Cabrinian Organizations Continue the Mission of the Patron Saint of Immigrants
On Nov. 13, 2022, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, patron saint of immigrants, and the end of her jubilee year in honor of the 75th anniversary of her canonization.
Born in 1850, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was an Italian Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In 1880 she was sent by Pope Leo XIII to New York City to help minister to the Italian immigrants in the United States. When she arrived in the city after a long voyage, she was told by the archbishop she was no longer needed and invited to return to Italy. Determined to fulfil her mission, she is known to have said, in her broken English, “In America, I stay.”
Mother Cabrini went on to found 67 charitable institutions in just 35 years, serving the Italian immigrant community as well as the sick, impoverished and undereducated of New York City. She became a citizen of the United States and died in Chicago in 1917. In 1946 she was canonized as the first American citizen saint.
Two of CLINIC’s affiliate organizations bear the name of Mother Cabrini: the St. Frances Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance, which is part of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas, and Cabrini Immigrant Services in New York City.
Both organizations consider themselves to be directly carrying on the work Mother Cabrini started.
“It’s the exact same mission, just different populations being served,” said Maria Mitchell, a managing attorney at the St. Frances Cabrini Center in Houston. “Mother Cabrini had a specific group that she was seeking to help – Italian immigrants – but she was always adapting to the needs in front of her. We do, too; we’re always responding to the latest needs of our immigrant clients.”
The St. Frances Cabrini Center has a staff of nearly 100 and serves thousands of immigrant clients per year. Their services range widely, from helping newly arrived Afghan refugees to representing unaccompanied minors and their families.
“For us, [carrying out the mission of Mother Cabrini] is not just about the work we do, but about who our staff are,” said Terry Cody, Legal Director. “Everyone is here for the mission. Many of our staff are immigrants themselves. Like Mother Cabrini, some of us are immigrants serving immigrants.”
“One attorney in our office is the child of another employee here who came to this country as a refugee,” Mitchell continued. “Now he is an attorney working with unaccompanied children. I think that is such a beautiful witness to the work that we do and the spirit of Mother Cabrini.”
“I love to reflect on Mother Cabrini’s words, ‘In America, I stay,’” Mitchell said. “It reminds me of the determination of our clients to make a life here in this country.”
Cabrini Immigrant Services of New York City, or CIS-NYC, remains close to the mission of Mother Cabrini even in its location: after a recent office move, it is now located right in the building of the Mother Cabrini shrine in the Washington Heights neighborhood.
Ella Nimmo, Director of Community Programs and Development, said that this location has allowed them an even closer relationship with the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, who founded CIS and several of whom still work at Cabrini Immigrant Services. Donations from pilgrims visiting the shrine sometimes go toward supporting CIS-NYC, and sometimes immigrants who are visiting the shrine will happen upon their office and request help. The Shrine staff often refer immigrants in need to visit CIS. CIS offers a wide variety of services for the immigrant community, from legal services to social support programs.
Beyond the outward connections to Mother Cabrini — its name, its founding by the Sisters, its location — Nimmo says CIS-NYC carries on the spirit of Mother Cabrini’s approach. “The Sisters often talk about Mother Cabrini having a sense of urgency about her, a ‘scrappy’ way of being,” Nimmo said. “If there was a need, Mother Cabrini was going to find a way to meet it. She would get things done. We try to take that approach as well.” Nimmo said CIS-NYC is always rising to the challenge of new developments facing immigrant communities in New York City. The biggest new challenge for them lately has been finding a way to meet the needs of the thousands of migrants who have been bused to the city from Texas.
“We have helped at least 120 families from the buses so far,” said Nimmo. “It’s difficult because they are arriving with nothing — no contacts, no cell phones even, few job prospects, and often no pathway to legal residency. We are having to be creative in how we help them and demonstrate support and solidarity.”
“The last few years have been really difficult, what with the pandemic and political changes,” Nimmo continued. “Now we have these migrant families arriving on buses from the border. Creating a supportive space for them amid these challenges is sometimes the most we can do. But we do all we can; we look for any source of support that we can provide, as we imagine that Mother Cabrini would have done.”