About 1888, a little Italian nun who had recently founded a new religious congregation which she called the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart knelt before Pope Leo XIII and asked his blessing upon her going with a number of her Sisters to spread the gospel in China. Even as a child, she had wanted to go there to bring the name and the love and the Church of Jesus to the Chinese. She used to make little boats out of paper and set them adrift on a stream near her home in northern Italy, pretending that they were full of missionaries going to China.
The great Leo XIII laid his hands on her head, and said, much to her astonishment and disappointment: No, my dear Cabrini. Not China: America! But the Vicar of Christ had spoken, so to America she came. For the rest of her life (28 more years), she labored in the cities of New York, Chicago, Denver, and New Orleans. We have in New Orleans a building which she bought as a convent for her Sisters, and another which she built as orphanage and school for children of Italian descent there. Years ago, I met an old lady who remembered Mother Cabrini, as she is still fondly called in New Orleans, although her proper title now is Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. This lady was a small girl who lived in that part of the city, and on her way to the church and the retail stores with her mother, she would encounter Mother Cabrini with a basket over her arm, going to beg from the various merchants a little of this and of that for her children whom she had to feed every day.
Bishop Charles Greco of Alexandria, LA, used to love to tell the story of how, when he was ten years old, he had just finished serving Mass in the parish church when Mother Cabrini came back into the sacristy to speak to the priest. She asked the name of the little boy. And when she found that he was Greco, she was delighted to know that he, too, was of Italian descent. She looked intently at him, and said, laying her hands on his head, “You will go far in the Church, my son.” And so he did!
We New Orleanians think of her as “one of us.” There is a statue of her on the median at a major intersection in New Orleans, just a few yards from our Dominican church of Saint Dominic. When it was erected by the city, some enemies of the Church raised a ruckus and even took the case to court. A Jewish judge heard the case, and threw it out of court, pointing out that Mother Cabrini had done as much for the children of New Orleans as others who were commemorated by the city with public monuments. Just because she was a Catholic religious sister did not violate any legal principles.
Mother Cabrini became an American citizen during her 28 years of work in this country, and so when she was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946, she was the first American citizen to be so honored. Many other immigrants arrived in New York harbor, seeking freedom and prosperity and opportunity in the new world. She came, seeking nothing for herself but only the opportunity to serve her fellow Italian immigrants and carry out the commission given her by the Holy Father. She succeeded remarkably! Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.