St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was born Maria Francesca Cabrini on July 15, 1850, in Lombardy, Italy. She was the youngest of 13 children, born two months premature, and was a frail child with delicate health. Only three of her siblings grew to adulthood, and they were orphaned by the time Maria was 18.
As a child, Maria’s father told her stories of the missions, inspiring her to want to work as a missionary herself. After she finished her education, Maria helped teach catechism to young children. She applied to the Daughters of the Sacred Heart for admission, but they turned her down because of her ill health. She was asked to teach at the House of Providence orphanage in Italy, where she spent six years. She drew other young women to help her, and they lived in the lifestyle of religious sisters.
Maria took the name Frances Xavier Cabrini, and when the orphanage closed, the bishop asked her to found the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, caring for poor children in schools and hospitals. As Mother Cabrini, she composed the rules and constitution for the sisters to follow.
The Missionary Sisters quickly established seven homes, along with a free school and nursery. Pope Leo XIII asked Frances to go to the United States, to help the Italian immigrants, sending her “not to the East, but the West.”
Frances came to the U.S. in March of 1889, along with six other sisters. They faced extreme hardships, losing their housing for an orphanage quickly, but Frances refused to give up. She and her sisters eventually founded an orphanage, which is now called St. Cabrini Home, in West Park, New York.
In her 35 years in the United States, Frances founded 67 schools, orphanages, and hospitals, tending to the poor, sick, and abandoned throughout the country. In 1909, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
Frances died at the age of 67, on December 22, 1917, in one of her own hospitals in Chicago. Her body was originally buried at the Saint Cabrini Home, but was exhumed in 1931 when the canonization process began. Her head is preserved in Rome, her arm at the national shrine in Chicago, and the rest of her body at a shrine in New York.
Two miracles are attributed to Frances — a child who was blinded by excess silver nitrate was healed, and a terminally ill member of her congregation was restored to full health.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was beatified on November 13, 1938, and canonized on July 7, 1946. She was the first U.S. citizen to be made a saint, and she is the patron of immigrants.