Mother Cabrini rode the same “L” train as we do today. She walked our streets.
Situated just across the street from North Pond in Lincoln Park is an ultra luxury high-rise. Passersby may assume that’s all there is to the building — but 2520 N. Lakeview Ave. has a much richer story than meets the eye.
It’s also the shrine of the first American saint: Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini.
For most Chicagoans, the name Cabrini is brings to mind memories of the Cabrini-Green housing complex, one of the most notorious failed housing projects from the 1950s.
But before 1950, the name Cabrini was a source of hope and pride for Chicago.
Mother Cabrini was born in Italy in 1850. Pope Leo XIII sent the young nun to America 1887 to minister to the country’s growing Italian immigrant community.
Upon arriving in New York, Cabrini saw the grit and the determination of the American people. And although poor, she saw that they didn’t need money — they needed institutions. So, Mother Cabrini started setting up Catholic schools, hospitals, and orphanages.
Accounts of Mother Cabrini describe her as “a woman of modest stature who often suffered illness. She was savvy in business and strong in prayer.”
During her 30 years in America, Mother Cabrini created an average of nearly two schools, hospitals, or orphanages per year, every year of her life. In Chicago, she built Columbus Hospital, Columbus Extension for the Poor, and Assumption School.
Mother Cabrini is the perfect example of what makes Americans unique, according to Alexis de Tocqueville:
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. […] The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”
Mother Cabrini was not interested in expanding government — she wanted to expand compassion where it was needed and self-sufficiency whenever it was possible.
Cabrini worked among the poor, the children, and the marginalized in the shadows of a gilded city on the make. In fact, Robert J. Smith painted an image of Cabrini, entitled, “Saint among the Skyscrapers.”
And she did her work with quiet dignity and humility. She rode the same “L” train as we do today. She walked our streets. She started our hospitals. She gave hope to people who had nowhere else to turn.
Seventy-five years after her canonization, I wonder if Mother Cabrini could have done the good works that put her on the path to sainthood if she were living today. Or would government bureaucracy and red tape prevent her from starting dozens of hospitals, schools, and orphanages?
Last year, I started working with Fr. Sirico (another future saint) to create the St. John Neumann Institute, an organization to help foster strong institutions: churches, schools, and communities. As we went to file our non-profit paperwork with the government, our attorney told us that the current wait time is over a year.
Cabrini started two new institutions every year. Today, we have no chance to keep pace with America’s first saint. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
The path is clear, from De Tocqueville to Cabrini, our identity as Americans lies in our institutions and our ingenuity. We need to conserve, protect, and expand them.
At age 67, Cabrini died in her bed at Columbus Hospital on Chicago’s north side. The room is still preserved today, on the first floor of a high-rise on 2520 N. Lakeview Ave.