Tuesday, June 27, 2006


by Tim Rohr, 2/22/06

She lived in a time (1850-1917) when travel was slow, arduous, and danger-filled. Being of frail health, she also had no business traveling anywhere. She had no money of her own and could not speak the language of the countries where she spent most of her mission life. Yet, she traversed the globe, visited more countries, and established more institutions than probably any other saint. By the end of her life she had drawn over four-thousand sisters to her community, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart and established over fifty houses in countries all over the world.

Small, sickly, poor, a woman in a time when women had little influence, she, almost single-handedly, built the Catholic Church in a country that was, at that time, very hostile to Catholics, or at least barely tolerated them. Chicago, New Orleans, Denver, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and many more places in the United States were blessed with the presence of this saint-to-be as she tirelessly opened up countless schools, hospitals, orphanages, and community houses for her sisters.

Her reputation for her willingness to do for the faith what others would not dare to do soon spread around the Catholic world and bishops everywhere clamored for her to come to their diocese and establish a community of her sisters. An example of her all-for-Jesus missionary spirit is the work she did in such far flung lands as Argentina, Chile, Peru, Nicaragua, and malaria-infested Panama (she would die of malaria).

Many miracles are attributed to St. Francis Cabrini. An amusing one is “the miracle of the stockings”. One of her sisters had a severe case of varicose veins and had been instructed to wear support stockings. One day, unbeknownst to the sister, she put on a pair of Mother Cabrini’s stockings. By the next day her varicose veins were gone and legs completely healed. Upon learning of the miracle, Mother Cabrini rebuked the sister for crediting her for the miracle and insisted that it was her faith that healed her.

But perhaps more striking than her miracles, and intriguingly instructive for us today, is how she stood up to the challenges of the surrounding culture. In Denver, she was confronted with a Catholic population that was indifferent about attending Mass. Here was a demon more powerful than the demons that goaded the Roman emperors to enact their horrific persecutions. If Satan failed to turn early Christians toward hell with the threat of boiling oil, he would later make up for it with the twin infections of apathy and indifference. Mother Cabrini wasted no time. She attacked the menace with education and soon Sunday Masses were over-flowing with Catholics passionate about their faith.

In Nicaragua she was faced with a new and prickly challenge that would make her a singular public enemy. She openly challenged what she considered immodesty in women’s dress. Despite the tropical clime of Nicaragua, she brokered no excuse for the way the women dressed and refused to let her sisters visit or eat in the company of women who were dressed immodestly. There was great resistance, but eventually Mother had her way. This was a small issue, however, compared to the one that would lead to near riots at her convent doors.

Despite being Catholic, many of the fathers and mothers of the children attending her schools were unmarried. What we now call “shacking” was seen in Nicaragua in the early 20th century as cultural or traditional. Church leaders seemed to overlook it and most people accepted it. Mother Cabrini didn’t. She refused to allow the children of unmarried parents to attend her schools. This caused a major uproar. Who was this foreign woman who was trying to change their way of life? Mother stood her ground despite the threats and riots. Finally after several dangerous days, the people gave in and there were many marriages soon after and many dissenters became her staunchest supporters.

Italian by birth, Mother Cabrini became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1909, died eight years later and became the first U.S. citizen to be raised to the Communion of Saints when she was canonized in 1944 by Pope Pius XII.

There’s also another story here. Much effort is put into catechizing and evangelizing and sometimes even “wooing” and “wowing” our youth, yet there remain the ever-persistent problems of distraction, apathy, and general malaise about the Faith. Historically though, it was not instruction and lively events that moved young men and women to follow the path to sainthood, but the stories of the saints themselves. How many young boys and girls over the centuries learned the heart of the faith by hearing the stories of the saints at the feet of their parents!

Let your children hear the “greatest stories every told”. Read to them the lives of the saints. A great series, and very readable, is Bob & Penny Lord’s Super Saints Book I, II, & III from which the above story of Mother Cabrini was condensed. And since we all want to go to heaven, we might as well get to know some of the folks that we’ll be (hopefully) spending eternity with.

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