Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini is one of many saints whose lives show that God often makes miracles using the weakest of instruments. Born in Lombardy, Italy, in 1850, little Francesca was such a fragile and tiny baby that she was immediately taken to the church to be baptized in case she didn’t survive the night. She was small and physically frail her entire life, and that often made people doubt her ability to thrive. She always proved them wrong, however. They could never have imagined that this delicate woman would not only outlive nine of her 12 siblings, but would go on to found a religious order and establish nearly 70 orphanages, schools, and hospitals in eight countries.
The Mother Cabrini Shrine is located deep in the Colorado mountains. The area is among the many places Mother Cabrini visited in her travels, and it was one of her favorites. Today we are blessed to be able to share its beauty and learn about this spectacular woman who became the first United States citizen canonized by the Church.
Before she became the spiritual mother to so many, Francesca Cabrini was a young girl with a dream of becoming a missionary. She was rejected twice from a local convent due to her frail health, but she was eventually asked to organize a badly run orphanage. Her dream to become a nun was eventually realized, and she founded her own religious order before traveling to the United States to help her fellow paisans (countrymen) as they struggled to earn a living.
Her first stop was New York City, and she quickly became a familiar face in Little Italy. Eventually she traveled westward, stopping in Golden, Colorado, near the mining camps. There she found a high rate of fatherless children as a result of the many mining accidents. She was determined to do something to help these poor families, so when she saw the land on the eastern slope of Lookout Mountain, she knew it would be the perfect spot for a summer camp for the daughters of these families. Of course, she could not know that the beautiful spot would one day house a shrine in her memory.
The shrine is a great place to visit, especially during the non-wintry months, because there are so many outdoor activities. A favorite of many pilgrims, including those with kids with lots of energy, is the Stairway of Prayer. A path of 373 steps winds its way up a hill, following the path Mother Cabrini took with her sisters and the children. Along the way pilgrims can pray the Stations of the Cross, which they encounter in the form of mosaics made in Italy. Fortunately they also find benches to rest along the way. At the top they are welcomed by a stunning 22-foot statue of Jesus, depicting his Sacred Heart. On the ground is a small pile of stones formed into the shape of a heart, placed there by Mother Cabrini herself when she gave the hill its name: Mount of the Sacred Heart.
The spring, found at the base of the Stairway of Prayer, provides water for pilgrims, many of whom claim it has miraculous healing powers. The story of its discovery is certainly unusual. In September 1912, some of the sisters complained to Mother that they were thirsty, but the only water near the property was in a small pond a distance away. Mother said to them, “Lift that rock over there and start to dig. You will find water fresh enough to drink and clean enough to wash.” How she knew this, the story does not reveal, but the sisters found the spring, and it has never stopped running.
That story is similar to the discovery of the spring at Lourdes found by Bernadette Soubirous at the direction of the Virgin Mary. Also similar to Lourdes, this shrine has a grotto built next to the spring discovered by Mother Cabrini. Here pilgrims can light candles and offer prayers to God.
Cabrini Gardens, the Rosary Garden, and the Meditation Walk provide other beautiful places for pilgrims to pray while enjoying the beauty of the foothills and imagining what life was like for the sisters and their charges.
The Stone House, built of rock native to the area, was originally a dormitory for the orphans who spent the summer months here. Today it is on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as a dormitory for pilgrims — individually or in groups — who come for retreats.
The convent where the sisters once lived still houses two sisters. It’s also home to the gift shop and chapel, where pilgrims can see a series of beautiful stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the life of Mother Cabrini, including her birth, confirmation, missionary vocation, founding of the religious order, voyage to America, and more. Behind the sanctuary is a mosaic of Jesus offering his Sacred Heart.
The new Cabrini Museum provides visitors with the opportunity to look into the life of Mother Cabrini and see some of the items she used during her busy life.
Mother Cabrini had a heart devoted to helping the poor and unfortunate among her countrymen and beyond. Wherever she went, her giving nature inspired others to give, and many of her projects to help others succeeded because of that. Her travels were legendary, taking her from country to country, leaving joy and peace in her wake. She died on Dec. 22, 1917, in Chicago (the most precious remains of her are at the Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine in New York) but her legacy lives on in the people she helped and the places she touched. At the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colorado, she continues to help others find peace and enjoy the world God created.
For more information about the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, Colorado, visit MotherCabriniShrine.org. To learn more about Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, check out An American Saint Of Our Day: Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini (Kessinger Publishing, 2010) and To the Ends of the Earth: The Missionary Travels of Frances X. Cabrini (Center for Migration Studies, 2001). Other sacred sites nearby include the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver and, a little farther afield, the Shrine of the Stations of the Cross in San Luis, Colorado.