St Frances Xavier Cabrini is the patron saint of immigrants for good reason. Hers is a story of movement, a story of missionary travel and immigration.
She demonstrated that someone saw poverty and injustice in immigrant communities who were without social safety nets. As an immigrant herself, she knew personally the uncertainty of being uprooted from one place and starting in another.
As a child growing up in Italy, Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini was enthralled by stories of missionaries and dreamed of being a missionary to China. But God had other plans for her. She would become a missionary, and a highly effective one, but it would not be to the East but to the West she would go.
Her dream was prompted by a deep devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and by the great Jesuit missionary, St Francis Xavier. Indeed, when she took her religious vows she chose Xavier as her religious name.
It was Pope Leo XIII, her friend and confidante, who in 1889 exhorted her to 'go West' to New York where thousands of Italian migrants were living in ghettoes, enduring hardships, and in great need of care.
A teacher by training, her ministry to immigrants soon extended from schools to catechism classes, orphanages, social support and hospitals. Requests for her assistance came from all over the world. She travelled extensively in response, beginning a work, setting it on its course, then leaving it in the hands of her sisters as she moved on to her next work. Though she suffered poor health and numerous difficulties and disappointments along the way, her unswerving goal was to spread the love of Jesus’ Heart through prayer, example and the missionary work of her sisters.
When she died in December 1917 at the age of 67, the Order she founded – the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – had more than one thousand sisters working in ministries across the USA, Latin America, Europe and England.
Today, Cabrini ministries include social, educational, health and spiritual apostolates on six continents and in 16 countries.
St Frances' order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus arrived in Australia in 1948 to manage a small community hospital in Malvern to look after the Italian immigrants arriving after the Second World War.
‘We believe Mother Cabrini has much to offer particularly in Australia at this current point in time,’ says Catherine Garner, Chief of Operations, Cabrini Outreach. ‘There’s a harsh policy framework we have for asylum seekers and refugees.’
If the Cabrini sisters arrived in Melbourne today they wouldn’t be setting themselves up in leafy suburbs of inner south-eastern Melbourne, they’d be looking to go where there are unmet needs.’
Cabrini Outreach Limited is a separate company set up in 2016 to Cabrini Health, created to be on the front line of service delivery to communities in need, Cath explains. Operating in the northern corridor of Melbourne, Cabrini Outreach looks to identify where the unmet needs are and where we have a capacity to respond.
We want to look at how can we make a difference to the most vulnerable people,’ Catherine says. We have an asylum seeker health program, and a research arm documenting the impact of the policy framework on the mental health of asylum seekers. Our goal is to create a more compassionate community response to people seeking asylum.
With Covid, people don’t realise that asylum seekers have been impacted more heavily than others. They haven’t been able to access Jobseeker or Jobkeeper. Around 60 per cent of our clients have no access to Medicare and 80 per cent have no income. There’s an increasing level of destitution and homelessness.
We would say Mother Cabrini’s messages from the past are as important today as ever, with more dislocation of people in the world.’
Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was a remarkable woman, combining a keen intelligence, business acumen, and organisational ability with an indomitable spirit, dauntless courage and deep faith, true to her motto, ‘I can do all things in Him who strengthens me’ (Phil 4:13).
In recognition of her holiness and service to humanity, she was canonised by Pope Pius XII in 1946 and, in 1950, proclaimed Patron Saint of Immigrants.
There are even more immigrants and refugees in dire need across the world today. She inspires and urges us to attend generously to their needs in whatever way we can. As she saw so clearly, ‘Now is the time for love not to be hidden but to become active, vibrant and true.’
'We think her life has something valuable to teach us,' Cath says, 'and her charism is needed in the world today more than ever before.'
To honour the memory and life of St Frances Xavier Cabrini, Archbishop Comensoli will be celebrating her feast day Mass (13 November) here in the Archdiocese of Melbourne. To learn more about St Frances Xavier Cabrini read her online biography, A Passionate Life.