175th anniversary: St. Frances Cabrini: a saint for Chicago, America

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Thursday, November 8, 2018

In honor of Mother Cabrini’s canonization, Catholics celebrated with a special Holy Hour at Soldier Field on Sept. 22, 1946. More than 100,000 people attended, including the future Cardinal Francis George. Chicago Catholic file photo

This story is part of a special issue marking the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Even though St. Frances Cabrini was a native of Italy, the Archdiocese of Chicago will forever consider her one of its own because she ministered here and died here in 1917.

Mother Cabrini was born in Lombardi, Italy, in 1850. She was one of 13 children in her family. At 18, she said she wanted to become a nun, but was refused because her health was poor.

One day a priest asked her to teach in a girls school. She stayed there for six years and then, at the request of her bishop, founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart to care for poor children in schools and hospitals.

She came to the United States with six nuns in 1889 to work among the Italian immigrants at the urging of Pope Leo XIII. She spoke no English and had no funds. Filled with a deep trust in God and endowed with administrative abilities, she founded schools, hospitals and orphanages.

She became a U.S. citizen in 1909.

At the time of her death in 1917, her congregation had houses in England, France, Spain, the U.S. and South America.

Pope Pius XI beatified Mother Cabrini in 1938 and Pope Pius XII canonized her in 1946. She became the first American citizen to be canonized.

Her death and canonization were heavily covered in the archdiocesan newspaper.

It was no surprise that her death made the cover of the Dec. 28, 1917, issue of the New World, as it was then named. She died at 1 p.m. on Dec. 22 from heart disease, we reported. It was a Saturday.

Archbishop George Mundelein celebrated her funeral Mass in the chapel of Columbus Hospital the following Thursday at 9:30 a.m. Her body was then taken to West Park, New York, where she founded her first U.S. institution.

At the time of her death, she had founded 67 institutions around the world including  Columbus Hospital, Columbus Extension for the Poor at Lytle and Polk, and Assumption School at 319 W. Erie St., all in Chicago.

The New World had a great deal of coverage of the announcement of her canonization in 1946, the canonization itself and the subsequent celebrations in Chicago. Some of the highlights were:

Mother Cabrini was a woman of modest stature who often suffered illness. She was savvy in business and strong in prayer. When obstacles arose, she is often quoted as telling her nuns not to worry, that God would take care of things. Her sisters reported that they often found her in deep prayer and she couldn’t be shaken awake.

Cardinal Samuel Stritch did not personally attend the canonization in Rome but sent priests to represent him, including Msgr. George Casey, a sub-postulator for her cause and president of the New World.

The July 28, 1946, issue reported that Italian Catholics in Chicago would gather the day of her canonization at Blessed Mother Cabrini Church, 743 S. Sacramento, for Mass and a procession with her image. NBC broadcast the canonization ceremony in Chicago. That same day Mother Cabrini would be honored at Columbus hospital during Benediction with Auxiliary Bishop Bernard Sheil.

Mother Cabrini’s canonization was the first after World War II.

Special dispensation was given for Mother Cabrini’s canonization. At the time, the Code of Canon Law stipulated that 50 years had to pass after a person’s death before a cause could be opened. Mother Cabrini died less than 30 years prior to her canonization. Apostolic nuncio to  the U.S. Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani appealed to the Vatican for special consideration of her cause.

People often asked the saint where she got her money to found institutions, and she replied, “We spend millions but haven’t a cent. We draw from the Bank of Providence. Its funds are inexhaustible.”

Mother Cabrini considered Chicago her “home” in the U.S.

In the July 12, 1946, issue, the New World reported that on the day of her canonization WGN Radio aired pre-recorded remarks from Cardinal Stritch during which he said of the new saint: “She loved us. She was our benefactress. She rode our street cars. She went begging in our streets. Through alleys she went in search of little hungry children who were homeless and friendless. The very day she died she had been wrapping candy for Christmas gifts for poor children.” Cardinal Stritch ended his address with, “Today we pray to her and beg her to be the special patron of our city. She loved Chicago. She served Chicago’s best interests. She is a benefactress of Chicago. Mother Cabrini, pray for us.” 

The archdiocese’s celebrations of Mother Cabrini’s canonization culminated in a Triduum of Masses at Holy Name Cathedral in the fall and a Holy Hour at Soldier Field on Sept. 22 attended by more than 100,000 people, including a young Francis George, future archbishop of Chicago. The Holy Name Society sponsored the event.

This article was published July 26, 2017, and has been updated.



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  • 175th anniversary

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