Even as a young girl, she was devoted to Jesus and committed to missionary service in faraway lands.
She would make small paper boats, put a violet in each one, and cast them into a swift-flowing canal as “missionaries” to China.
As an adult, she sought to put her commitment into action, but the pope told her to go west, not east.
So Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini and six of her Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus left Italy for America, arriving in New York in 1889, serving the Italian migrants crammed into the city’s slums, and establishing schools and orphanages.
Calls went out to the sisters to help in Chicago, and in Central and South America. And in 1902, she and her sisters came to Colorado to minister to Italians toiling in the state’s gold and silver mines.
In 1904, she established an orphanage in Denver, one of 67 institutions she founded around the world. Six years later, the Missionary Sisters purchased property on Lookout Mountain west of Denver for a girls camp.
The orphanage and girls’ camp closed half a century ago, but after Mother Cabrini was canonized as the first American saint, the property became a shrine. A 22-foot statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was erected in her honor, and now overlooks Interstate 70 near Red Rocks Amphitheater.
The Mother Cabrini Shrine is open daily for visitors and those attending Mass, and features a retreat center, a gift store, a grotto commemorating the spring mother Cabrini located that provided water for the sisters, as well as a stairway of prayer that follows a path she and her sisters took to the top of the mountain.
The shrine currently attracts 100,000 visitors a year, but sisters expect that number to rise.
Sr. Roselle Santivasi, who has been a member of the Missionary Sisters for 56 of her 77 years, says that while mother Cabrini’s sisters weren’t involved in the Colorado Legislature’s decision to replace Columbus Day with Cabrini Day in legislation enacted last March, they’re glad to see her get the attention they believe she deserves.
Cabrini Day is the first Monday in October.
“We’re just happy to have the state celebrate her,” said Santivasi, who lives with another missionary sister at the Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat Center near Sedalia.
“She did so much in the state, not only for Italians — she wasn’t selective like that — but for anyone in need.”
Santivasi, who has studied Mother Cabrini’s life, doesn’t know if the saint ever entered Colorado’s mines, but many of her sisters did, reaching out to workers mining silver near Georgetown and gold near Idaho Springs and Fairplay.
“There were no churches in these areas, so our sisters went to the miners, so many of whom were Italians. Some mine owners even gave the sisters a cabin to stay in for a few days so they could have conversations with them, pray with them, and help those who were illiterate stay in touch with loved ones back home by reading and writing letters for them.”
Colorado was the first state to officially celebrate Columbus Day, and spurred by Italian immigrants, other states soon followed.
But in recent years, many states and cities have replaced Columbus Day with celebrations of Indigenous people or other events.
Colorado House Bill 20-1031, which establishes the switch to Cabrini Day, notes that Columbus never entered the territory that would become the U.S., had no contact with Colorado, and brought devastation and death to native people after landing on the island he renamed Hispaniola.
In contrast, the bill praises Mother Cabrini as “a humanitarian champion of immigrants and children in the United States” and in Colorado.
Sister Santivasi understands the affection many people feel for Columbus, but says it was time for a change.
“Mother Cabrini knew that many Italian people felt pride in Columbus’ accomplishments. ... But as history shows other aspects of people we have honored in the past, we need to accept that reality and move on from there.”