The subject of Episode 9 is Francesca Cabrini, also known as Mother Cabrini, who was an Italian-American religious sister, who founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a Catholic religious institute that was a major support to the Italian immigrants to the United States. The episode also focuses on sanctity and Innovation. The story of the Italian nun who became the first American saint.

Below I have provided additional content to help you dive deeper into Episode 9 and help with your "homework" assigned at the end of the episode!

Outline of Season 1 Episode 9: FRANCESCA CABRINI:

  • A people of saints, poets, and sailors

  • Why is a saint an innovator?

  • On a mission: from China to the United States

  • Service to Italian emigrants

  • Poverty and entrepreneurship

  • Cabrini’s legacy today


Italian sailors were in the forefront of the age of discoveries, but often at the service of other European powers (Spain, England, France). The age of Atlantic voyages reconfigured Italy’s role as a maritime power, turning the peninsula from a central place in the Mediterranean basin to a marginal land in the expanded horizon of the new world. “Italians” then did not colonize any territory in the New World (Italy did not become a political entity until the mid-19th century), yet the memory of Italian sailors is very much present in the geography of North and South America, not only in the naming of the continent after Amerigo Vespucci (who also named Venezuela as a little Venice), or several countries or cities after Christopher Columbus (Columbia, District of Columbia), but also in the naming of hospitals, schools, clubs, societies, or bridges after them. The most important bridge in New York is named after Giovanni da Verrazzano, and one of the two American universities in Rome is named after the Italian sailor John Cabot.

Now that you know about them, it’s time to match names and faces…

Of all Italian poets, Dante certainly remains the most recognizable in American culture. In the website “Dante Today” you will have a chance to explore citations & sightings of the poet’s imagination in contemporary culture. References to Inferno are in books, videogames, wines, and popular culture (don’t forget that the Inferno is only one third of the Divine Comedy!) In case you are looking for a reading recommendation, my favorite Dante-based book is the thriller “The Dante Club” by Matthew Pearl.

Italian saints are numerous. Italy’s patron saints are Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine of Siena. Many schools and American institutions are named after Italian saints, like Charles Borromeo, Aloytius Gonzaga, John Bosco, Angelo Roncalli (Pope John XXIII), Giovanni Battista Montini (Pope Paul VI), or Gianna Beretta Molla. Moreover, many major saints in Christianity have their tombs in Italy: Peter, Paul (Rome), the evangelists Mark (Venice) and Luke (Padua), Ambrose (Milan), Augustine (Pavia), Nicholas (Bari), and Benedict (Monte Cassino, where the famous WWII battle took place).


Francesca Cabrini was born and raised in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, in the Northern region of Lombardy. After becoming a nun, she joined the religious congregation of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart in the nearby city of Codogno. Fascinated by the Jesuit saint Francis Xavier, Mother Frances Cabrini added Saverio to her own name, and, in his imitation, asked the Pope Leo XIII to be sent as a missionary to China. At the time of Italy’s Great Emigration, however Pope Leo XIII asked her to care about the material and spiritual wellbeing of Italian migrants to the United States. In March of 1889, she left for New York City in the company of 7 other nuns of her order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.


Cabrini lived in the United States from 1889 until her death in 1917 and travelled constantly across the North and South American continents. As she arrived in New York City, she opened an orphanage in Upper Manhattan, and gathered resources to found the opening of the Columbus Hospital in New York in 1892. A few years later, thanks to her entrepreneurship and fundraising ability, she would even open its extension in the Italian neighborhood of Chicago. Her sisters served Italians wherever they were found and moved, from New Orleans (where a group of Sicilians had been lynched in 1891), to the mines of Colorado and the railroads of California. With extraordinary faith and business acumen, Cabrini founded schools and hospitals for the service of Italian emigrants, and new religious houses in New Orleans, Colorado, Seattle, Chicago, California, and Philadelphia. You can read more about her life at this link.


Francesca Cabrini would never go to China as she desired, even though her Missionary Sister went for her after her death. Her worldwide fame grew so much that people continued to call her just “mother” Cabrini, even after her beatification in 1938 and canonization in 1946. In 1950, she was named Patroness of Immigrants. In 1957, Cabrini College was founded in her honor in Radnor, Pennsylvania. In 1996, Mother Cabrini was inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her contributions and her work. Her body is conserved in the Cabrini Shrine of Washington Heights in New York City, a site run by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

In 2017, a movie was released on Mother Cabrini, entitled Frances Xavier Cabrini: The People’s Saint. Here is the trailer:


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 Contact Info:

Luca Cottini

Associate Professor of Italian Studies

Villanova University