The Timely Lesson of St Frances Cabrini

Author: Lucetta Scaraffia

The Timely Lesson of St Frances Cabrini

Lucetta Scaraffia

No fear of money

Both as a religious and as a woman, Francesca [Frances] Cabrini left a unique and very original impression precisely in the use of money. She needed money, a lot of money, to build hospitals, schools and orphanages for the emigrants who were living in conditions of extreme poverty in the cities of North and South America. It was for this very reason that she strove to obtain it in every possible way. Whereas in Italy the administrative autonomy of women was not yet recognized, she and her sisters, trusting in their own entrepreneurial ability, fearlessly administered enormous sums and made important investment decisions. For Frances Cabrini money was a means to be used properly, and with the necessary expertise, in order to do God's will in the world.

How did Mother Cabrini finance her daring ventures? The paths she took to obtain the funds she required each time were suited to every situation but the constant foundation on which she relied was the freely given, high quality, and continuous work of her sisters: Work hard, my daughters, never tire, work with generosity, work with determination and integrity", she wrote to the sisters in Genoa from on board ship on 2 December 1900; and she made the same recommendation to them in other letters. Yet Frances Cabrini's modern outlook did not consist in merely adapting religious life to the new times. Her commitment to work, a commitment she asked of all her sisters, had nothing to do with the work mania that consumes the life of so many men and women in our day. It was solely obedience to the divine call, she wanted to do what God wanted. In all her projects — while she took pains to see that the institutions were beautiful and efficient, as well as financially flourishing — her single and principal goal was the dissemination of the Christian message and not the financial success of one enterprise or another.

However the fact remains that she was not afraid of dealing with the practical aspects of every project, whose costs, as well as potential profits, she was able to evaluate from the outset. The initial capital for every foundation came from donations that Frances Cabrini succeeded in obtaining from the ecclesiastical authorities: namely, from Propaganda Fide or the Holy See, from private benefactors but also from loans, with no or very low interest rates if possible, and which she subsequently paid back.

Obtaining aid from benefactors was far from easy; it required painstaking work on the part of the sisters who had to know the right moment to ask for it and to attract donations by showing the good results they were able to produce from them. In this regard Mother Cabrini herself set an example: "I worked on Mr Capitano Pizzati for a month", she wrote from New Orleans on 27 June 1904, "and in the end he decided to give me $50,000 over ten years. However he wanted to see the House built right away. I told him that I could not advance the funds and that it would be better if he saw to constructing the House for us. Then he said happily: 'well, you prepare the ground for me and I will build the House'. And he has already commissioned a $75,000 plan from the architect and it will be built immediately!".

The funds could also come from fortuitous speculation as when, in Chicago — inspired to take a stroll outside the city to alleviate her difficulty breathing — with her attentive eye she suddenly saw land whose price was destined to rocket with the urban expansion, and ordered that it be purchased immediately while the price was still low. She conceived a similar plan for Panama, where, on 5 May 1892, she wrote: "I would like you to purchase 400 to 600 manzana [unit of land, today equivalent to about 1.72 acres], half of it on the San Juan River where there are enchanting locations and very fertile land, and half at Bluefields, but also on the river banks, of course. You will now have less than one soles to spend per manzana, but once the canal is completed it will be worth an enormous amount".

The support of God, whom she always felt beside her, enabled her to invest fearlessly in expensive and complex projects, often without having the funds to cover them at the time but trusting in divine assistance alone. To found the school in Buenos Aires she took on, as she generally did for her projects, financial commitments that far exceeded her possibilities at that time: "but I felt within me a secret conviction whose source I never knew, so I decided to take it on at any cost. However that courage in assuming that rather heavy commitment ended up making a good impression on everyone. The first families began to enrol their little girls and continued to do so, with the result that on my departure the house was already full and we already have plans to acquire another larger one" (August 1896).

The most commonly used method for accumulating the necessary funds for new institutes was indisputably saving. This was practised continuously by the sisters, who lived in great poverty in accordance with the constant exhortations of their foundress. This is evident in the codicil that she added to her testament in 1905: "Poverty is not mishandled by expanding on the one hand out of convenience, and on the other out of consideration, but consider that everything extra can be used and all that is carelessly wasted is stolen from the Institute, and what is enough for an outsider to steal is enough to make a mortal sin. Every particular business and shop can be stolen from, so be attentive, my daughters, and be most delicate with your vow of poverty, as you would with that of chastity .

In order to save, she was also accustomed to sharpening her wits, as in Los Angeles, where money was lacking for the enlargement of the house, and it could no longer be postponed. While the direction of the work on the new wing had been entrusted to a sister, who had become an experienced master-builder. The building material came from the demolition of an amusement park which Frances had purchased cheaply. The demolition work, under her direction, was also entrusted to the girls from the orphanage. They were happy to collect, into many little buckets, locks and hinges, and they were so successful that the leftover wood and bricks were sent to Denver, where the sisters had another building under construction.

In certain cases, being industrious can also mean exploiting a mine, as when she suggested to the sisters in Brazil that they imitate the example of the sisters in Seattle: "You know that we have been given a mine here and that the Sisters are about to get it working? You, too, should find one in Minas and get it working so you will have the gold to build all the houses you need. Perhaps M. Mercedes might know how to find one" (10 October 1909).

Although it was tiring Mother Cabrini did not dislike the continuous struggle to get all her projects up and running, to pay debts, to set up new funding and to avoid being cheated: "I must work like a young woman, I must hold my own against strong and deceitful men, and this must be done; you must be attentive and also work very hard and not say that it is too much, or you will never be a woman blessed by the Holy Spirit" (Chicago 1904).

Frances Cabrini saw money as a form of energy that could be used positively, a gift of God of which there was no need to be frightened as long as one's life was directed at honouring his heart.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8-15 August 2014, page 7

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