Continuing Mother Cabrini’s Legacy in New York

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One hundred thirty years ago, on March 31, 1889, a humble Italian nun was greeted upon her arrival in New York by the unpleasant news that her accommodations were not ready and her plans to establish an orphanage were in danger of being scrapped. Despite obstacles and opposition, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini and the seven nuns who arrived with her were undeterred, forging ahead to serve the poorest among the Italian immigrants in Little Italy. Within months, the orphanage had opened and within three years she had founded her first hospital in the United States. At the time of her death in 1917, she had founded 67 institutions: schools, hospitals and orphanages spanning across the United States, Europe, and Central and South America.

Mother Cabrini was drawn to people and communities who faced the greatest struggles. Initially, she worked with Italian immigrants at a time when they faced challenges similar to those experienced by immigrant groups today: discrimination, marginalization and exploitation. Over time, her work expanded to all those in need and the legacy of her life is still active and visible in the charitable works carried out by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 15 countries on six continents.

Now, a new foundation, named in her honor and imbued with her spirit of service to the impoverished, will continue her legacy in the state where her charitable efforts began. The Mother Cabrini Health Foundation has been established to support activities and programs which enhance access to affordable quality health care and respond to the unmet health care, health care-related and social determinant needs of individuals, families and communities across New York state.

Our mission is to improve the health and well-being of New York’s poor, disadvantaged and underserved populations. Our model is Mother Cabrini herself, as well as the centuries-long Catholic tradition of healing the sick and caring for the poor. Catholic principles and teachings—especially the rich tradition of social justice—animate and guide the foundation’s work, beginning with an unwavering commitment to the dignity of all people. The Mother Cabrini Health Foundation exists to serve everyone in need, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or background. To achieve this, we will fund efforts across the state that seek to assist the needs of a broad range of populations: low-income individuals, immigrants, the elderly, pregnant women and new mothers, youths, those with special needs, the formerly incarcerated and veterans.

The Mother Cabrini Health Foundation was created as a result of the sale of Fidelis Care in May 2018. It will provide up to $150 million in annual grants, focused entirely on New York state. We have already seen the tremendous level of needs that exist in so many areas, which is why we are eager to begin our work. Whether it is by funding programs to assist with mental and behavioral health, opioid addiction, affordable dental care or homelessness, our goal is to measurably improve the lives of New Yorkers whether they live in Salamanca, Syracuse, Schenectady or Staten Island.

The Cabrini Foundation would not exist without the support and efforts of countless individuals. Tremendous gratitude is due to the Catholic bishops of New York state, both past and present, for their commitment and tireless devotion to the poor. They founded Fidelis Care in 1993 to carry on the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, and they have been instrumental in the establishment of the Cabrini Foundation for the same reason. In addition to Fidelis, the bishops have guided a vast network of educational, health care and social services across the state. This includes more than 600 schools, 28 hospitals, 54 nursing homes and uncompensated medical care that totals more than $100 million. The diverse programs of Catholic Charities in New York serve more than 1.6 million individuals and families with assistance in areas such as food, housing, clothing and immigration support. The foundation is served well by an outstanding and distinguished board of directors, all of whom are highly regarded experts in their fields. The board is chaired by Al Kelly, CEO of Visa, and a fixture in the world of New York philanthropy.

A figure much beloved for his humility, tenacity and commitment to the poor and immigrant, Pope Francis, also draws inspiration from the example of Mother Cabrini. Writing about her recently, he praised her “total and intelligent dedication” to immigrants, as well as her “focused attention on (the) situations of greatest poverty and fragility.” Her outreach was universal and excluded none; she possessed a “lucid cultural sensitivity” that was marked by continuous dialogue. These characteristics of Mother Cabrini so aptly described by Pope Francis also double as core values toward which the foundation named in her honor will aspire.

Twenty years after her arrival in New York, in 1909, Mother Cabrini became an American citizen at a naturalization ceremony in Seattle. When she was named a saint in 1946, she was the first American citizen to receive the honor. She is the patron saint of immigrants, and her singular focus was caring for anyone in need, regardless of their nationality, legal status, religion or background. The Mother Cabrini Health Foundation is inspired by her example and determination, and we are dedicated to continuing her legacy of reaching out to those who are disadvantaged and suffering. Her first moments in New York were marked by disappointment, uncertainty, fear and need. These are the same challenges many of our sisters and brothers across the state of New York know all too personally today. We believe the work of the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation—to serve the poor and immigrant, to make life better for those who struggle—is in many ways just beginning.

Mother Cabrini once described her work as follows: “As I see it, the mission is this: loving other human beings, wherever they are in the world, and letting them know that there is a God who loves them unconditionally, now, as they are.” In this summary, she was merely following the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, whose outreach to the poor, marginalized and outcast changed the course of history. In its simplest form, the moral message of Jesus is “love your neighbor.” Mother Cabrini recognized the needs of those she encountered and responded in love. The new foundation that bears her name continues this sacred commitment to New Yorkers today and for generations to come.

Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo, a priest of the archdiocese, is the chief executive officer of the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation. Most recently, Msgr. Mustaciuolo served as the vicar general and chancellor of the archdiocese.  

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