Mother Cabrini: Missionary to Italian Immigrants
Mary Louise Sullivan, M.S.C.
U.S. Catholic Historian, Fall 1987
Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini's departure from Italy for New York in
March, 1889, represented a new movement in the Church in Italy and opened a
fresh chapter in the history of the nascent Italian-American Catholic community.
The Osservatore Romano called attention to Cabrini and her six Missionary
Sisters of the Sacred Heart companions: "These missionary nuns are called to a
noble work of charity and their arrival in America will signify a new and notable
step on the way towards the betterment of our poor and abandoned colony across
the sea." Mother Cabrini's simple yet significant mandate from the Vatican
Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith was to help Italian immigrants.
For the most part these immigrants were poorly instructed in their faith and
tended to neglect completely the formal practice o Catholicism in their new
country. Pope Leo XIII, well aware of these circumstances and having heard her
deep faith and capabilities praised by Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini of
Piacenza, personally directed Mother Cabrini's missionary zeal towards the
Upon arrival Frances Cabrini saw New York with the awe and
practicality of an immigrant woman. Unlike many other immigrant women who
shared these traits, but were unable to write down their first impressions,
Cabrini'[s letters from New York in 1889 sparkle with her reactions and
observations. "This New World is immensely populated; it is swarming with
people." "Imagine, this city is more than twenty miles long. . . With five cents
one can travel from one part of the city to the other on the elevated train." "I
am beginning to understand English a little bit, but at first I really believed that it
was the language of the geese." "It costs more than double what it would in
Rome to rent a house here and food costs two-thirds more. Bread, for example,
is more than a lira a kilogram."
It did not take long for Frances Cabrini to become well acquainted with
the ethnic slurs and prejudices of the day. After less than two weeks in New
York she wrote to Italy requesting material for additional habits and veils for the
Sisters so that they might present themselves well in public: ". . . otherwise they
will call us 'guinea-pigs' the way they do the Italians here."
Her deep concern for the Italian immigrants was noted in Mother
Cabrini's early correspondence from America: "The field is so vast to do good
for our poor Italians who are abandoned and very much looked down upon by
the English speaking public. . . They cannot bear the sight of the Italians."
Between her arrival in New York in 1889 and her death in Chicago in
1917, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, although repeatedly beset with ill health,
crisscrossed the country assessing the needs of Italian immigrants. Her ability to
respond to their needs was extraordinary. Schools, hospitals, orphanages and
social service outreach programs involving family visitation in both urban and
rural areas, religious instruction in numerous parishes, recreational programs for
children, industrial arts lessons for young women, visits to city hospital wards,
jails, prisons, mines and plantations absorbed her energies of Cabrini and her
Missionary Sister. Together they established institutions in New York, New
Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Colorado, Washington
State and California.
The missionary zeal of Frances Cabrini extended right into the homes
of the immigrants. Just as she had personally visited families in St. Joachim's
parish in lower Manhattan immediately upon her arrival in the United States in
1889, she saw to it that, wherever they located, her Missionary Sisters continued
home visitations. The purpose of this work was to render both religious and
social service. The Sisters would encourage baptism of children, regularization
of marriages in church, and return to practice of the Catholic religion. They
would bring groceries and provide clothing for the most needy. Home assistance
was also rendered upon request. Those in need knew to contact the convent.
Two Sisters would then visit the home to address the immigrant's problems.
They would help to find work for the unemployed, obtain shelter for homeless
children, make sure that legal aid was provided to poor families who requested it
and assist those who wished to be repatriated.
Mother Dositea Massoli recalled being asked by Cabrini to "go out to
the coal mines to do a little good for our poor Italians, to the many families who
find themselves in these places." The Missionary Sisters engaged in rural
home visitations, particularly in areas around Seattle, Chicago, and New Orleans.
They went where there were settlements of Italians in the mountains, mining
camps, and cotton plantations. In an 1899 letter to one of her Sisters, Cabrini
mentions one such trip upon which she accompanied her Missionaries along the
Gulf coast of Louisiana. She made it her business to participate in the
outreach programs of her various missions when time and circumstances would
permit. The outlying areas of New Orleans were a particularly fertile field for
the work of the Missionary Sisters, enjoined by their Mother Foundress to give
instructions in Christian Doctrine in places where there were few, if any, Italian
speaking priests and where mass would only be celebrated once a month.
Beginning in 1895, mission stations were established in Metairie Ridge,
Harvey Canal and Kenner, Louisiana. Mule-drawn cars were a general means of
transportation for the Sisters to reach the rural settlements. Despite the
separation of church and state, public school basements were used on Sundays
for religious instruction. Children of the truck farmers of Kenner were
particularly hard to teach since they were needed as farm workers and did not
attend school to learn to read. The Sisters also instructed adults, managing to
make themselves understood in a combination of Italian and the mixed dialects
spoken by the immigrants. Many Italian workers had to be reached on the roads
and in the fields. The Sisters would learn that it had been as long as forty years
since some of the men had been to church. In dialect they would respond to the
Sisters' inquiries "Eh . . . soruzza [an endearing term meaning 'little sister'] there
is no time. . . . When we will go back to Italy we will go to church."
The Sisters found the life of the women in the country places to be hard,
monotonous and dreary. Mother Josephine Lombardi, writing to the Sisters at
the Motherhouse in Italy, spoke of poor women whose need to care for their
families made it impossible for them to get into the city for years and years.
Another outreach involved the Sisters in visits to public hospitals.
Especially in emergency cases they would act as interpreters between the
patients and the doctors and nurses, contact the relatives and offer the patients
words of hope in their native tongue. In police cases, immigrants would have
their rights explained by the Sisters who would help them to secure legal
counsel. Having seen to the material needs of the patients, the Sisters would
then address their spiritual needs. Many a time the chaplains of charity wards,
particularly if they did not speak English, were repulsed by the immigrants. It
was in these instances that Mother Cabrini's missionaries were quite effective.
They would speak of God to the patients, pray with them, and usually succeeded
in bringing them around to seeing the chaplain.
Mother Cabrini took a holistic approach to health care. The purpose of
the hospitals she personally established was twofold: to restore health to both the
body and the spirit. Not only was the individual patient to be served, but the
family as well. Just two years after its founding, New York's Columbus Hospital
provided the community of lower Manhattan with a children's pharmacy. This
effort in 1894 greatly pleased Cabrini. She saw it as providing the Sisters with
the opportunity to come into contact with mothers whom they could instruct in
family care at a time, s she phrased it, "when almost no one knows what family
Mother Cabrini's prodigious missionary career took her throughout
Europe, Central and South America, as well as North America. The period
covered just under twenty-nine years, close to half of which was spent in nine
missionary journeys to the united States, which became the focal point of her
Although her religious community grew in numbers in the United States
by the entrance of young women of Italian-American and other national
heritages, the increases in personnel could not keep pace with the requests for
foundations of the Missionary Sisters. Mother Cabrini, therefore, continued to
bring Sisters from Italy where the congregation she had founded in 1880 was
flourishing. In one instance she wrote:" I'm coming soon with a good number of
Sisters and then you won't have to lament the lack of personnel. But I want you
to prepare many good, well educated American Sisters as teachers, without
whom I won't be able to initiate those beautiful works which I desire."
In 1899 a Chicago newspaper drew attention to the Italian immigrants
who were "swarming multitudes that already constitute a great industrial power
in our midst." Mother Cabrini's arrival in Chicago was described as being "in
the nick of time:
She comes to put her Sisters in charge of free parochial schools for
the Italians in this city. They will also visit the poor and the sick in
their own homes, and be in the fullest sense messengers of mercy and
hope to their poor countrymen and countrywomen, the Italians of
Frances Cabrini rejoiced in the challenge before her: "What a beautiful missions
ours will be in that immennse city of over two and a half million inhabitants!"
With the same gusto Mother Cabrini, after studying the intensity of needs,
selected other sites for assistance to Italian immigrants. Subsequent to the
establishment of new schools in densely populated Italian neighborhoods in New
York's lower Manhattan, the Bronx, Newark, New Jersey and Scranton,
Pennsylvania, and after getting the Chicago school on its feet, she turned
westward following the Italian immigrants who were settling in the states of
Colorado, Washington, and California. Intrepid Missionary Sisters were sent
ahead by Cabrini to lay the groundwork for her foundations and to advise on
conditions among the Italians. Mother Umilia Capietti and Mother Clemenza
Boldrini spent several months preparing the way in Denver among the "poor
abandoned Italians." Bishop Nicholas Matz wrote to tell Mother Cabrini:
We have here in Denver a large Colony of Italians with a school
population of more than one thousand children of whom not more
than half a hundred in all attend a Catholic School. If these poor
Italians are to be saved to the Church, we must do it through the
School; and it is our opinion that your Sisters are the Apostles
intended by God to save these Souls.
On October 29, 1902, Frances Cabrini arrived in Denver. She was
present for the formal opening of the school on November 17, 1902. As with
foundations in other parts of the country, the initial work would soon give rise to
outreach programs serving the socio-religious needs of the immigrants. Cabrini
There are to be found here young people, up to thirty years of age,
who have not made their First Communion yet. There are marriages
which have not been blessed by the priest, children not baptized. In
the mountains hundreds of workmen are to be found oppressed by
work . . . Our Sisters have begun their rounds.
In a letter to Pope Leo XIII she confided: "I have found much work in America,
and especially in this new mission of Colorado."
Denver presented particular problems due to the large number of work
related accidents in the area. Bishop Nicholas Matz noted that existing
orphanages were unable to accommodate the increasing number of children left
There is no part of the United States more pregnant in fatalities than
our own. Hence the great number of such orphaned children in
Colorado. But the Italians who are chiefly engaged in mining coal,
and are in strange land, when such a fatality befalls them, it strikes
them even more terribly than our own people.
Frances Cabrini departed from accepted practice in regard to the
discharge age of the girls in the orphanages she founded in Denver and
elsewhere. The American custom was generally to dismiss orphans at what she
considered "the dangerous age of 14." She stipulated that they "be kept until
they could be placed with a good family or were able to look after themselves
and earn an honest living."
To this end, that the girls be able to "earn an honest living," Cabrini
frequently introduced an "industrial school" in conjunction with her orphanages.
here emphasis was on the practical arts.
In 1903 four Sisters were sent to Seattle. Mother Cabrini had decided
favor of Seattle over Portland, Oregon, for the establishment of a mission,
because in her own words, it was "Seattle where all the Italians pass through
enroute to Alaska and on their return." Cabrini left New York by train for
Seattle on October 12, 1903. The trip took six days to Portland, Oregon where
Cabrini rested a day before proceeding by train to Seattle. Cabrini's intention for
the new mission was "the moral and intellectual uplift of a large Italian colony in
need of spiritual help."
In her Christmas greeting to Diomede Falconio, Apostolic Delegate in
Washington, D.C., Mother Cabrini conveyed her feelings about Seattle: "Each
day I am more content that I accepted this foundation. There is real need for a
mission for the Italians in this part of the Country! They are so abandoned. . .
They are proud to have at last an orphanage and a school assured them." A
mission chapel was soon opened for the Italians in Seattle with particular
concern for Alaskan laborers...
The institutions which Frances Cabrini founded established her role as
an advocate for Italian immigrants. But her advocacy on behalf of the
immigrants went far beyond buildings. Cabrini developed a philosophy of
education which combined the need for Americanization with, to her, the equally
important preservation of the Italians' cultural heritage. The hospitals she
established in new York, Chicago and Seattle catered to the economic, linguistic
and nutritional needs of the Italian immigrant populations of large cities.
Medical assistance was rendered when calamities, such as yellow fever
epidemics, struck vulnerable Italian men, women, and children dwelling in
congested areas. At the outbreak of yellow fever in New Orleans in 1905,
Mother Cabrini encouraged her Sisters to do everything possible to assist the
sick. Religious education in urban and rural districts became an outreach
program for every one of the institutions Cabrini started. The chapels in some of
her foundations functioned as parishes for Italian immigrants. In general each of
the foundations became a center where the socio-religious needs of the
immigrants could be met...
Quoted in Memorie Stati Uniti (1889), 16. Manuscript at Centro Cabriniano, Rome(hereafter citied as CCR). All translations,
unless otherwise noted, are my own. The Italian word "Memorie" is used to denote both annals of missions and personal
memoirs of individual Sisters.
Cardianl Aristeo Simeoni, 6 March 1889. Photocopy of Propaganda Fide certificate at Archivio Missionarie del Sacro Cuore,
Rome(hereafter cited as AMSCR).
Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini (herafter cited as MFXC) to "Reverendissimo Signore," 12 June 1889, Lettere Manoscritte,
MFXC to M. Maddalena Savare, M.S.C., 15 July 1889, typescript of letter, Cabriniana Room, Cabrini College, Radnor, Pa.
(hereafter cited as CRCC).
Ibid., postscript. Cabrini's first impressions as documented in n.34-37 were also included in Sr. Mary Louise Sullivan, M.S.C.,
"Francesca Saverio Cabrini and 'L' America degli Emigrati,'" a paper delivered 7 October 1983 at a conference of the Italian
Assn. for North American Studies in conjunction with the University of Catania, Sicily. To be published as Proceedings of the
MFXC to "Mie figlie carissime," 11 April 1889, Lettere Manoscritte, AMSCR. Mother Cabrini affectionately referred to her
Sisters as "My dearest daughters."
MFXC to "Reverendissimo Signore," 12 June 1889, Lettere Manoscritte, AMSCR.
Particulars regarding visits to families are noted in MFXC to Cardinal Gerolamo Gotti, 2 January 1907: MFXC to
"Eminentissimo Signor Cardinale Segretario della S. Congregazione Concistoriale," 10 March 1913, typescript AMSCR: Istituto
delle Missionarie del S. Cuore di Gesu, c. 1914, typescript CRCC.
This type of social work is described in Istituto delle Missionarie...,3-4.
Memorie di S. Madre. Manuscripts at CCR.
MFXC to "Mia figlia carissima," 9 May 1889. Lettere Manoscritte, AMSCR.
Accounts of Metarie Ridge, Harvey Canal and Kenner Missions in 1892-1942 Foundations of the Missionary Sisters of the
Sacred Heart in the South of the United States- America 817 St. Philip Street New Orleans, Louisiana with a Short History of
Events during those Fifty Years, 39-47. Typescript at CRCC.
New Orleans-Anno 1892, 9. Typescript AMSCR.
Paraphrased Lombardi to "Reverendisma Madre e care sorelle," 19 December 1903. Manuscript copy in Lettere inviate a Roma
dalle Sorelle delle diverse case dell'Istituto. AMSCR.
Details noted in Istituto delle Missionarie...,4.
MFXC to "Mia figlia carissima," 26 June 1894. Lettere Manoscritte, AMSCR.
MFXC to "Mia figlia carissima," 22 August 1897. Lettere Manoscritte, AMSCR.
"Free Schools for Italians," The New World n.d.,"Ritagli di Giornali," scrapbook #2, item # 148. CCR.
MFXC to "Mia figlia carissima," 11 June 1899. Lettere Manoscritte, AMSCR.
Relazioni [Denver], Libro I, 2. Manuscript CRCC.
Matz to MFXC, 11 April 1902. Typescript copy AMSCR.
Relazioni [Denver], Libro I, 6. Manuscript CRCC.
Giovanni Serpentelli, trans. The Travels of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini (Exeter, England, 1925), 230, 234.
MFXC to Sua Santita Leone XIII, 1 December 1902. Typescript copy CRCC.
Matz "To Whom It May Concern," 8 May 1903. Signed typescript AMSCR.
MFXC to Cardinal Gerolamo Gotti, 2 January 1907. Typescript AMSCR.
MFXC to M. Ignatius Dossena, M.S.C., 22 May 1903. Typescript of letter, CRCC.
Preface to Memorie Seattle, 3. Manuscript CRCC
MFXC to Falconio, 17 December 1903. Typescript signed by Cabrini. Letterbook of Cabrini's correspondence at Vatican
Nunciature, Washington, D.C.