Mother of All Real Estate

Frances Cabrini used the tools of the world to serve God. Undaunted by her poor health she blazed a trail that covered the entire world, literally.
by Kathryn M. Cunningham, MAPS | Source:

        Not unlike St. Therese of the Child Jesus Maria Francesca Cabrini longed to be a missionary to the Orient.  By the time she was twenty-two she had experienced the death of both parents and two rejections of her applications to become a religious.  The reason was consistent, her poor health.  Maria was the thirteenth child of an Italian family and in her young life had experienced an ample dose of adversity.  Born two months premature, in 1850, she was not expected to live.  She was diminutive, frail and of ill health her entire life.  Giving up the idea of entering religious life she took the suggestion of her parish priest and traveled to teach at and “organize” a poorly run school and orphanage in a nearby village. 

        As they say; “God writes straight with crooked lines”.   Maria was so good at what she did, that not only was the orphanage vastly improved, but she attracted local village women to come and assist. However, their devotion and example were so great that the Bishop gave her permission to assume religious life as well as found The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  At the age of just thirty, Frances Xavier Cabrini had achieved more than her wildest dreams could have imagined.  But that was just the beginning.  She and her new order occupied their original property for seven years but in another apparent “disaster” the property that she and her sisters were occupying was sold out from under them.  She and her new order of Sisters were literally homeless!  She approached Pope Leo XIII for permission to fulfill the other part of her dream and depart as missionaries to China.  The answer he gave her was no, but there is great need in the United States.  Hello, New York !  That was 1889. 

         Upon arriving in New York , Mother and her Sisters spoke no English.  Somehow the Bishop was not ready for their arrival.  She and her sisters were given the poorest and barest of accommodations on the Lower East Side .  They set to cleaning and fixing and eventually, with the help of the rich Italian women of New York , created a beautiful facility.  Clearly this was the mission field that was meant to be.  So many emigrants, especially Italians needed so much help.   Undaunted, Mother Cabrini, frail health and all set out to meet that need on a mega scale.  Not only did she establish needed schools, but orphanages and hospitals as well.  You might be familiar, even today with some of her institutions.  She proudly named many of them “Columbus” for the Italian explorer who broke ground on the shores of America  before she did. 

         For any ordinary woman, this level of achievement might have been enough to finally sit back and take a break, but Frances Xavier Cabrini was miles from ordinary.  By the early 1890’s Mother was fluent in English, construction and negotiation!  First she cut a real-estate deal for an orphanage on the cliffs overlooking the Hudson River in West Park New York .  This particular piece of property was so prime that several wealthy contractors wanted it.  She out foxed them all, noting that the poor children of the city needed a place of greenery and beauty to minister to their spirits.  This particular orphanage was her favorite location each time she returned to this country.  Oh yes, don’t forget Columbus Hospital in New York .  But that was only the puny start. 

         Noting the need of Italians and other poor immigrant populations Mother didn’t let a little thing like geography cramp her style.  When trying to close a deal for new properties in Nicaragua she refused to be stalled by the ferocious weather involved in rounding the south end of the continent by ship.  Her trip proceeded uninterrupted as she and her sisters crossed the Andes by mule.  Not a pleasant trip, but all survived none the worse for wear!   This diminutive Italian woman of frail health was virtually unstoppable.  In her lifetime she established schools, orphanages and/or hospitals in Paris, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, L.A., New Orleans and Philadelphia as well as numerous cities in the Americas .  She even saw the need and ministered to the mining camps of Colorado when the Gold Rush was taking place.   She established institutions in eight countries world wide including Europe , North-America, South-America and Central-America.  They totaled sixty-seven in all.

         In each case, Mother Cabrini negotiated for the property, supervised the plans, hired the contractors and built her institutions from the ground up!  She was a tough negotiator and even known to flat out fire contractors who were not doing their job or who were trying to cheat her.  A daunting task even today!  In these cases there was no shortage of assistance as the local and immigrant craftsmen came to her aid.  Oh yes, while all this was going on she also traveled regularly to Rome to supervise a missionary institute that she established as well as to Codogno where her novitiate was established.  In 1909 she found time to become an American citizen and in 1917 she died due to complications of malaria.  Her passing actually occurred in Columbus Hospital, Chicago which she herself established. Mother Cabrini is the first American to be canonized.  The institutions she established number the same as her age at death (sixty-seven).  

         So, the little girl from rural Italy , who had little chance of survival, became a missionary in ways that she never imagined.  Her influence on the world is immeasurable and her example is beyond contemplation.   When you are too tired to go on, buffeted by the realities of the harsh world or just don’t feel well enough to get up and go, appeal to Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini.  She was literally a real-estate mogul and used the things of the world for good beyond measure. Though her body told her that it simply couldn’t measure up, her faith in God and desire for mission proved, in an astonishing way, that was simply "a lie of the enemy”.  Mother Cabrini Pray for Us.  Celebrate her feast on November 13.

                                    Copyright © 2009, Kathryn M. Cunningham, all rights reserved.  
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