Born in Italy in 1850, Maria Francesca Cabrini was the youngest of thirteen children in a family where only four of the thirteen survived to adulthood. Although prepared with a teaching certificate (cum laude) she was considered too frail for the religious life by the Sisters who had been her teachers. Had someone been privy to her inner strength and to her wish to serve God in China and India, she might have become famous for missionary work in the East. The story goes that during her childhood on visits to her priest uncle “she made little boats of paper, dropped violets in them, called the flowers ‘missionaries,’ and launched them in the waters of a nearby swiftly flowing canal to sail off to India and China.” (see http://www.saintoftheday.org) That was not to be for her, however, as her life unfolded.
Having been rejected by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart in Arluno, Italy, as too frail, she eventually became headmistress of an orphanage where she taught and drew a small community of women to live in the manner of a religious community. This group became the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, led by “Mother Cabrini” who wrote the Rule and Constitutions of the community and remained the superior general until her death.
Her desire to be a missionary to China had never waned. At the age of 37 years, she went to seek the approval of Pope Leo XIII to establish missions in China. The Pope urged her instead in a different direction. “Not to the East but to the West” was his advice and so Mother Cabrini went with her Sisters to New York City where life was not easy and the work was overwhelming, serving the Italian immigrants by establishing catechism and education classes as well as providing for the many orphans who had recently arrived in the City.
By the end of her life Mother Cabrini had established institutions across the United States, and in countries throughout Latin America and Europe. After her death, the Sisters achieved her goal of sending missionaries to China but that was not to be as she had dreamed. Because of social and religious upheaval, the Sisters withdrew. Her worldwide influence is a testament to her willingness to follow God’s Spirit wherever she was led, even if she needed a little help with her geography!