Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Better than the movie? A biography of Mother Cabrini

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 26, 2024

The recent critical assessment by Thomas Mirus of the new film on the life of St. Frances Cabrini has attracted a great deal of interest. If you need to catch up, this is what you will wish to read about the film:

In response to the furor occasioned by this discussion, it seemed to me—whose first memories of life at home in the early 1950s do not include a screen of any kind—that the responsible thing to do was to read a biography of Mother Cabrini to increase the likelihood of acquiring a more accurate understanding of her personality. We oldsters amuse ourselves with the fiction that the next generation knows nothing other than what they see on a screen.

Of course I am writing this on a computer, but into this pleasant feeling of self-congratulation has dropped a new book by Ignatius Press, being a reprint of historian Theodore Maynard’s 1945 biography of the very saint in question: Too Small a World: The Life of Mother Frances Cabrini. However, its arrival may have been an act of God twisted into a trick of the Devil: Imagine my smug sense of superiority when, having heard about the movie, I picked it up and began to read!

Strong personality, deep humility, and charm

Based on the film controversy, it is Frances Cabrini’s personality which we want to discern here. To begin with, we may note that her health was never good; she was rejected for that reason by the religious community to which she first applied. But her strength of character, perseverance, humility and charm made an extraordinarily successful combination.

Frances was completely obedient to ecclesiastical authority, yet she often found ways to expand her work further than bishops and cardinals expected without violating their instructions in the least. She had an immense respect for those set over her—and an even greater trust that God would always show her the right way forward. It would be (and apparently has already been) a temptation to a modern filmmaker to secularize this spiritual dynamic into an aggressive feminism instead of placing it in its living context of love of God in and through that hierarchical Church which she so firmly believed to be the visible Body of Christ in this world.

From her girlhood, Frances Cabrini dreamt of being a missionary to more and more distant lands—hence Maynard’s title, Too Small a World—but it took her a long and patient time to fulfill that calling while remaining obedient to the priests, bishops and cardinals who helped her along her way. In the early years, such help consisted mainly of giving her different assignments than the ones for which she truly longed, assignments where they needed her locally and immediately. Still, while caring for orphans and teaching in various towns in Italy, sometimes under very poor conditions, she gradually gathered other women around her, gradually embraced religious consecration, gradually developed a community, and gradually expanded her efforts as time, opportunity, and ecclesiastical consent permitted.

It was not until she was thirty, after years of exhausting work under the guidance of a local priest and bishop, that she formalized her first community with its own rule; not until she was 37 that she explained to Pope Leo XIII that she longed to be a missionary to China; and not until 39 that—on the instructions of the Pope himself—she went to the United States to begin her foreign missionary work among the immigrants in the West, not the native peoples of the East.

But again, according to her biographer, Mother Cabrini emerged as not only a strong personality but a charming one. Ecclesiastics certainly responded to her sense of mission and her absolute trust in God. Moreover, she was a powerhouse of prayer. Eventually she had to stop sharing a dormitory room with others because she was so often awake in prayer at night and there was so often a strange illumination in the room when she prayed. But if her prayer life was the furnace of an indomitable personality owing to saintly trust in God, it was also an unfailing source of self-abnegation, patience, and cheerfulness. Contrary to her image in the recent movie, this particular saint was possessed of a charming lightness of spirit.

To this very point, Maynard writes as follows:

It may be that some of the friends she had made helped more than she knew. In Cardinal Parocchi she had a powerful protector. But in the General of the Franciscans, a Father Bernardino, and in Father Salna, the prior of the Dominicans at the Minerva—who happened also to be a member of the congregation that passed on Rules for religious associations—she also had men who were able to do a good deal for her. Father Salna would put his hand on her head and call her his child, and the Franciscan used to say that whenever he saw her his heart filled with joy. She had begun to show the power of getting things done that was to be so characteristic of her. Her charm she had always had, but in the retirement of the convents, it had not been drawn out in just this way. [pp. 115-116]

In another place, the author notes:

This serves as a clue to the way that she, with very little financial resources at her command, should have been able to accomplish so much. What she asked for she almost invariably got; often she did not have to ask at all, for people pressed gifts and favors upon her. That she charmed them shows that she must have been charming. Whatever her supernatural endowments, she also possessed natural qualities that were irresistible. No doubt they were heightened by grace, and those drawn to her were attracted (even though unconsiously) by the divine love so visible in her. But the foundation of everything was a simple, unaffected naturalness. [pp. 152-153]

Moreover, Mother Cabrini could distinguish the difference between advice and an authoritative decision (and indeed she took pains to ensure that she understand exactly what was intended). She could even gently tease those superiors who supported her when they came around to her way of thinking, but she was appalled by disobedience to legitimate authority. She regarded the decisions of ecclesiastical authority to be a sure sign of God’s will at that moment.

Legacy

Between 1889 and 1917, Mother Cabrini and her Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus established sixty-seven orphanages, schools and hospitals, first in New York City and then in Chicago, but also in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Denver, and Los Angeles, along with some nearby smaller cities—not to mention a number of Latin American countries and even back in Europe. The saint was naturalized as a US citizen in 1909 and died in 1917, but it was not until 1926 that her goal of reaching China was met by her spiritual daughters. There are enduring institutions which bear her name not only in the United States but in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, the Philippines, Spain and the UK.

All of this was accomplished by a woman who trusted in God and accepted His will as manifested through her ecclesiastical superiors, beginning with her initial rejection from religious life. Nonetheless, in the course of her work she made twenty-four trans-Atlantic crossings as well as superintending new foundations in Central and South America, not to mention crisscrossing the United States from East to West and North to South—mostly by rail, before the era of smooth roads and comfortable automobiles, and well before commercial airlines.

Theodore Maynard’s biography is as enjoyable as it is spiritually illuminating. I would wish that he had made his sources clear, so that I could be sure of whether (for example) certain conversations are documented or are simply plausible in the context. On the other hand, nobody really likes a popular biography that is riddled with footnotes, and Maynard was influenced in his life and conversion to Catholicism by the writings of G. K. Chesterton, who never let a footnote detract from an accurate appraisal.

Indeed, this question of annotation is mostly a matter of genre, but in any case Maynard began his working life as a scholar and professor, and was highly regarded in his day as a serious historian of Roman Catholicism, especially in the United States. To my delight, after reading his biography of Mother Cabrini, I rediscovered the fact that we have a major essay on Maynard in our library: Theodore Maynard (1890-1956): A Historian of American Catholicism, by T. W Hendricks, first published in 2003 in Modern Age.

Maynard was also a poet. He knew how to write. And based on the reviews, even if it sounds old and stuffy to say so, his biography of “Cabrini” is better than the film.


Theodore Maynard, Too Small a World: The Life of Mother Frances Cabrini. Ignatius Press, 2024 (originally published 1945). 374pp. $18.95 paper; $12.32 ebook.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Kevin S - Apr. 05, 2024 4:06 PM ET USA

    I happened to be reading Maynard's biography of Brownson when this article was posted. Thank you for drawing our attention to Maynard, and to the excellent article on him by Hendricks. Allowing for Maynard's factual errors, he was a heckuva writer, and he seems to be an insightful guide to Brownson.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 29, 2024 10:44 PM ET USA

    A year or two ago, I saw a black-and-white movie about Mother Cabrini. It was a movie worth seeing. I looked it up online to find the name. It might be this 1947 movie: "Citizen Saint: The Life of Mother Cabrini". If that's the one, it was well made.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Mar. 27, 2024 9:56 PM ET USA

    I am so glad to get your take on this book. After reading what Thomas and others said about the movie—with specific citations to back their opinions—I decided not to bother with it. I’m satiated (IOW, fed up) with feminist cant, especially when it’s speciously attractive. But I do want to know more about the real Mother Cabrini, & Maynard’s account looked reliable. Now I will surely get it.