Mother Cabrini Becomes the First U.S. Citizen Canonized as a Saint Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1946, Pope Pius XII canonized Italian immigrant Maria Francesa Cabrini of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who had founded dozens of orphanages, convents, and hospitals throughout the United States and the world. She was the first U.S. citizen to be canonized a Roman Catholic saint.

Summary of Event

Maria Francesa Cabrini gained the recognition of the world by helping alleviate the suffering of the poor. By founding the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart , she put into place a system of schools, hospitals, orphanages, and convents in the United States, Latin America, Europe, and other parts of the world. Described as the Mother Teresa of the 1800’s, Mother Cabrini was the first citizen of the United States to be named a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Saints Christianity;saints [kw]Mother Cabrini Becomes the First U.S. Citizen Canonized as a Saint (July 7, 1946) [kw]Cabrini Becomes the First U.S. Citizen Canonized as a Saint, Mother (July 7, 1946) [kw]U.S. Citizen Canonized as a Saint, Mother Cabrini Becomes the First (July 7, 1946) [kw]Saint, Mother Cabrini Becomes the First U.S. Citizen Canonized as a (July 7, 1946) Saints Christianity;saints [g]North America;July 7, 1946: Mother Cabrini Becomes the First U.S. Citizen Canonized as a Saint[01770] [g]Europe;July 7, 1946: Mother Cabrini Becomes the First U.S. Citizen Canonized as a Saint[01770] [g]Italy;July 7, 1946: Mother Cabrini Becomes the First U.S. Citizen Canonized as a Saint[01770] [g]United States;July 7, 1946: Mother Cabrini Becomes the First U.S. Citizen Canonized as a Saint[01770] [c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;July 7, 1946: Mother Cabrini Becomes the First U.S. Citizen Canonized as a Saint[01770] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;July 7, 1946: Mother Cabrini Becomes the First U.S. Citizen Canonized as a Saint[01770] Cabrini, Maria Francesca Leo XIII Pius XII

Cabrini, later to be known popularly as Mother Cabrini and officially as Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, was born prematurely on July 15, 1850, in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, in the Lombardy region of Italy. The tiny baby was not expected to live, so she was quickly baptized on the day of her birth. Her delicate health, however, never stopped Cabrini from becoming one of the most beloved Roman Catholic saints. Even as a child, the youngster was interested in devoting her life to missionary work, and she became a teacher at the age of eighteen.

Maria Francesca Cabrini.

In 1874, Cabrini was asked to take charge of an orphanage in Codogno, Italy, a job that would influence the rest of her life. She embraced her decision to become a nun with even more fervor and took her vows in 1877. After the orphanage was closed in 1880, she established her own religious order along with seven orphans she had trained. They called themselves the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. It was at this time that Maria Francesca Cabrini became Mother Cabrini.

In a very few years, Mother Cabrini went on to found convents in other areas of Italy, including Rome. In 1888, Pope Leo XIII recognized her missionary work, which specialized in establishing orphanages. He consequently formally recognized the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, which had at that time plans to work in China. The pope, however, approached Mother Cabrini and asked instead that she go to the United States to help emigrants from her homeland living in the slums of New York.

During the late nineteenth century, Italian immigrants in the United States had a particularly difficult time. Although Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini Scalabrini, Giovanni Battista attempted to make their lives easier, working with the immigrants’ children proved especially difficult. Consequently, his voice was added to the pope’s, as he called upon Mother Cabrini to supervise an orphanage in New York. The young Italian nun had to overcome her intense fear of water to cross the ocean with six other sisters in 1889.

Mother Cabrini would become renowned for her work among newly arrived American immigrants from Italy who, desperately poor and heartsick for their home, were cruelly castigated for being Roman Catholics. Upon her initial arrival, however, she found to her chagrin that the archbishop of New York opposed her orphanage and recommended instead that she return immediately to Italy. Incredibly, she disregarded the archbishop’s suggestion—an amazing event in an era when women unquestioningly obeyed men, especially within the auspices of the Catholic Church, where women had little power.

The delicate Italian woman decided to stay in America and established a school in New York’s extremely poor Little Italy neighborhood. In a very short time, she established an orphanage where girls were warmly welcomed and protected. Almost immediately, she opened a second orphanage. Much of Mother Cabrini’s time was spent petitioning for donations of food and money, cleaning, and teaching. Her efforts were effective, and soon orphanages had been established in New York’s other buroughs, as well as in nearby New Jersey.

Mother Cabrini was not satisfied with inner-city locations for her orphanages. When she learned that the Jesuits were relocating from their 450-acre New York estate on the Hudson River, she raised the money to relocate her orphans there from the city. Shortly after, she returned to Italy and established a teachers’ college in Rome. By 1891, with the pope’s support, she established similar institutions in Central America. She was also drawn to the American South, where Italian immigrants found social acceptance especially difficult, much in the manner of African Americans.

Mother Cabrini arrived in the South, where she opened an orphanage and a school, in addition to a facility to help the sick. In fact, clinics for the sick became just as important as orphanages to the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. After a hospital in her charge was forced to close in 1892, Mother Cabrini moved the patients to a temporary facility and persuaded doctors to treat the patients free of charge. Italian immigrants donated funds, and in time the temporary clinic became Columbus Hospital, which treated the victims of a typhoid epidemic when other hospitals told them to leave.

Mother Cabrini constantly battled New York archbishop Michael Corrigan Corrigan, Michael , who maintained that she was in over her head and suggested that she return to Italy. In time, Corrigan was succeeded by Archbishop John M. Farley Farley, John M. , who supported the Italian nun. Mother Cabrini also opened two other Columbus hospitals in Chicago (1905) and Seattle (1916).

In 1909, while in Seattle, Mother Cabrini became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1910, she was named superior general of the order of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart for life. By then, she could list among her accomplishments the founding of numerous schools, orphanages, and medical facilities in New York, New Jersey, Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, London, Panama, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, and elsewhere. She could list among her battles a smallpox epidemic in Rio de Janeiro, a yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans, and malaria in Latin America. The latter illness resulted in Mother Cabrini’s demise in her own Columbus Hospital, in Chicago in 1917. Less than thirty years later, on July 7, 1946, Pope Pius XII canonized Mother Cabrini, making her the first American citizen to attain sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.


Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini became the patron saint of immigrants Immigration;patron saint , and her feast day was made December 22. Between 1880 and 1920, four million Italian people crossed the Atlantic Ocean seeking a better life in America. They were attempting to avoid the poverty rampant in Italy and desired more than anything to live out the American dream. Most settled in New York and Chicago, in neighborhoods that in time came to be called Little Italys. Many worked on the docks or in construction jobs, while some worked on sugar and cotton plantations in the South. Sadly, many found that America was also filled with poverty, and there were no social agencies at the time to help. In addition, the American Catholic Church seemed to have a preponderance of Irish Catholic priests, who neither spoke nor wrote Italian. Also, the shadow of the Italian Mafia cast Italian immigrants in a negative light.

Mother Cabrini and her sisters helped Italian immigrants succeed in America. She also helped this particular population gain greater acceptance by representing them in a more positive light, because her orphanages, schools, and hospitals—funded by the Italian people—helped the poor of every nationality. Although Mother Cabrini’s body was weak, her mind was powerful. She spent her life laboring among immigrants and the poor, not only in the United States but also around the world. In 1917, the year of her death, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart comprised two thousand sisters. In all, Mother Cabrini, her sisters, and those who supported her financially contributed to a global network of at least seventy institutions—orphanages, schools, convents and hospitals throughout the world, where all were welcome. Saints Christianity;saints

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Di Donato, Pietro. Immigrant Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Comprehensive biography that details the early life of Francesca Cabrini in Italy, her journey to New York, and her life’s work helping poor immigrants in America and ultimately the poor of the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Logan, John. Cycle for Mother Cabrini. Berkeley, Calif.: Cloud Marauder Press, 1971. Logan’s volume of poetry pays tribute to the life and work of the inspirational Roman Catholic saint. Illustration is provided by the woodcuts of James Brunot.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Provenzano, Philippa. To the End of the Earth: The Missionary Travels of Frances Cabrini. Quezon City, Philippines: Claretian Communications, 1996. Provides insights into the religious vocation of Mother Cabrini, who decided as a young girl to become a missionary. Describes how she overcame her fear of water to cross the oceans of the world in her efforts to help the world’s poor.

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Categories: History