Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850–1917) was an Italian Catholic nun who came to the United States in 1889 as a missionary tasked with ministering to the country’s growing population of Italian immigrants. Over the next three decades, during her missionary work, Cabrini established sixty-seven schools, orphanages, and hospitals, including Mount Carmel School and the Queen of Heaven Orphanage in north Denver. Canonized in 1946 as the first US citizen to become a saint, she is remembered in Colorado through the Mother Cabrini Shrine south of Golden as well as Cabrini Day, an annual holiday observed on the first Monday in October.
Frances Cabrini was born on July 15, 1850, to Stella and Agostino Cabrini in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, Italy, a small town about twenty miles southeast of Milan. Born two months premature, she remained small and weak throughout childhood. She was so frail that she was rejected from several religious orders because of her health. She left her family’s farm in 1863 to attend the Normal School in Arluno. She lived there for five years with the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, who ran the school, before graduating in 1868 with her teaching certificate. Rejected by the Daughters because of her health, she returned home to become a teacher in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano and the nearby village of Vidardo.
In 1874 Cabrini moved to Codogno to become head of a girls’ orphanage called the House of Providence. Along with a group of young women teaching there, in 1880 she reorganized the orphanage as a religious institute, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and made a profession of religious vows. Cabrini added “Xavier” to her name in honor of Saint Francis Xavier, an early Catholic missionary to Asia.
Despite her history of poor health, Cabrini hoped to go to China as a missionary. The church hierarchy, however, had other plans for her. When she met with Pope Leo XIII, he told her, “Not to the East, but to the West.” He wanted her to head to the United States, where hundreds of thousands of poor, newly arrived Italian immigrants were trying to make their way with insufficient social and religious services. Cabrini complied, arriving in New York City with a handful of other Missionary Sisters in March 1889. After spending their first night in a tenement, the missionaries set to work begging for donations and bringing families groceries and clothing. A year later, they established an orphanage and a school for Italian children; a hospital followed. The order’s convent in the notoriously rough Five Points neighborhood soon functioned as a refuge for poor children in the area.
Over the next three decades, Cabrini traveled extensively, crossing the Atlantic Ocean nearly two dozen times as she carried out her work in Europe and the Americas. Cabrini spent more than half of these years in a series of nine journeys throughout the United States, and in 1909 she became a US citizen. After initially focusing on eastern areas with high Italian populations—such as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—in the early 1900s, she turned her attention to Chicago, Colorado, and the West Coast. Everywhere she went, she and her fellow Missionary Sisters founded schools, hospitals, and orphanages—a total of sixty-seven in her lifetime—while also establishing recreational programs and visiting hospitals, jails, and prisons.
Cabrini in Colorado
In 1902 Bishop Nicholas Matz of Denver asked Cabrini to come to the city, where he said fewer than 50 of about 1,000 school-age Italian children were enrolled in Catholic schools. Cabrini sent two fellow Missionary Sisters, Umilia Capietti and Clemenza Boldrini, ahead of her to make preparations and start working with the local community. Cabrini arrived on October 29, 1902, and opened the Mount Carmel School in the heavily Italian Highland neighborhood on November 17. The school remained in operation until the 1960s.
In October 1904 the Missionary Sisters started an orphanage in north Denver’s Sunnyside neighborhood. Colorado’s Italian community had a high number of orphans because Italian workers tended to be concentrated in dangerous industries such as mining and railroads. In 1905 the Queen of Heaven Orphanage moved into a farmhouse at the corner of West Forty-Eighth Avenue and Federal Boulevard, and in 1921 it moved into a new, three-story brick building on the site. Heavily Italian when it opened, the orphanage’s demographics changed with the neighborhood. By the 1960s, it was full of Cuban children fleeing their country’s revolution. The orphanage remained in operation until 1967, when the children were transferred to foster care. The building was demolished two years later to make way for Interstate 70.
During her time in Colorado, Cabrini also traveled to various mountain mining districts to minister to Italian miners. Heading west from Denver, she noticed a hilly property above Mount Vernon Canyon, which she thought would make a good summer camp and ranch for the Denver orphanage. In 1909, she acquired the property from the city of Golden. During her last trip there, in the fall of 1912, she found a spring that still produces water. She also climbed the property’s highest hill, where she arranged stones in the shape of a heart with a cross at the top, and she worked with Denver builder Thomas Ekrom to design a new dormitory for the orphanage summer camp, which had been using the barns as sleeping quarters. Completed in 1914 on a site overlooking Denver, the Stone House hosted groups of about twenty orphaned girls at a time for a few weeks each summer until the orphanage closed in 1967.
Frances Cabrini died on December 22, 1917, at Columbus Hospital in Chicago, which she had established in 1905. Her legacy lives on in the dozens of institutions she helped establish, many of which continued to serve their communities throughout the twentieth century. Her religious institute, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, still has a presence in fifteen countries today.
In 1938 Pope Pius XI declared Cabrini “Blessed.” On July 7, 1946, after an extensive review of her life, Pope Pius XII canonized her, making her the first US citizen to be declared a saint. In 1950 she was named patron saint of immigrants. In the United States, her feast day is November 13. There is a Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine in upper Manhattan and a National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in Chicago.
The third Cabrini Shrine in the United States is on the site of the former Queen of Heaven Orphanage Summer Camp south of Golden. Cabrini’s Heart of Stones is still preserved there under glass, and in 1954 a twenty-two-foot-tall statue of Jesus was placed atop an eleven-foot pedestal near the stones. Pilgrims can make their way up via a stairway that ascends the same route Cabrini took when she made the Heart of Stones in 1912. The Stone House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2000 and now functions as a retreat center. The property is also home to a small chapel on the site of Cabrini’s spring as well as a modern convent for the Missionary Sisters, completed in 1971.
In March 2020, Colorado replaced its Columbus Day holiday with Cabrini Day, to be held annually on the first Monday in October. Cabrini Day became the first paid state holiday in the country to honor a woman.