Cabrini, Mother Francesca Xavier (1850-1917)

  • By Kate Stoner
  • Posted 3/09/2000
  • Essay 2325

Mother Francesca Xavier Cabrini, Saint Cabrini was the first American citizen to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church. In her journeys around the country, she came to Seattle three times: in 1903 to establish an orphanage, in 1909 when she gained American citizenship (and attended the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition), and in 1916 to establish a hospital.

Early Life

Mother Cabrini was born on July 15, 1850, at Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, Italy, a small town on the plains of Lombardy about 20 miles south of Milan. After being refused entry into a convent twice due to frail health, she took her religious vows in 1877, and in 1880 founded a new order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. After she established several convents, schools, and orphanages in Italy, Pope Leo XIII sent her to America, which was at that time designated a missionary country, to minister to the material and spiritual needs of Italian immigrants.

First Stop: New York

On March 19, 1889, she and six sisters of her order sailed for New York. They arrived on March 31, 1889. Her mission began at the invitation of Archbishop Corrigan of New York City. Archbishop Corrigan, concerned with the material and spiritual plight of Italian immigrants, and with the lack of Italian schools and bilingual (Italian and English) religious teachers, had requested missionary help from the Vatican. With the financial help of the wife of the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Countess Mary Cesnola, who had raised $5,000 for an orphanage and school, Mother Cabrini and the six Sisters opened her first institution in America.

Throughout her travels, Mother Cabrini founded a total of 67 institutions worldwide, including schools, orphanages, hospitals, and social service outreach programs. In the United States, she established institutions in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Colorado, California, and Washington state. She also established institutions in South America (Nicaragua, Panama, Argentina, and Brazil), and in France, England, and Spain, as well as in her native Italy.

She and a companion were to have been passengers on the Titanic in 1912, but due to urgent business, she canceled plans to sail from England on that ill-fated ship.

Seattle Story

Mother Cabrini first came to Seattle in 1903. On October 17, 1903, she established Mount Carmel Mission at 1133 S 12th Avenue on Beacon Hill, which included a school, convent, free kindergarten, temporary mission chapel, and Sacred Heart Orphanage.

In 1909, Mother Cabrini returned to Seattle. By then the orphanage was home to 85 children (a number which grew to 106 children in the next five years). Notified that city engineers planned to regrade Beacon Hill, necessitating relocation of the mission, she acquired property that had been the site of a summer home on Lake Washington. She also attended the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition where the children's embroidery, needlework, and paintings were on display. On October 13, 1909, she obtained her American citizenship in Seattle.

In 1914, after alterations of the home on Lake Washington, the orphanage moved to the new site. In 1924, a main residential and school building, designed by the prominent Seattle architect John Graham Sr., were added and dedicated as Sacred Heart Villa.

In 1949, the Sisters began restructuring their program from a Catholic orphanage to a private school. With the help of Catholic Charities, all the children were placed in homes, and in September, 1950, a private day and night nursery and a private elementary school opened to all children regardless of religious background. Both day and residential students were accepted. A high school program was added in 1967. After two years, this was discontinued due to financial difficulty, but the elementary school was continued. In 1977, the Sisters were no longer able to maintain the school, and a lay board was formed, with approval from the Archdiocese, to continue the school as a private Catholic day school. The Villa Academy, grades K-8, is located at 5001 NE 50th Street.

Mother Cabrini returned to Seattle in 1915 (her final visit) to establish a foundling home. When she found the Perry Hotel property for sale, she decided to purchase that site (southwest corner of Madison & Boren streets) and opened a sanitarium instead. This institution opened in 1916 and was named the Columbus Sanitarium (later renamed Cabrini Hospital). This was the last institution that Mother Cabrini established before her death. The Cabrini Hospital operated until 1990, when rising costs and the hospital’s policy of providing services to patients regardless of their ability to pay, forced the decision to close.

As of 2000, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart are planning a retirement facility at the site of the former Cabrini Hospital, to be called The Perry at Cabrini Center.

Mother Cabrini died in Chicago, Illinois, on December 22, 1917. On July 7, 1946, Pope Pius XII declared her a saint, and on September 8, 1950, she was named the Patron Saint to Immigrants.


Mary Louise Sullivan, Mother Cabrini, Italian Immigrant of the Century (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1992), 13, 30, 32,40, 47, 52, 56, 60, 64, 89, 106, 113, 121, 142, 224-225, 228-231, 242, 286, Epilogue; Theodore Maynard, Too Small a World: The Life of Francesca Cabrini (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1945); Phyllis J. Read, Bernard L. Witlieb, The Book of Women’s Firsts: Breakthrough Achievements of Almost 1,000 American Women (New York: Random House, 1992), 79; Mildred Tanner Andrews, Woman’s Place: A Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press,1994), 121-122, 283; Sister Philippa Provenzano, Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart (Seattle: Sacred Heart Villa Convent, n.d.), iii, 17-19; Joan McCullough, First of All: Significant Firsts by American Women (New York: Holt, Rinehard and Winston, 1980), 109; (; Robert D. Saltvig and Sister Mary Margaret Hernandez, "The History of Sacred Heart Villa," typescript, n.d. (Villa Academy, Seattle), 10, 14, 16, 19.

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