Newcomers to the Americas
do the stories
of a German
priest and two nuns—one
Italian, the other French,
all immigrants—have for us
living today? These pioneers
crossed an ocean to work
in the mission territory
of the United States for
the welfare of immigrants,
elevating the importance
of parochial education,
building schools and
churches, working to
re-instill Catholic family
virtues in the New World.
The recounting of the
obstacles these role models
faced reads like a page
from today’s news. Their
struggle is our own.
Mother Cabrini was “cut from
a different cloth.” She saw a
problem and worked to solve it.
The youngest in a family of 13, Maria
Francesca was born in Sant’Angelo, Italy,
in 1850. A delicate, obedient, shy, hardworking
child, she was “precociously
devout.” Her dearest dream was to join
the religious order that educated her and,
as a teacher, to be a missionary in the Far
East. However, due to her small stature
and presumed delicate health, she was
repeatedly refused admission. Still, her
resolve did not wane.
After Maria had made several
requests to her bishop, he encouraged
her to establish her own order of missionary
sisters. After serving at a small
orphanage, she founded the Missionary
Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
The motto of the new congregation,
“I can do all
things through him who
strengthens me” (Phil 4:13),
speaks volumes about her
heroic trust in God.
In the seven years that followed,
she and her sisters—with little or no means—founded missions, schools
and hospitals. Now known
as Mother Frances Xavier,
later as Mother Cabrini, she
went to Rome to meet Pope
Leo XIII, from whom she
secured solid financial backing
as well as his personal
The pope offered her
the opportunity to fulfill
her dream of becoming a
missionary to a far-off land. He asked
her to take her sisters to the United
States to help the large numbers of
Italian immigrants. These poor souls had
left their homeland under the promise
of a better life, only to find themselves
in dire straits. Unable to speak the local
language, they faced prejudice, fell victim
to exploitation and were forced to live in
overcrowded, disease-ridden tenements
that became known as “Little Italies.”
These people needed direction. They
needed hope. They needed a miracle!
Upon arriving in New York City,
Mother Cabrini was astonished when
the accommodations and school she had
been promised never materialized. Her
embarrassed host, Archbishop Corrigan,
even suggested that she and her companions
return to Italy. But she was in the
U.S. to stay.
Graced with phenomenal administrative
abilities, she founded 67 institutions,
all devoted to caring for children,
the ill and those who live a marginalized
existence. Houses were founded in
Central and South America and Europe
as well. Despite all manner of opposition
and even the destruction of her convents
in Central America through two revolutions,
Mother Cabrini never gave up.
Why do we want to know about this
woman and her work? Her story is an
epic of hope; she is an encouraging saint
in a time when people need encouragement.
Mother Cabrini, who made over
30 ocean crossings yet never learned
to swim, was desperately frightened
of the water! Similar stories abound of
her courageous voyages to help those
in need. She believed that one served
God by helping God’s people, especially
children. In an act of faith and patriotic
love, at the age of 59, Mother Cabrini
became a U.S. citizen.
On December 22, 1917, Mother
Frances Xavier Cabrini, in her own
Columbus Hospital in Chicago, died of
pneumonia brought on by a recurrence
of malaria. She was canonized in 1946.
Her feast day is November 13.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini is the first
United States citizen to become a saint.
In 1950, she was designated patroness of
St. John Neumann
What is a young seminarian to
do when, after years of preparation,
the time comes for
ordination and the bishop refuses, stating,
“Not this year! We already have
more priests than we need. Try to find a
congregation that is looking for priests.”
This was exactly the case for John
Born in 1811 to Czech/German
parents, John was a quiet, serious student
who discovered the need for missionary
priests to help new immigrants, mostly
German-speaking, in the United States.
John left his home diocese and walked
most of the way to Le Havre in France—a distance of some 900 miles—where
he boarded ship for a 40-day voyage
across the Atlantic.
Arriving unannounced in Manhattan
in June 1836, John presented himself
to the local bishop, who ordained him
without delay. Immediately sent to
Buffalo, New York, John relished his
new responsibilities—caring for the
spiritual needs of the rural folk. Traveling
by foot, he left to visit the members of
his widely dispersed flock, ready to
discuss their spiritual needs in any of
the 12 languages he spoke fluently.
People welcomed him into their homes.
For the good of society
For four years, John Neumann
witnessed the devotional work done
among the immigrants by the
Redemptorist Fathers. He came to
believe that he could be more effective
as a member of this religious order
than as a solitary missionary priest.
Father John Neumann became the
first novice for the Redemptorists in
America and, later, the first American in
the congregation to profess final vows. A
bishop by the age of just 41—a position
he reluctantly accepted—he expressed
his deep love for the United States by
becoming an American citizen in 1848.
“The Little Bishop,” as he was affectionately
called, left a lasting legacy. He
founded 50 churches, instituted the
Forty Hours devotion and fully mapped
out a plan for Catholic education, establishing
100 schools in the United States.
He also became a prolific writer.
John Neumann’s personal mission
statement provided the motivation for his
tireless work: “[A]ll people of whatever
race, condition or age, in virtue of their dignity as human persons, have an
inalienable right to education...suitable
to their destiny, adapted to their abilities,
sex and national cultural traditions...conducive to amicable relations with
other nations to promote true unity and
peace in the world...directed towards...the good of society...[where] as adults,
they will have their share of duties to
perform” (Declaration on Christian
What can we take from the example
provided by the short life of John
Neumann? He worked to help those
who could not help themselves. He
brought spirituality to the new immigrants.
He brought hope and the melody
of a familiar language, all the while
shoring up the foundations of the
Church in the New World. As he visited
the immigrants in their own homes,
speaking to them in their own language,
he encouraged trust that only the familiarity
of a countryman can invite.
At the time of his sudden fatal collapse
at the age of 49, his confreres were reminded
of one of his final remarks: “A person must
always be ready, for death comes when
and where God wills it.” John Neumann
was the first American bishop to be beatified
(in 1963) and then canonized (in
1977). His feast day is January 5.
Referred to as “the immigrant shepherd,”
John Neumann is considered the patron
saint of the United States of America.
Canonized in October 2006, St.
Mother Théodore Guérin was a
woman of uncommon courage
and intelligence. She lived a life of
extraordinary virtue in the most difficult
of settings: the New World. A naturally
gifted teacher, she founded a new religious
congregation, the Sisters of
Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
She also founded the first Catholic
women’s college in the U.S.
Anne-Thérèse Guérin was born in
Étables, Brittany (France) in 1798, the
daughter of one of Napoleon’s naval lieutenants.
She was 25 years old when she
finally received her widowed mother’s
consent to join the Sisters of Providence
of Ruillé-sur-Loire. Taking the name
Sister Théodore, she spent eight years in
France administering schools, teaching,
opening day care centers and even acting
as a business agent for her order. During
the following six years she took the
opportunity to study pharmacy and
medicine with a local doctor.
Trust and hope
At this time in the U.S., new immigrants
were heading west in search of prairies
and pasture lands. One of her countrymen,
the first bishop of Vincennes in
Indiana (now part of the Archdiocese of
Indianapolis), needed the help of a religious
congregation to minister to his
largely French-speaking parishioners. (At
that time, the archdiocese stretched
across the entire state of Indiana and
included the eastern third of Illinois.)
The mother superior at the Ruillé
congregation suggested that Sister
Théodore, with five other sisters,
would be ideal. She would be superior
general of the U.S. order. Sister
Théodore’s advisor, the Bishop of Le
Mans, wrote, when asked his advice:
“The Lord did not choose the powerful
for His Apostles….He chose humble
working people…” The bishop advised
that she should prepare for the worst
but pray for the best, always trusting in
the Lord. Following his advice, the six
sisters set sail in July 1840.
Two months later, they landed in
New York City, where Sister Théodore
remarked, “The true country for a
Christian…is heaven.” Their seemingly
endless journey saw them travel overland
by various means, arriving at their mission
near Terre Haute, Indiana, in a
deeply forested area called Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Beset by various setbacks,
Mother Guérin, as she was now known,
trusted in divine providence as she knelt
to pray for the first time in their poor
log chapel. Immediately infused with a
sudden overflowing of grace, she felt
something inexplicable: hope.
Model of Christian love
Less than a year after the Sisters’ arrival,
they opened Saint Mary’s Academy for
Young Ladies in July 1841; it later
became Saint Mary-of-the-Woods
College. Although Mother Théodore
taught the students in the manner of the
French school system, she stressed not
only religion but patriotism as well.
Students had to learn the history of the
United States and its great leaders.
Mother Guérin and her Sisters of
Providence established schools in more
than a dozen places in Indiana and others
in Illinois. Vincennes saw an orphanage
opened for boys and one for girls.
Mother worked to open pharmacies
where medicine was dispensed free to the
poor at both Vincennes and Saint Mary-of-
Plagued by uncertain health most of
her adult life, Mother Théodore Guérin
died on May 14, 1856. A model of
Christian love, she overcame many
challenges and persevered in the Lord’s
work. Her cause, opened in 1908, came
to fruition with her beatification in 1998
and canonization eight years later. Her
feast day is October 3.
Next: Founders of Male Religious Orders
Leave the familiarity of “home” to share faith with others. Follow in the footsteps of…
• St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, who made many ocean crossings in spite of her fear
of water and inability to swim. Explore your own fears and the ways they
inhibit your growth as a disciple. Trust God to lead you.
• St. John Neumann, who “put his feet to the pavement” in order to become a
priest in the New World and in his ministry to his widespread flock. Commit
yourself to a new path of service.
• St. Mother Théodore Guérin, who clung to hope in discouraging situations
and persevered to help educate and tend to the needs of others. Reach out to
someone who is discouraged and offer him or her the hope that comes with another’s care and concern.
Share how these and other saints inspire you
We will post selected inspirations in this feature.
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