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Saints are part of our DNA as Catholics. They are our friends, our personal companions on our faith journey. They comfort and challenge us, they give us guidance and hope, they help us find God’s plan for our lives. Walking With the Saints passes on the stories of selected holy people who are powerful examples of Christian living.

Walking With the Saints
Immigrant Saints
Newcomers to the Americas

by Vicky Hébert and Denis Sabourin

What relevance 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.

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917)

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.

Missionary zeal

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 approval.

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.

Courageous faith

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 all immigrants.


St. John Neumann (1811-1860)

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 Nepomucene Neumann.

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 Education).

Immigrant shepherd

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.

St. Mother Théodore Guérin (1798-1856)

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- the-Woods.

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

Stepping Out in Faith
by Joan McKamey

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 on your faith journey.
We will post selected inspirations in this feature.
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