By Antonina Zielinska, Tamara Laine and Franca Braatz
July is an important month for St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, a nun who was known for her work for immigrants in New York City and who’s the namesake of a health foundation the Archdiocese of New York started last year.
Mother Cabrini, as she is commonly known (she started her own order of nuns), was born on July 15, 1850 in Italy and was canonized on July 7, 1946 by Pope Pius XII.
An immigrant herself, Mother Cabrini wasn’t accepted into religious life at first because of her poor health. Undeterred, she eventually received permission to start her own order in Italy, called the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
She then gained an audience in 1889 with Pope Leo XIII, who urged her to go to the United States to care for the immigrants suffering there.
The saint and her followers landed on New York shores in 1889, in poverty themselves. Their hosts weren’t prepared for them. They had no place to sleep until they secured one filthy room in a poor Italian neighborhood. The sisters also soon found out that their missionary stipend, the one they needed to eat and live, wasn’t actually available to them.
The sisters put faith in their True Benefactor. They went forward with their work and begged for food and supplies from the people living in Manhattan’s poor Italian neighborhoods on the Lower East Side.
Inspired by the sisters’ dedication, benefactors soon came forward. The sisters opened orphanages and schools. Their work in the Diocese of Brooklyn began in the Italian parish of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, Carroll Garden, where they established a school and convent.
Mother Cabrini established 67 institutions during her lifetime. She made 23 trans-Atlantic crossings and started, schools, hospitals and orphanages throughout the U.S., Central and South America and Europe. She died in Chicago in 1917.
“That is also one of the reasons why Pope John Paul II actually refers to her as the Patroness of the New Evangelization … because she is such an example of the missionary spirit of going and building up the church,” said John Heyer, the parish archivist and pastoral associate at Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary & St. Stephen. He has studied in depth Mother Cabrini’s impact on Brooklyn.
“It is so important to follow what Mother Cabrini laid before us, because we are all missionaries,” Heyer said. “We are all missionaries of Christ. And just like she was an immigrant, we are all immigrants.”
Sister Bernadette Anello, MSC, is now the general councilor of the Stella Maris Province for the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which runs the Cabrini Mission Foundation. Part of the mission of the foundation is to help migrants all over the world and to fight for the human dignity of those from who it has been stripped away.
“From the global perspective, we are seeing this all over, there is a repetition of fear in so many countries now,” Sister Bernadette said.
“Here in this country, when I hear them being called drug traffickers, they’re robbers, they are going to infest our country,” she said. “This is the language that is being used. Yet when you see the pictures, they are young families with little children who are fleeing crime, drugs. They are being killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are risking their lives and leaving everything to get to safe borders.”
A good chunk of Mother Cabrini’s original work was health care. It wasn’t work she was eager to undertake. Bishop Michael Corrigan, the archbishop of New York and a strong supporter of Mother Cabrini, urged the nun to open a hospital, but she had her doubts. She felt she could help children learn, but the work that would go into a hospital scared her.
She then had a vision of the Blessed Mother tending to a hospital patient. Mother Cabrini asked the Virgin what she was doing. “The work you didn’t want to do,” came the answer.
Mother Cabrini went on to establish what would become Cabrini Medical Center in Manhattan and other medical institutions around the world.
Her mission of health care continues in New York to this day, with the $3.2 billion Mother Cabrini Health Foundation, which was started by the archdiocese last year. It is giving grants of up to $150 million annually to organization that “improve the health and well-being of vulnerable New Yorkers, bolster the health outcomes of diverse communities, eliminates barriers to care and bridge gaps in health care,” according to the foundation. “This Foundation will exist in perpetuity, helping generations of New Yorkers of all faiths or no faith at all.”