Mother Francis Xavier Cabrini: Denver Social Innovator and American Saint

The print version of this column, originally published Oct. 15, 2023, was updated Dec. 15, 2023 for clarity based on information provided by readers.

Rebecca A. Hunt

Denver’s early Italian community lived largely in Lower Highland, North Denver and in Sunnyside. The immigrants, coming from both Northern and Southern Italy, often had different ideas about how the colonia should be run. But they could come together to deal with social problems. 

One of those was providing Catholic schools for the community. Another was caring for orphans and children who were temporarily without parental support. This sometimes happened when a mother died and the hard-working father found it impossible to care for his children. While Denver had orphanages that would care for the children, the Italians wanted one that would keep them within Italian Catholic culture. One way was to reach out to the church and to the broader Italian community in the United States. This brings us to Mother Cabrini.

Who was Mother Cabrini? She was born Maria Francesca Cabrini in 1850, in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, Lombardy, Italy. Her religious work began early but she did not become a nun until her 20s. Instead of allowing her to go to work in China, the Pope sent her on a mission to the Italian immigrants in the Western Hemisphere. She concentrated on the United States, arriving in New York City in 1889. She also got permission to create her own order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They then established a hospital, a school and an orphanage in New York City.

In 1902, Mother Cabrini and some of her nuns arrived in Denver. Initially most of her order stayed in the Mother House in New York City, although later Mother Cabrini moved them to Denver. She and the other sisters created two schools and an orphanage. To do that she recruited North Denver’s Italian residents to assist in her efforts. 

Michael Notary was a businessman who had a large stone house at 34th and Navajo in North Denver. He donated it to Mother Cabrini to use as the order’s residence and as the orphanage. His donation gave them a place to live and work, but not the money to feed the nuns. 

Under the auspices of the parish, the Sisters first organized and opened Mt. Carmel School in the first floor of the Notary house. In 1908 they moved to the St. Rocco chapel at 36th and Osage before opening in 1955 in a new building on Pecos Street. In 1951, the parish also opened Mt. Carmel High School on Navajo Street between West 35th and 36th.

Mother Cabrini spent much of her time raising funds and getting food for her sisters. Fortunately, the Southern Italians, short on money but long on ingenuity, could provide pasta from their kitchens and bread from their bake ovens to sustain both nuns and orphans. Catholics from other parts of the area could donate money. Mother Cabrini even reached out to Irish immigrants living on farms near Aurora for donations.

In 1905, some of those funds allowed the order to purchase a farm at West 48th and Federal. On that site they build the Queen of Heaven Orphanage, which ran until 1967 when Colorado set up a foster parent program to lessen the need for orphanages. Until then, Queen of Heaven and Mount St. Vincent Orphanage at 4159 Lowell Blvd. served the Italian and Catholic communities.

Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was canonized in 1946, becoming the first American saint.

Dr. Rebecca A. Hunt has been a resident of North Denver since 1993. She worked in museums and then taught museum studies and Colorado, Denver, women’s and immigration history at the University of Colorado Denver until she retired in 2020.

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