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5 days after death, Mother Cabrini likened to great saints

Mother Cabrini photo with photo of funeral sermon by Fr. Francis Kelley

Sermon image Courtesy Catholic Extension Society | Cabrini image Public Domain | Collage by Aleteia

John Touhey - published on 03/08/24

A sermon delivered a few days after Frances Cabrini’s death shows she was as amazing in real life as her depiction in the new Cabrini movie.

As Cabrini opens in theaters this weekend, some viewers may be tempted to think that the film’s depiction of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini may be slightly exaggerated. Surely, the real woman could not have been as bold, tough, and determined as she is portrayed in the film. In short, the skeptics will say that Cabrini, like most “true” stories that get the Hollywood treatment, should be taken with a grain of salt.

Yet a sermon delivered just five days after her death, at a Requiem Mass in the hospital where she died, reveals the extraordinary impact that the real Mother Cabrini had on her fellow Catholics and the world at large. In this powerful sermon, Cabrini is likened to the great founders of other religious orders like Saints “Benedict, Dominic, Augustine, Ignatius, Alphonsus, Philip Neri, Clare,” along with St. Teresa of Avila, who established the Discalced Carmelites with St. John of the Cross. The sermon continues:

Like her predecessors among the founders of religious orders, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was a pioneer, already canonized in the hearts of her spiritual daughters.

A shared devotion to mission

The man who compared Mother Cabrini to some of the Church’s greatest saints was himself an impressive figure. Like the foundress of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Fr. Francis Clement Kelley had a fervent devotion to missionary activity.

During his extensive travels, Fr. Kelley had witnessed the serious challenges that the Catholic Church faced in many parts of the US, particularly in rural and impoverished areas. In 1905, he founded the Catholic Extension Society to provide material and spiritual support where it was most needed to help spread the Gospel — a mission that Catholic Extension continues to this day.

Fr. Jack Wall, the current president of Catholic Extension, tells Aleteia: “We hope that this motion picture celebrating the courageous life of Mother Cabrini, who gave witness to the face of Christ in the poor, will reawaken our own consciences and hearts to those on the peripheries of our American society today.”

Reading Fr. Kelley’s 1917 sermon, delivered to the sisters who had gathered to remember their foundress five days after her death, it is clear that he had a keen awareness of the qualities that made Mother Cabrini such an effective missionary.

Young oyster shuckers in city
Young oyster shuckers, Early 20th century

Climbing the mountain

Being a pioneer is never easy, Fr. Kelley says, pointing out that Cabrini had her share of “trials and sufferings, setbacks and misunderstandings.”

As depicted in Cabrini, the real Frances Cabrini arrived in New York City to find countless immigrants living in unimaginable squalor. Children were especially vulnerable — forced to work in unsafe conditions to help support their families or left to fend for themselves in the streets. They lacked schooling, healthcare, or even the most basic essentials. Yet Mother Cabrini’s efforts to help these young victims met with stiff resistance.

Like her predecessors who had their own mountains to climb, Frances Cabrini “left marks of bleeding hands and wounded feet on rocks and bracken.” Fr. Kelley’s is not a romanticized view of the missionary life. To serve God at the peripheries one must take up the cross.

Fr. Kelley reminds those gathered that Jesus chose Peter, James, and John to climb with Him to the summit of Mt. Tabor. He agrees with St. John Chrysostom that they were likely chosen by Christ because of the virtues they possessed: “Peter for his great love, John for his great purity, and James for his great zeal.” He then adds: “All these (virtues) Mother Cabrini took to the very top of her mountain.”

Devotion to the Sacred Heart

According to Fr. Kelley, the virtue of love was always evident in Mother Cabrini, especially in her desire to increase people’s affection for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. “She spread the devotion by every means in her power,” he says, adding that she would never allow herself to be discouraged.

Fr. Kelley delivered his homily in the chapel of Chicago’s Columbus Hospital, which Mother Cabrini had founded and where she had died days before at age 67. Indicating the altar, he continued:

A Sister saw her one day prostrate before this very altar. A few moments later, the Mother told her that she had been praying for assistance. The work in Chicago was in danger of perishing, but her confidence in God was so great that, although in the midst of one of her severest trials, she was far from discouraged.

Later that night, the order’s presence in Chicago “was saved almost miraculously.” Love is not just a fine sentiment, but something vital and a source of strength. “The pioneers always understand that it is devotion and love that gives light and confidence to their footsteps.”

Excerpt from Fr. Francis Kelley's sermon for Mother Cabrini
An excerpt from Fr. Francis Kelley’s Requiem Mass sermon for Mother Cabrini

Purity and zeal

Fr. Kelley proceeds by noting that Mother Cabrini “practiced the virtue of purity as she desired her daughters to practice it.” It was her “purity and strength that gave her the right to attempt great things for God,” he insists.

According to the priest, zeal “tempered by obedience” is the “outstanding missionary virtue.” It is zeal that ultimately breaks down barriers and overcomes obstacles, or “turns them into stepping stones.” Only obedience to legitimate religious authority can halt pioneers like Mother Cabrini. Then they wait patiently, trusting that God will sooner or later reveal His will.

In Mother Cabrini’s case, Fr. Kelley says, we need only look at the beginning of her vocation to see evidence of her zeal. When she told her confessor that she wanted to be a missionary, he pointed out to her that there were no female missionaries. “She hesitated not an instant but resolved to establish an order herself.”

To America

It was then Mother Cabrini’s intention to head to the East, but when Pope Leo XIII told her “Not to the Orient, Mother, but to America,” she swallowed her disappointment and obeyed. And she was greatly rewarded, Fr. Kelley states, as evidenced by the scores of schools, orphanages, and hospitals that Mother Cabrini had founded on the two American continents and that testified to her faith in God.

This great work would not die with her but be carried on: “When she closed her eyes in death,” Fr. Kelley points out, “three thousand of her spiritual daughters joined in prayer for her.”

The United States indeed became a “stepping stone” for the country’s first saint. Mother Cabrini saw all her arduous labors bear fruit, but it was also in America that God would “crown” that work. Indeed, less than 30 years later she would be canonized by the Catholic Church, just as Fr. Kelley had expected.

Francis Clement Kelley must have rejoiced on July 7, 1946, the day that Frances Xavier Cabrini was officially proclaimed a saint. By then he was Bishop of Oklahoma and considered a monumental figure in his own right. Two years later, Bishop Kelley would reach the summit of his own “long, wearisome climb,” passing away at the age of 77, after zealously serving the Church for more than fifty years.

Visit our homepage to discover more articles about Mother Cabrini as Cabrini opens in theaters this weekend. And you can read about how Fr. Kelley transformed railroad cars into traveling chapels here.

Catholic historymissionSaintsUnited States
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