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Italians in America – Our Immigrant Stories: Remembering Mother Cabrini, the bold saint who built an empire of love and hope


Written by Tanya Tecce

Our immigrant stories would not be complete without the story of our patron saint of immigrants, Francesca Xavier (Saverio) Cabrini, whose remarkable life and times inspired the major motion picture “Cabrini,” which opened nationwide on March 8. 

Photo of Mother Cabrini at Columbus Hospital in 1905 (Photo: National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini)

Born in Lombardia two months before she was due on July 15, 1850, Maria Francesca Cabrini was the youngest of 13 children. Already frail in health, at age 7 she nearly drowned, which left her with lifelong chronic bronchitis as well as a fear of water.

This didn’t stop her from traveling overseas 23 times. She may have lived her life with frail health, but her faith, courage and resilience abounded. She is quoted as saying, “We can serve our weakness or our purpose. We cannot do both.”

One of Mother Cabrini’s orphans gives her a hug (as depicted in the Cabrini film, March 2024, photo courtesy Angel Studios)

Young Francesca admired St. Francis Xavier, and dreamed of following his example. On her summer visits to her uncle, Fr. Don Luigi Oldini, she would tell that dream to violets, then put them into paper boats and send them away on a nearby stream.

She decided to devote her life to Christ in her teens, and became a nun at age 27, taking the name Frances Xavier Cabrini. Three years later in 1880, she founded her Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and petitioned Pope Leo XIII to support her in following in the footsteps of St. Francis Xavier on a mission to China. After nine years and much persuasion, Pope Leo finally agreed, but on the condition she go to New York City to serve the tens of thousands of struggling Italian immigrants there.

Orphans that found a home and hope with Mother Cabrini and her Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (as depicted in the Cabrini film, March 2024, photo courtesy of Angel Studios)

In 1889, the sisters journeyed from Rome to the burgeoning new world of New York City. They sailed across the Atlantic in steerage, and were met by cold, uncooperative conditions and immigrants and orphans struggling to merely survive in the slums of Five Points, a lower Manhattan neighborhood saturated with dilapidated tenements, disease and crime and swarmed with hundreds of struggling Italian families.

She shared in their suffering as they were repeatedly discriminated against and kept from belonging. Even those who were sick and needed care were turned away at the local hospital, many left to die. Emboldened, Mother Cabrini decided to build not only their own hospital, but an empire of hope. Her mission was to serve immigrants and orphans and show them equality, health, education, a sense of community and happiness. This became her life purpose.

Her pleas for help often fell on deaf ears, or even worse, deliberately obstructive ones. But she was very resourceful and creative. She found her way to an interview in the New York Sun just three months after she arrived, and on June 30, 1889, an unnamed reporter wrote: “During the past few weeks dark-featured women, in the garb of Sisters of Charity have been going through the Italian quarters in the Bend and in Little Italy, climbing up dark, steep, and narrow stairways, diving down into foul basements, and into dens which even a New York policeman does not care to enter without assistance. These women are all slight and delicate. They wear a peculiar veil … and few can speak English. They are members of an order entirely new to this country…. An Italian organization of nuns who look after the welfare of orphans. She is a dark-hued but sympathetic woman with large coal-black eyes and a winning smile. She cannot talk English. She is very much in earnest and anxious that her mission should be successful.”

Despite repeated setbacks that included discrimination, denials, delays and even arson, Mother Cabrini’s faith and determination prevailed. With donations pouring in from the article, she built a new orphanage. Then she built Columbus Hospital, a hospital that would not turn immigrants and orphans away, but help them. Soon requests for her help poured in from other cities and nations.

“Our object,” Mother Cabrini shared, “is to rescue the Italian orphans of the city from the misery and dangers that threaten them and to make good men and women of them.”

Cabrini Immigrant Services in New York City is just one example of her legacy, still uniting and serving families with legal support, assistance with applications for naturalization, advocacy and more.

To this day Mother Cabrini’s mission lives and breathes on in a remarkable 67 hospitals, orphanages and schools dotted across the world like violets: including Italy, United States, England, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Puerto Rico, France, Spain, Philippines, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Mother Cabrini became a U.S. citizen at 59 years old. She died Dec. 22, 1917, at the age of 67, and in 1946, she was canonized by Pope Pius XII on July 7, a week before what would have been her 96th birthday. She was the first American citizen to be named a saint.

Well before Italians were accepted in America and well before there were government programs serving the welfare of society, there was Mother Cabrini, the bold saint that built an empire of love, hope and caring.


Tanya Tecce

Tanya is an Anxiety Anthropologist and Family Alchemist sharing deep nervous system restoratives and healing family constellation work with her clients. Master certified in Transformational Psychology NLP, she curates decades of study and experience in neuroscience, psychology, family constellations, epigenetics, yoga, and ayurveda to heal mindset and fortify your nervous system so it feels safe for you to get what you want. She’s led retreats to Italy annually since 2014 and has worked with Today Media since 2003, IAH since 2019. To learn more about her powerful “suffering obligations of love” work visit: tanyatecce.lpages.co/protect-my-peace/

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