Merriam Webster defines the noun ‘Missionary’ as, “a person who is sent to a foreign country to do religious work (such as to convince people to join a religion or to help people who are sick, poor, etc.).”
The term “religious work” is broad and bland enough that this definition is not in opposition to Mother Cabrini’s own definition—at least to her mature definition, defined with experience and time.
Her definition, or expectation, of missionary life was not, however, always so mature. Famously (and perhaps apocryphally) young schoolgirl Francesca Cabrini (before becoming Frances Xavier) would play a “missionary game.” In their biography written for a young audience, “Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini: Cecchina’s Dream,” Victoria Dority, MSC, and Mary Lou Andes, MSC, recount this game:
One day, when she was nine, Francesca was down on the riverbank playing her ‘missionary game.’ She would make paper boats and fill them with wild violets, pretending that the flowers were her ‘missionary sisters’ and that she was their ‘mother superior.’ It was a game she never tired of.
Excusing the biographers for ending that sentence on a preposition, “a game she never tired of” is nonetheless perfectly indicative of the romantic notion of missionary activity—a notion that, it seems from the ‘missionary game young Francesca Cabrini indulged. The romantic notion says that missionary work is an alluring game-like adventure, complete with travel, exoticness, and spiritual battle. What’s more, missionary work has a hint of danger. After all, godless heathens are capable of the unspeakable, so being a missionary becomes tantamount to being a martyr-wanting James Bond with a license to convert. Or even a chivalrous crusader, minus the wholesale slaughter of “Mohammedans.”
The Church, too, held fast to the romanticized and dangerous notion about missionary work. In “Mother Cabrini: Italian Immigrant of the Century,” Mary Louise Sullivan, MSC, says,
There were difficulties with incorporating the word ‘missionaries’ into the title of the sisters. In the 1880s it seemed unsuited to women—at least in some clerical minds. However…Bishop Gelmini …was unwilling to refuse her the consolation of at least being one in name, if not in fact.
We can assume that Francesca too harbored this romantic notion even into early adulthood when she first established her Missionary Sisters and became Mother Cabrini. Her ardent wish for her first mission was to take her Sisters to China—the exotic, heathen “orient.” When she was famously told by the Pope, “not to the East, but the West,” she must have felt deflated. Where was the alluring adventure, exoticness, and danger in America? That spiritual battleground had enough soldiers.
We know now that Mother Cabrini and her first Missionary Sisters encountered an America that was a seething minefield of poverty, capitalist secularism, negligent immigrant healthcare, vehement anti-Italian racism, and much worse. Mother Cabrini found more than enough in America to warrant the title ‘missionary,’ in both “name” and “fact” (to quote Biship Gelmini).
The romantic myth of the missionary hasn’t died, even today. Merriam Webster still gets it somewhat-wrong (or incomplete) by defining a missionary as “a person who is sent to a foreign country to do religious work.” If an American-born missionary went into West Baltimore, East Saint Louis, or Appalachia in West Virginia, would they not discover adventure, exoticness, the need for conversion, and especially danger?
Drive the 10 short blocks from the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia to the Kensington section. Those 10 blocks are like traveling across the first-world to the third-world. Bountiful becomes bleak.
American cities still need Mother Cabrini and her Missionary Sisters. America needs American missionaries.
Mother Cabrini’s own definition of what is a ‘missionary’ undoubtedly changed during her life and from her own missionary experiences. Lest we forget, Francesca Cabrini grew into Frances Cabrini, who became Mother Cabrini, and eventually Saint Cabrini. So to pinpoint her definition is tricky. However, Sullivan’s biography gives us perhaps the clearest answer:
We have in Cabrini’s own words what she saw that duty as a missionary to be: “To love Jesus, to seek Jesus, to make Jesus known…this will be my main interest, the purpose of all my steps, my comings and goings, all my preoccupations, of all that comes my way in work.”
By Christopher Grosso, Senior Writer, Cabrini College