· The timely lesson of St Frances Cabrini ·
Both as a religious and as a woman, Francesca [Frances] Cabrini left a unique and highly original impression precisely in the use of money. She needed money, a lot of money, to build hospitals, schools and orphanages for the emigrants who were living in conditions of dire poverty and neediness in the cities of North and South America. It was for this very reason that she strove to obtain it in every possible way. Whereas in Italy the administrative autonomy of women was not yet recognized, she and her sisters, trusting in their own entrepreneurial ability, fearlessly administered enormous sums and decided on important investments. For Frances Cabrini money was a means to be used properly, and with the necessary expertise, in order to do God’s will in the world.
How did Mother Cabrini finance her daring ventures? The paths she took to obtain the sums she required from time to time were suited to every situation but the constant foundation on which she relied was the freely given, high quality and constant work of her religious: “Work hard, daughters, without ever tiring, work with generosity, work with firmness and integrity”, she wrote to the sisters in Genoa from on board ship on 2 December 1900; and she made the same recommendation to them in other letters. Yet Frances Cabrini’s modern outlook did not consist in merely adapting religious life to the new times. Her commitment to work, a commitment she asked of all her sisters, had nothing to do with the work mania that consumes the life of so many men and women in our day. It was solely obedience to the divine call, she wanted to do what God wanted. In all her projects – while she was concerned to found institutions that were beautiful and efficient, as well as financially flourishing – her one and only main goal was the dissemination of the Christian message and not the financial success of one or other of her works.
However the fact remains that she was not afraid of dealing with the practical aspects of every project, whose cost, as well as possible profit, she was able to evaluate from the outset. The initial capital for every foundation came from donations that Frances Cabrini succeeded in obtaining from the ecclesiastical authorities: namely, from Propaganda Fide or the Holy See, from private benefactors but also from loans, possibly with no or very low interest rates, and which she subsequently repaid.
Obtaining aid from benefactors was far from easy; it required painstaking work on the part of the Sisters who had to know the right moment to ask for it and to attract donations by showing the good results they were able to produce from them. In this regard Mother Cabrini herself set an example: “I worked on Mr Capitano Pizzati for a month”, she wrote from New Orleans on 27 June 1904, “and in the end he decided to give me $ 50,000 over ten years. However he wanted to see the House built right away. I told him that I could not anticipate funds and that it would be better if he saw to constructing the House for us. Then he said happily: ‘well, you prepare the ground for me and I will build the House’. And he has already commissioned a plan from the architect that costs $ 75,000 and will be built immediately!”.
The funds could also come from felicitous speculation as when, in Chicago – inspired to take a stroll outside the city to alleviate her difficulties in breathing – with her attentive eye she suddenly saw land whose price was destined to rocket with the urban expansion and ordered that it be purchased immediately, while the price was still low. She conceived a similar plan for Panama, where on 5 May 1892 she wrote: “I would like you to purchase 400 to 600 manzanas [manzana:a unit of land, today equivalent to about 1.72 acres], half of it on the San Juan River where there are enchanting locations and land that is very fertile, and half at Bluefields, but always on the river banks, of course. You will now have to spend less than one soles per manzana, but once the canal is completed it will be worth an enormous amount”.
The support of God, whom she always felt beside her, enabled her to invest fearlessly in expensive and complex projects, often without having the funds to cover them at the time but trusting in divine help alone. As she generally did for her projects, to found the school in Buenos Aires she took on financial commitments that far exceeded her possibilities then: “but I felt within me a secret conviction whose source I never knew, so I decided to take it on whatever the cost. However that courage in taking on that rather heavy commitment ended by making a good impression on everyone. The first families began to enrol their little girls and continued to do so, with the result that on my departure the house was full and we already have plans for acquiring another larger one” (August 1896).
The most commonly used method for accumulating the necessary sums for new institutes was indisputably saving. This was constantly practised by the Sisters who lived in great poverty in accordance with their Foundress’ constant exhortations. This is evident in the codicil that the latter added to her testament in 1905: “Do not mistreat the poor and expand now on one side for convenience and now on the other for respect, but only think that all that is used over and above what is necessary and all that is wasted by carelessness is stolen from the Institute; and what can suffice for an outsider who steals, suffices to commit a mortal sin. In all shops and individual businesses it is possible to steal, so take care, daughters, and be very delicate with your vow of poverty, as you desire to be with that of chastity”.
In order to save she was also accustomed to keeping her wits sharp, as in Los Angeles, where money was lacking for the enlargement of the house which could no longer be postponed. While the direction of the work on the new wing had been entrusted to a sister, who had become master-builder on trial. The building material came from the demolition of a fun fair which Frances had purchased cheaply. The demolition work, under her direction, was also entrusted to the little girls at the orphanage. They were happy to collect nails, locks and hinges and put them into their many small buckets, and they were so successful that the wood and bricks left over were sent to Denver, where the sisters were building something else.
Making an effort in certain cases can also mean exploiting a mine, as when she suggested to the Sisters in Brazil that they copy the example of the Sisters in Seattle: “You know that we have been given a mine here and that the Sisters are about to get it working? You too in Minas must discover one and get it working so that you will have the gold to build all the houses you need. M. Mercedes might perhaps know how to find one” (10 October 1909).
Although it was tiring Mother Cabrini did not dislike the continuous struggle to get all her projects up and going, to pay debts, to set up new funding and to avoid being cheated: “I must work like a young woman, I must hold my own against strong men who cheat, and this must be done; you must be careful and also work very hard and not say that you have too much work, or you will never be a woman blessed by the Holy Spirit” (Chicago 1904).
Frances Cabrini saw money as a form of energy that could be used positively, a gift of God of which there was no need to be frightened as long as one’s life was directed to honouring his Heart.
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