In 1891, Mother Cabrini traveled with 28 Missionary Sisters from Italy to New York. Most of the group was bound for Nicaragua, where Mother Cabrini had been invited to establish a school for girls in Granada. Once in the U.S. they boarded the steamer New York and after a harrowing voyage entered the Gulf of Corinto.
The New York was met by a band, the bishop, and the president of the republic. A train then conveyed Mother Cabrini and the Missionary Sisters to Granada. The entire city turned out with an enthusiastic welcome. The crowd was so dense that Mother Cabrini wrote “for a moment I was seized with the fear of being suffocated.”
Fortunately, a detail of soldiers was assigned to protect them. Forming themselves into two lines, the soldiers created a passageway so the Missionary Sisters could process to the parish church. There a Te Deum was sung in gratitude for their safe arrival.
Mother Cabrini Gets the School Established
Mother Cabrini’s usual pattern when establishing a new mission was to set things in good order and then to entrust the Missionary Sisters with carrying out the day-to-day details. Challenges or concerns were communicated every two weeks by letter.
But getting the school in Granada up and running was a challenge. Aside from relentless heat, frequent earthquakes, and endless toads (not Mother Cabrini’s favorite creature), several Missionary Sisters came down with typhoid fever. Some died. Mother Cabrini nursed each of them personally.
Finally, on December 3, the school was ready and consecrated to the Immaculate Conception.
When Mother Cabrini departed from Nicaragua three months later no one anticipated that she would never set foot in the country again.
Thriving Through the Revolution(s)
Over the next three years Nicaragua underwent three revolutions. La Inmaculada school thrived despite the chaos. However, in 1895 rumors began circulating that Catholic priests and religious were going to be expelled. Concerned, the local superior of the Missionary Sisters went to the president himself to find out if this was true.
President José Santos Zelaya reassured her that “he loved us very much and highly esteemed the work we were directing.” As proof, the next week he sent a case of books to the school, along with a handwritten note of appreciation. All seemed well.
A Betrayal of Trust
However, Santos Zelaya was soon persuaded by others to launch what Mother Cabrini described as “the most fierce cruelty against all that savored of religion.” Barely a month after the president assured the Sisters of their safety, a loud knock sounded on the school door. The city prefect and governor stood outside and commanded the Missionary Sisters to gather. Then came the announcement: the Sisters were to be immediately expelled from the country. They had two hours to leave. Guards waited to accompany them to the harbor, with orders to use force if necessary.
Chaos and Calm
“Screams, cries, petitions and brawls filled the air in the convent and outside,” Mother Cabrini wrote, relaying the news of how the students reacted, “It was a truly desolate scene.” As the children wailed, the Sisters serenely packed the few clothes they needed. “They tried to calm the students and their parents,” Mother Cabrini continued, “Explaining to them that it was necessary to accept this trial from the hands of God, who always knows how to draw good from evil. In time, they would return among them again.”
The Beauty of the Cross
Once again a crowd gathered, this time to weep their farewell to the Missionary Sisters. What happened next is best related by Mother Saverio de Maria, MSC, Mother Cabrini’s biographer.
Between the two lines of soldiers the sisters, looking extremely pale but tearless, passed one by one, each carrying a small parcel. The sister who was last in line held a crucifix. One of the pupils standing nearby could restrain her feelings no longer and, rushing up to the sisters, said: “Mother! You are going so quietly and seem so resigned, and we remain behind, heartbroken and weeping!”
The Sister, showing the crucifix she had in her hand pointed to it and answered as she smiled serenely, “Why should we weep? We came with the crucifix and we are leaving with it.”
The Conversion of Don José
Among the onlookers that day was Don José Pasos, a gentleman with a reputation for being ardently anti-Catholic. He had arrived to smirk, not out of compassion. But hearing the simple reply of the sister with the crucifix he was touched by grace.
After the Missionary Sisters departed, Don José returned to his home. He locked himself in his study and spent the rest of the day and all night destroying papers. The next morning he went to the Bishop of Leon and was reconciled with God. “A religion that can inspire young Sisters with so much serenity, resignation, and peace in a moment of such trial and sorrow must be a true and blessed religion,” he said. Don José Pasos remained faithful to the faith to the end of his days.
Saint Frances Cabrini, pray that we may learn to love Jesus better so that we can face our trials and sorrows with serenity and peace.
The Work of the Cabrini Sisters in Nicaragua Today
The daughters of Mother Cabrini eventually returned to Nicaragua almost a century later. Today the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus operate two schools in Managua.
Thanks to the staff of the St. Frances Shrine in New York City for this content.