Featured Entrepreneur of the Spirit: Mother Cabrini

Leadership books and frameworks pack the shelves but few, if any, are rooted in an authentically Catholic perspective. Yet, in her saints, the Catholic Church claims some of the greatest leaders and, yes, entrepreneurs, in world history. The United States’ first saint, St. Frances Xavier (aka “Mother”) Cabrini (1850 – 1917) was a dynamo Entrepreneur of the Spirit. See how…

What She Did

Mother Cabrini’s missionary work is recognized by Catholics and non-Catholics alike as a tremendous entrepreneurial feat. By the time of her death in 1917, she had founded over 67 institutions across 3 continents primarily dedicated to poor immigrants. On average, she founded a new hospital, orphanage, or school every six months.  The religious congregation she founded, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, had 1,400 sisters. She did all this despite frail health, traveling by boat and train, and barely speaking the native languages. 

How She Got There

From a young age, the Italian-born Frances Xavier Cabrini possessed a burning desire to go East and become a missionary to the people of China. When she was 20, she tried to enter a religious congregation, but was turned away due to poor health. Not allowing this rejection to discourage her, Cabrini began building orphanages and schools in Italy, eventually receiving permission to found a religious congregation at the age of 30 (the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). After 17 years of running these institutions in Italy, Mother Cabrini asked Pope Leo XIII for permission to go East and fulfill her missionary dream. Pope Leo XIII instead asked r Mother Cabrini to become a missionary to the West, specifically to the poor Italian immigrants in the United States. She complied with the Pope’s wishes even though it was not the work she envisioned.

Her Secret Sauce

Here’s a breakdown of key aspects of Mother Cabrini’s life that enabled her success: 

  • Rooted in prayer: She had dedicated daily time for prayer that nourished her in difficult moments.
  • Focus on the need: The need for human services and spiritual support among Italian immigrants in the US at the turn of the20th century was massive. 20 Italian family members in one apartment sharing one latrine was not uncommon. Education in the faith was sparse. Government, social institutions, and the Catholic Church had almost no infrastructure to address these needs when she arrived in New York.
  • Business and managerial acumen: She was a natural leader, organizer, businesswoman, and fundraiser. She did not bury these gifts but instead applied them for results. For example, she was not afraid to approach the homes of wealthy New York estates and fearlessly request donations of buildings, land, and funds for the mission. She heard ‘no’ a lot. But she also heard ‘yes’.
  • Adaptability: A hospital she was involved with in Chicago went bankrupt. Instead of throwing in the towel, she arranged an alternate site, had all the patients moved, pieced together supplies and labor, and refounded the hospital as Columbus Hospital, which ended up being one of the dominant healthcare providers in that city for almost a century.
  • Galvanizing Others: Mother Cabrini inspired, trained and empowered thousands of sisters and lay professionals in these efforts. She also enlisted dozens of benefactors for her causes. How? She was not afraid to invite others to share the mission. Moreover, people genuinely wanted to help her because they saw she was rooted in God first and her intentions had been purified.
  • Forceful Surrender: She knew how to make things happen. A boldness and forcefulness carried her with purpose. But at the same time, she was surrendered to God. This didn’t immunize her from impatience or frustration but instead allowed her to persevere in those cases. How can these seemingly contradictory traits of force and surrender work together? Mature spirituality rooted in prayer and self-knowledge actually activates a flourishing of one’s gifts and desires through the nourishing waters of the Holy Spirit. Through a deeper relationship with God, our unique personality traits actually become more us, not less. Mother Cabrini was, by temperament, forceful. So, God could use this trait in fruitful ways because she was rooted in Him.

Mother Cabrini serves as a prime example of an “Entrepreneur of the Spirit” who entrepreneurially worked for the Gospel in the Spirit.

What We Can Learn

Each of us is entrusted with a precious and unique mission meant only for us. And God often leads us along different paths than we originally planned. But like Mother Cabrini, an openness to the opportunity and surprising work of the Holy Spirit can carve unexpected adventures and fruits for the Kingdom. Cabrini teaches us that the two goals of holiness and entrepreneurial success in addressing needs are not mutually exclusive, because Christ calls us to sanctify our work for His Kingdom. Mother Cabrini shows how endeavors can be even more successful through grounding in prayer, a desire to comply with the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and the humility to recognize our efforts and accomplishments as a gift of God’s grace.

Learn More About Mother Cabrini…

  • Check out this movie about Mother Cabrini here.
  • Learn more about Mother Cabrini from the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (the order that she founded) here.
  • Watch a short video about Mother Cabrini’s life here.

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