of Vidardo, where in 1874, Don Antonio Serrati persuaded her to begin to work at the House of Providence orphanage in Codono. The woman who trained this orphanage were the Sisters of Nazareth. After three years there, she took religious vows and was then appointed Superior to the orphanage. The orphanage was closed in 1880 by Bishop Domenico Gelmini and she began under his direction an institute of missionary sisters with seven young girls. This foundation was approved by Rome on March 12, 1888. After this she began to grow into the Saint that is so remembered today. The active, selfless, courageous, loving and obedient Mother Cabrini that was sainted and canonized for all of her good work and deeds.


Traveling to and from many different places throughout the world, Mother Cabrini made remarkable achievements in New York. Mother Cabrini's mission to New York was by her standards thought to be small since the United States was an already civilized country. She realized later on that this was not to be an easy mission. In 1889, she arrived off the boat with over one thousand immigrants ready to begin a new life. The travel from Europe to New York was not an easy one. To pass time, these missionaries sang, preyed and held catechism classes with the travelers to help them get through the rough trip as well as help themselves. They docked in New York on March 31, 1889.

This was a frightening change of pace for the sisters and Mother Cabrini because it was nothing like their home in Codogna. New York was the same bustling city it is today and the traffic and fast paced activity surrounding them was overwhelming. New York was a city easy to forget its religion and it was up to Frances for the immigrants to remember God.

Unfortunately, the beginning of the trip did not go as planned due to the search at Ellis Island they were required to go through but also because the house they were to be staying in to start their mission did not exist. The first night there, they stayed in a dingy apartment in the Italian ghetto. Frightened these courageous woman stayed awake all night rather then have to sleep in the dirty beds. The next morning more bad new followed when they were told that the school they were to start was not prepared due to the tenants still inhabiting the building which needed to be repaired. Also the missionaries stipends that they were to receive for the school were not available either making a difficult trip worse. Mother Cabrini was in a city where she knew no one nor, how to speak the language yet would not give up. After realizing that New York lost touch with God, the mission was to restore faith to the hopefuls.

Upon going to New York, Mother Cabrini wanted to start a new school and an orphanage for the homeless. The Archbishop Corrigan, who was not completely supportive, told the sisters to abandon any idea of opening an orphanage and to just concentrate on the school. He did however, manage to find them housing and placed them at the convent of the sisters of Charity. They were permitted to stay there as long as was necessary. Quickly the sisters began to work going out and introducing themselves to the community and working within the parish located on 59th Street. The Italian immigrants enjoyed having the sisters in their community and it also helped to reinforce their religion. "There were very few Italian priests in New York and, apparently, no sisters"(Galilea, 66) Most of the immigrants did not speak English so it made it difficult to attend mass when nothing was understood. This caused their to be a separation of faith which Mother Cabrini wanted to restore. many of the immigrants had not gone to confession for years and some had not attended mass for over two or three decades. This saddened Mother Cabrini and she knew her mission was clear and she was not one to let things go unattended.

One major benefactress was the Countess of Cesnola who contributed greatly to the restoration of faith in the Italian community. The Countess was kind enough to donate a large building in the wealthier section of town. On Palm Sunday of 1890, an orphanage was established. Part of this orphanage would be used for the sisters as a convent and the other would be for the homeless and underprivileged children in New York. On May 3, 1890 the first mass at the Sacred Heart chapel was prepared and Monsignor Corrigan, who was originally skeptical, read. To this day this chapel is considered the first American motherhouse of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. A little over a month later on June 29, 1890 the first batch of orphans arrived at the Sacred Heart orphanage.

The missionaries were pleased with their work at the orphanage and continued to familiarize themselves with the neighborhood. The necessity of this was to continue collecting donations for the upkeep of the orphanage. Lower East Side Manhattan which was Little Italy, was beginning to realize the seriousness of these sisters of the Sacred Heart and love them for their support and aid to a poor area. The school which was taught in the church did not begin as successfully as did the orphanage. "Classes for the children were still conducted in the church under the worst conditions and with constant interruptions"(Galilea, 68). A lot of repair was needed but Frances Cabrini had no intentions of ever giving up and soon she purchased a house in an intolerable condition. This was not a problem to the sisters because at least this way they were closer to their Italian community. It was in the courtyard of this home that the sisters would begin to give religious instruction for the children to bring them closer to God.

Since her school/orphanage was budding she planned to bring across the Atlantic more help. It was necessary for their to be more religious teachers around the community to help spread the word. On June 1, 1890 nine sisters came to New York under Mother Cabrini's insistence and four were placed in the school and five were placed in the orphanage. Seeing how things were doing well in the Spring of 1890, Mother Cabrini acquired property at West Park on the Hudson River, near Peekskill. West Park was to become an orphanage but also a resting place for the sisters of the Sacred Heart. This place was one of Mother Cabrini's favorite places to visit due to its relaxing atmosphere and beautiful view.

Mother Cabrini played an important role in the development of Columbus Hospital. In 1891 this hospital was developed by her friend the Bishop Scalabrini. This was to be a charity hospital located on East 109th Street. The establishment of Columbus Hospital was due to the poverty and sickness among Italian immigrants. Her intention for the hospital was to not only offer physical healing, but moral and spiritual consolation as well. As this was being prepared her work within the United States was expanding. In 1892 she laid down the foundations of a convent, school and orphanage in New Orleans. New Orleans was a ghetto just like New York which desperately needed a spiritual touch. The buildings that were built under Mother Cabrini were a blessing for the Italian community who so desperately needed them. The establishment of the convent, school, and orphanage helped the Sacred Heart missionaries gain more recognition then before and it was in the name of God.

Between Mother Cabrini's schools, orphanages, convents, or hospitals the expansion was rapid. The quickness and thoroughness with which she performed everything allowed her desire of Catholicism to spread to other places such as California and Chicago as well. She would establish churches and schools at the same time and each would be a success. Soon she thought of the idea of bilingual schools which was approved by the Archbishop of New York. "She established a church for the Italians. At the same time, in the center of New York, next to the Italian parish of Our Lady of Pompeii, she opened another mission-church for immigrants and a trade school where the sisters would teach women sewing and other skills"(Galilea, 112).

Many more schools, convents, and hospitals emerged in New York and throughout the United States. Due to Mother Cabrini and usually without any interruption she received what she wanted. She was a devout Catholic with a good head for business. Nothing ever stopped her from receiving what she wanted. Not her frail body which was often breaking down or her age. Everyone who came into contact with her was spiritually blessed and everything she built up in the name of the Lord succeeded with new believers and renewed spirits.


The final resting place of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini is located at 701 Fort Washington Avenue, New York. She is underneath an alter canonized as the First United States citizen Saint. The glass enclosed around her allows us to see her frail body often talked about when describing her. If standing under the alter, looking up you can see different religious scenes taking place with numerous amounts of candles surrounding the alter. The dome effect of the ceiling gives the viewer a heavenly feel and can imaging Mother Cabrini always looking up to the heavens at her final resting spot. The gold that outlines the alter lets us know that she is an important figure but the beams of light it appears to be giving off just is another way of showing her to be a saintly figure. The red carpet is usually rolled out for kings and maybe that is why it surrounds Frances Cabrini at her final resting place. The white shroud that drapes the alter is a sign for purity. That was one virtue she maintained until death.

The canonization process in extremely difficult and very expensive. It usually takes about fifty years to pass the approval of a canonization. Also, two miracles, fully authenticated, are required by the Church before the process toward canonization. One of the miracles offered was the restoration of sight to a new born baby who had been blinded by an overdose of nitrite of silver solution. The child was believed to be beyond medical aid. After the sisters prayed to Mother Cabrini for his cure, the child recovered.

A second miracle was the curing of a sister who was only given a day or two to live. However, after praying to Mother Cabrini she too, was cured and continued to live for another twenty years. These two miracles helped in the canonization of this Patron Saint.

Mother Cabrini, due to her close friendship with several Popes passed her the right to be canonized. Frances Cabrini died on December 22, 1917 and on November 13, 1938 she was beautified and named "Blessed". One account from a still living nun by the name of Sister Ursula remembers the day she spoke to Mother Cabrini of her desires and what she looked like. "She had piercing blue eyes, a ready smile and a soft voice"(Martin, 32). She recalls the day of Mother Cabrini's canonization and the thousands of people who lined up awaiting to see Mother Cabrini on her way to becoming a saint. Mother Cabrini became a neutralized citizen of the United States in 1909 and succeeded in establishing sixty-seven houses: one for each year of her life. In death she was as important as she was in life.



  • Galilea, Segundo. The Life and Missionary Activity of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. Quezon City:Claretian Communications,1996 
  • Martin, Julia. "A Sister, Like You." Catholic New York Feb. 1996: 32 
  • Maynard, Theodore. Too Small a World:The Life of Mother Cabrini. New York: Censor librorum,1945 

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