This article was published in the February 2014 issue
Francesca Cabrini left a unique and highly original mark in her use of money, both as a religious and as a woman. She needed money, a lot of money, to build hospitals, schools, orphanages for the emigrants who lived in conditions of serious indigence in the countries of North and South America and for this reason she committed herself to obtaining it in every way imaginable. While in Italy women were not yet recognised as having administrative autonomy, she and her sisters fearlessly administered large sums of money and decided upon important investments, trusting in their own entrepreneurial skills. For her, money was a means to be used well, with the necessary expertise, to achieve God’s will in the world.
How did Mother Cabrini finance her bold undertakings? The ways she used to reach the sums requested from time to time were numerous. These modes were adapted to every situation, but the constant base on which she relied to pay the debts and launch new initiatives was the free work of the sisters, a qualified and continuous work. “Work, work, my children, without tiring yourselves, work with generosity, work with firmness and integrity,” she wrote on December 2, 1900 to the sisters of Genoa from the ship, and in a similar way she recommended herself in other letters. Francesca Cabrini’s modernity, however, did not consist simply in an adaptation of religious life to the new times. Instead, her commitment to work, a commitment she asked of all her sisters, had nothing to do with the eagerness to work that absorbs the lives of so many modern men and women, but was only obedience to the divine call; she wanted to do what God wanted. In all her initiatives - while she was concerned that beautiful and efficient, as well as economically flourishing, works should arise - the sole and main objective was the spread of the Christian message and not the economic success of this or that particular work.
The fact remains, however, that she was not afraid to deal with the practical aspects of each project, of which she knew from the first moment how to evaluate the cost and the possible income. The initial capital for each foundation came from the donations that Francesca Cabrini managed to obtain from the ecclesiastical authorities, that is from Propaganda Fide or the Holy See, from private benefactors but also from loans, possibly at no or very low interest rates, which she then repaid.
To obtain help from benefactors was not easy; it required careful work on the part of the sisters, who had to know how to ask at the right time, to attract donations by showing the good fruit they could draw from them. She herself is an example of this, when she writes, “I worked for a month around Mr. Pizzati”, she wrote from New Orleans on 27 June 1904, “and he finally came to the decision to give me $50,000 over ten years, but he wanted to see the House built immediately. I told him that I could not advance the money, but that it would be better for him to think about building the house, and he was happy and said: ‘Well, you prepare the land and I will build the house’, and he has already ordered the architect to draw seventy-five thousand dollars and it will be done right away”.
Money could also come from fortunate speculation, as when in Chicago - taken for a walk outside the city to relieve his breathing difficulties - she saw with her keen eye that this was land destined to rise in price with urban expansion and ordered it to be purchased immediately, while the price was low. She conceived a similar plan for Panama, where she wrote on May 5, 1892, “I would like you to take 400 to 600 manzane of land, half in the Rio Saint Juan where there are lovely locations and land that yields a lot, and half in Bluefields, but always on the banks, of course. Now you will spend less than a soles a manzana, but when the canal is done it will be an enormous price”.
God’s support, which she always felt was at her side, enabled her to invest fearlessly in expensive and complex projects, often without having the financial means at the time, but trusting only in divine help. In Buenos Aires, as she used to do in her initiatives, in order to establish the school, she took on financial commitments that were much greater than her possibilities at the time. “But I felt a secret conviction in my heart, which I didn’t know where it came from, and so I decided to take it on at any cost. However, my courage in taking on that commitment, which was rather strong, ended up by leaving a good impression on everyone. The first families began to come and enroll their children, and then continued in such a way that, when I left, the house was already full, and we already had plans to take on another, more capable one” (August 1896).
The most common method of accumulating the sums needed for the new works was undoubtedly to save. This was practiced continually by the sisters who lived in great poverty according to the constant exhortations of the foundress, and as shown by the codicil that she added to her will in 1905. “Poverty should not be abused by expanding on one side for convenience or on the other for consideration, but it should be remembered that everything that is used and everything that is wasted through carelessness is stolen from the Institute, and what is sufficient to make a mortal sin is what is sufficient for an outsider who steals. In all the workshops and particular exercises, it is possible to steal. Be careful, therefore, my daughters, and be very delicate with the vow of poverty as you wish to be in the vow of chastity”.
In order to save money, she was also accustomed to using her ingenuity, as in Los Angeles, where there was no money to extend the house. While a nun, who had become a master builder, was in charge of the new wing, the building material was obtained from the demolition of an amusement park that Francesca Cabrini had bought cheaply. The demolition work carried out under her direction was also entrusted to the girls of the orphanage, who were happy to collect nails, locks and hinges in many buckets, and was so successful that the leftover wood and bricks were sent to Denver, where the sisters were building another building.
In some cases, being ingenious can also mean exploiting a mine, as when she suggested to the Sisters in Brazil that they should imitate the example of the Sisters in Seattle: “Do you know that here they have given us a mine and the Sisters are already working it? You must also find a mine in Minas and make it work so that you will have the gold to make all the houses, as you need it. M. Mercedes may know how to find it” (10 October 1909).
This continuous struggle to make all the projects concrete and workable, to pay off debts, start up new financing and not be deceived, even if it was exhausting, did not displease Mother Cabrini. “I have to work like a young girl, I have to sustain strong reasons against strong deceitful men and it has to be done; and you be careful, work hard and do not say it is too much or you will never be the woman blessed by the Holy Spirit” (Chicago 1904).
In money, Francesca Cabrini saw a form of energy that could be used positively, a gift from God of which one should not be afraid if one’s life was directed towards honoring one’s own heart.
by LUCETTA SCARAFFIA
A Historian and journalist. Lucetta Scaraffia edited Women Church World from 2012 to 2019.
The reference text for the figure of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini is Tra terra e cielo: vita di Francesca Cabrini [Between Earth and Heaven: Life of Francesca Cabrini] by Lucetta Scaraffia, published by Marsilio in 2017 with a preface by Pope Francis and an afterword by director Liliana Cavani. “This woman,” writes the Pontiff, “knew how to unite a great charity with a prophetic spirit that made her understand modernity in its aspects... that involved the wretched of the earth and that intellectuals and politicians did not want to see”.
Who is she
Born in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, 15 July 1850, naturalized American, Francesca Cabrini is the founder of the congregation of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In 1946, she became the first American citizen to become a saint. She added the surname Xavier to her name, in honour of Saint Francis Xavier. The Company she founded was the first to both take on missionary work (traditionally the prerogative of men) and to be totally autonomous, i.e. not dependent on a parallel male branch. She died in Chicago on December 22, 1917.