125 years ago, on 29th September 1898, Mother Cabrini established the first MSC house in France. It was a short walk from the Arc de Triomphe at 20, Rue Dumont d’Urville, Paris. It was not possible to establish a school in France due to anti-clerical legislation, so Mother Cabrini opened a residence for ladies to gain a foothold and raise funds for an Italian orphanage. The first resident was Countess Sarah Maria Aloisa Spottiswood Mackin (1850-1923).
She was a wealthy widow from the United States. Her father had been the Mayor of St Louis and her late husband, James Mackin, the State Treasurer of New York. From a Protestant family, she had been educated by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth at a Nazareth Academy, Kentucky. She became a Catholic in Rome in 1895. Pope Leo XIII gave her the title of Countess for her charitable work for the Church.
The Countess was introduced to Mother Cabrini by Monsignor Montagnioni, the secretary at the Papal Nunciature in Paris. He brought her to collect two letters that Mother Cabrini had brought for her from Rome, a blessing from Pope Leo XIII and one from Cardinal Parocchi, Secretary of the Holy Office, asking the Countess to assist the Sisters.i She had an extensive network of contacts. Mother Cabrini wrote in her 1898 Travel Letter that she ‘used all her efforts to bring us into contact with persons who could help us’.ii
She found other boarders, persuaded a rich Italian to donate 50 Lire, and organised a fund-raising concert. In 1921, in her memories of Mother Cabrini, found in The Cabriniana Collection, the Countess wrote:
‘Madame Cabrini interested all of Paris Society’ and as a result ‘under the presidency of HRH the Infanta Eulalie of Spain and my presidency it was easy to organise concerts and fetes that were very successful’.iii
Mother Cabrini was impressed by her organisation of the first concert:
‘She, the Countess Spottiswood, arranged the affair so well by reason of her excellent and energetic personality and her beautiful disposition, that one would imagine she is capable of putting a whole country into movement when it is a question of assisting those whom the Holy Father favors iv
By 1899, there was enough funding to open the orphanage for daughters of Italian families, requested by Cardinal Richard de la Vergne, Archbishop of Paris. It opened at 149 Rue Perronet in Neuilly-sur-Marne, approximately 13 Kilometres (8 miles) from the centre of Paris.