Francesca Cabrini, affectionately referred to as “Cecchina,” was born two months prematurely in S’ant Angelo Lodigiano in the province of Lombardy, northern Italy, on July 15, 1850.
Her father, Agostino, was a farmer and her mother, Stella, stayed at home with the children. Frances was the tenth of eleven siblings only four of whom survived beyond adolescence. Small and weak as a child, these characteristics influenced her entire life.
Francesca Cabrini’s Education and Spirituality
Frances’ parents’ strong faith was transmitted to her by word and example. Her father would read to the family from the Annals of the Propagation of the Faith, telling stories of the great missionaries. The stories of the missions in China made a particularly strong impression on Frances and at an early age, she desired to travel there as a missionary.
At the time of her youth, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was at its peak and provided a spiritual foundation to the work of the missions.
When she was old enough she applied for, but was refused, admission to several religious orders because of her frail health.
In 1863, Frances registered as a boarding student at the Normal School in Arluno, some distance from Sant’ Angelo. Her goal was to graduate as a school teacher. The school at Arluno was run by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart who prepared and educated future teachers. Frances lived there for almost five years until 1868, the year she graduated. According to the custom of the time, boarding students lived in the convent with the religious sisters. For Frances, this was like a dream come true: for all practical purposes she was living as a religious among religious. Moreover, she shared the Christian life of a convent where the Sacred Heart was the center of devotion.
Upon completing her coursework, she petitioned to join the Daughters of the Sacred Heart. Although Mother Giovanna Francesca Grassi saw in Frances a chosen soul full of virtue, she decided not to accept her, fearing that her poor health would not permit her to endure the rigors of religious life. Nonetheless, perhaps to soften the blow, or perhaps out of intuition, Mother Grassi encouraged her saying, “You are called to establish another Institute that will bring new glory to the Heart of Jesus.” Her words were prophetic indeed.
In 1868, Frances received her teacher’s diploma and returned to Sant’ Angelo where she taught in the private school established by her sister, Rosa, and dedicated herself to works of charity and to serving the poor. In 1871, at the request of her pastor, when a substitute teacher was needed immediately, she moved to the nearby village of Vidardo to teach in public school.