The story of Chicago's saint: Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini

November 14, 2011

It's a story they told in the newsroom of the Chicago American, many years ago.

A young reporter named Harry Reutlinger had been sent to get an interview with a patient at Columbus Hospital. The patient was involved in a criminal case, and the police were keeping a tight lid on him.

At the hospital Reutlinger encountered a little old woman mopping floors. "Don't worry. I'm supposed to be here," he told her. "Mother Cabrini sent for me." Frances Xavier Cabrini was the famous nun who ran the hospital.

The cleaning lady wasn't buying that. So Reutlinger snuck around the side of the building and came in through a fire escape. Again he met the old lady. This time she chased him out of the hospital, swinging her mop at him.

Back at the paper, going through some files, Reutlinger came across a picture of the cleaning lady. It was Mother Cabrini herself.

That was Frances Xavier Cabrini. She wasn't afraid of hard work, and she wasn't afraid of taking direct action.

Cabrini was born in northern Italy in 1850. As a young woman she worked as a teacher, and later ran an orphanage. She took religious vows in 1877. Three years later, Cabrini founded a new religious order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

She made her life's mission helping the Italian immigrants who were settling in America. Along with six other nuns, Cabrini came to New York in 1889. Over the next decade, the work of the Missionary Sisters branched out to other cities with a large Italian population.

At that time, Catholic parishes were organized on ethnic lines, rather than geographically--an Irish church might be only a block from a Polish church. Each church was expected to have its own parochial school.

In Chicago, Assumption Church on Illinois Street had become the first Italian parish in 1881. For many years the pastor couldn't afford to build anything else. In 1899 he finally raised enough money to tear down a nearby factory and construct a school. He asked Cabrini to run it, and she agreed.

The school was an immediate success--500 students enrolled the first year. Cabrini now turned her attention to health care. The Italians of the city wanted a hospital the poorest patients could afford. Cabrini found a shuttered hotel on Lakeview Avenue and purchased the building in 1903.

Here Cabrini demonstrated her diplomatic touch. She knew that some Italians were frankly anti-clerical, and might refuse to use a religious hospital. So she chose a name all Italians would appreciate--Christopher Columbus Memorial.

Columbus Hospital opened in 1903. A few years later it was joined by a branch on the West Side. Meanwhile, Cabrini was busy, traveling through the United States and South America, launching a total of 67 institutions. In 1909 she became a U.S. citizen.

Always she returned to Chicago. Cabrini died in her residence at Columbus Hospital on December 22, 1917. She had been preparing Christmas candy for the neighborhood children.

In the years after her death, two miracles of medical healing were attributed to Cabrini. In 1946 she was canonized by the Catholic Church. Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini was the first American citizen to have that honor.

Back in Chicago, Harry Reutlinger was still writing for the American. Reutlinger and Cabrini had eventually become friends. And now he had a singular distinction--he was the only reporter in the world ever chased by a mop-swinging saint.

From WBEZ Archives:


DEC. 01, 2010: Judge orders last Cabrini-Green residents out early

 

 

 APR. 08, 2011: Louder Than a Bomb: Remembering Cabrini Green