November 13, 2020

Christ the Cornerstone

Mother Cabrini, Mother Theodore said ‘yes’ to God’s call

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“In times when women tended to be mostly ignored or overlooked, the Holy Spirit raised up saints whose attractiveness produced new spiritual vigor and important reforms in the Church” (Pope Francis, “Gaudete et Exsultate,” #12).

Nov. 13 is the feast of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, who was born in 1850 in Italy, the 13th child of a farm family. In 1880, Frances and seven other women founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; the group emigrated to the United States in 1889 and established 67 institutions (orphanages, hospitals and schools) in North and South America.

On July 7, 1946, Mother Cabrini was the first U.S. citizen to be declared a saint. She was called the “saint of the immigrants.”

What she encountered when she arrived in New York was hardly welcoming. The prejudice against Italian immigrants was fierce and unrelenting. The needs (material and spiritual) of the people the Sisters came to serve were far greater than they imagined. The resources available to them were pitiful, and yet they not only survived, they flourished!

The life and witness of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini can’t help but remind us of our own “next door saint” (a favorite expression of Pope Francis), St. Theodora Guérin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, whose feast day was on Oct. 3.

Anne-Thérèse Guérin (1798-1856) entered religious life in her native France at the age of 25 after caring for her widowed mother and her family for 10 years.

Several years later, she led a group of five Sisters on a tumultuous journey from France across the Atlantic Ocean traveling by steamship, railroad, canal boat and stage coach, only to discover that their destination was not a town but just a log cabin in the woods of central Indiana.

Once there, she encountered hostile anti-Catholicism, hunger and privation, and near complete destitution resulting from a fire that destroyed the community’s harvest. In spite of everything, Mother Theodore (as she was known then) persevered. Under her leadership, the Sisters of Providence in the United States flourished, educating thousands of children throughout Indiana and the Midwest.

Mother Theodore’s accounts of her missionary activity describe the struggles that she and her small community experienced in order to find and provide the resources needed to serve Christ’s primitive Church in Indiana. It was hard enough for the Sisters to meet their own needs for food, shelter and life’s most basic necessities, but they refused to abandon the needs of the people they had come to serve—especially young women.

In spite of their very different backgrounds—one an Italian immigrant who could barely speak English when she first arrived in New York, and the other a mature, well-educated French woman—these two American saints share remarkable stories. Each dealt with incredible obstacles. Each placed her full confidence in the providence of God.

What did Frances Cabrini and Anne-Thérèse Guérin have in common? Both had the experience of being in love with God, and as missionary disciples of Jesus Christ, both overcame hardships and profound sorrow, finding joy in serving others.

Saints are people who are close to God. They are “evangelizers” who share their faith—and their joy—with others.

Mother Cabrini and Mother Theodore were women who were close to God. They were women of prayer, which means they spoke to God and, even more important, they listened to him and paid close attention to his will for them. Were they perfect persons who never got angry or never gave in to selfish fears or desires? No. They were ordinary human beings, but they responded to God’s will for them with extraordinary courage and fidelity.

What these two women accomplished in the years that they served as leaders of their religious communities is nothing short of miraculous. These women were pioneers, builders and “new evangelizers” at a time when no one would have expected much from them.

Frances Cabrini and Anne-Thérèse Guérin each could have returned to their native homelands after they encountered the prejudice and harsh living conditions of life and ministry in the New World.

Instead, both women said “Yes!” to God’s call. They responded in faith without counting the cost and, as a result, they proclaimed with a joyful heart the words of Psalm 125: “What marvels the Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad.”

Let’s ask these two remarkable saints to intercede for us as we struggle to listen for God’s will in our lives. Let’s ask them to help us say “yes,” even when the obstacles appear overwhelming. Let’s ask them to lead us to God so that we may experience his healing power and come to experience the wonders of his joy. †

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