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Founding of the Institute
At this same time, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, as she was now known, received a mandate from the bishop to found a new religious institute with the help and support of the young women who had professed their vows with her. In a short time, she found an ancient Franciscan convent in Codogno. This is where the Institute of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was founded on November 14, 1880. It was established as a diocesan congregation in 1881, with a simple Rule written by Mother Cabrini, and approved by the bishop. There were some objections to the term missionaries, which implied a mission abroad. The bishop thought primarily of a service within the diocese, or at most, in the Province of Lombardy. However, Mother Cabrini, the 30 year old foundress, had no intention of restricting the congregation to the boundaries of Lombardy.
In Pursuit of the Goal
The Italian Immigrants in U.S.A.
She set out for Rome in September, 1887. Her goals were to have a universal missionary Institute with a central house in Rome and pontifical approval of the young Institute. Since the ecclesiastical authorities moved at a slow pace and with caution, it was surprising that on March 12, 1888, the Institute was granted permission to open two missions in the Eternal City. While there, she met the bishop of Piacenza, Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, who had just founded the Missionary Institute of St. Charles to minister to Italians abroad.
Italian immigrants faced many hardships in the United States. They worked at the most menial labor and experienced discrimination. Uprooted, without pastoral care, they were as strangers in their own church and the systematic targets of Protestant proselytism. Despite all, the great majority of Italians maintained an eagerness to return again to their Catholic faith and devotions. Seeking the help of religious women, Bishop Scalabrini asked Mother Cabrini to go to New York to work with the Italian immigrants. She hesitated because she planned to go to the Orient to evangelize.
Scalabrini was persistent and showed her a letter from Archbishop Corrigan of New York, formally inviting the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart to establish a house there.
Mother Cabrini sought an audience with Pope Leo XIII and posed her missionary dilemma to him; his response was: Not to the East, but to the West. Exchanging her dreams of going to China for the reality of going to New York, she embarked with six of her Missionary Sisters almost immediately for New York. Upon arrival, she learned that Archbishop Corrigan did not expect her so soon. When they first met, he suggested that she return to Italy. She refused, saying that the Pope had sent her. She and her companions spent the first night in a dingy tenement in the heart of the Italian ghetto. They could not sleep and stayed awake, tired, yet peacefully engaged in prayer. Afterwards, the Sisters of Charity gave them hospitality and guided their first steps through the city.
Beginnings in America
In a new world, another culture, without contacts, not knowing the language, Mother Cabrini set out to establish her mission. She went back to Archbishop Corrigan and gained his support and friendship. He approved the house in which the Countess di Cesnola wanted the new missionaries to live. On Palm Sunday of 1890, an orphanage for Italian children was inaugurated on the property, part of which the missionaries occupied as a convent.
A free school was established in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the poorest Italians lived. The sisters taught catechism in the Italian parish of St. Joachim. All the while, Mother Cabrini with the sisters, constantly traversed the streets of the Italian district, visiting families, trying to help and guide them, and bringing God nearer to them. To support themselves and the orphanage, the sisters had to beg for alms because the help they received from other womens religious congregations and donations from the wealthy were not enough to support the growing number of orphans. Young women soon offered their help and some asked to join the Institute.
In July, when everything was in order in New York, Mother Cabrini went back to Italy with the first North American postulants for the novitiate in Codogno. She returned to Rome for an audience with Pope Leo XIII, who was fast becoming her good friend.
Next Page: Continuing the Work