Rare photos: How America’s first saint nearly went down with the R.M.S. Titanic

Jeffrey Bruno
5 min readFeb 24, 2021
The RMS Titanic resting in her slipway in Belfast Harbor around in late 1911 a few months before her sea trials | © Public Domain

The little known story of St. Mother Cabrini’s last transatlantic crossing.

They would be disappointed of course. They wanted to see her one more time before she left for New York. They were also working to secure passage for her, Sister Antony, and Sister Mary aboard this grand new ship that was to depart from the port in Southampton, about a day’s ride to the south of the Convent in Honor Oak, which is near Charing Cross Station.

Perhaps it was Mother’s frail health, or perhaps it was the urgency with which she felt compelled to cut her trip to Europe short due to new challenges facing the expansion of Columbus Hospital, or perhaps, more probably, it was Divine intervention.

Whatever it was, it prevented Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini from setting off on her journey to London to board the R.M.S. Titanic, and put her aboard the SS Berlin in Naples bound for New York instead. It spared her life.

Titanic leaving Belfast with two guiding tugs visible (actually there were five tugs used). © Robert John Welch | Public Domain

As a child, Maria Francesca Cabrini had a brush with death at age seven in a near drowning accident thought to have occurred at Lambro Meridionale, a canal that runs through her home town of Sant’Angelo Lodigiano.

This traumatic event forever scarred her with a profound fear of the water.

This, however, did not get in the way of her undertaking 23 trans-Atlantic voyages on her mission to establish schools, orphanages, and religious communities around the globe.

From an early age Cabrini longed to be a missionary, a longing only second to her desire to serve Christ.

Her diminutive figure, frail health and the culture’s resistance to the idea of a female missionary all paled in comparison to her profound trust in God and radical zeal to serve others, two qualities that carried her through a lifetime’s worth of triumphs and tragedies.

The ship, S.S. La Bourgogne, that carried Mother Cabrini and her companions on their first journey to America |© Library of Congress | Library of Congress

In March of 1889, Mother and her Sister companions set out on their first voyage to New York aboard the SS La Bourgogne, a ship that would meet its end on the high seas a few short months later.

On the 12-day voyage through two storms and heavy seas, the Sisters met their first charges — the Italian immigrants who were traveling in third class, otherwise known as “steerage.” The immigrants were berthed below deck and suffering greatly when Mother and her crew set about immediately to care for them, providing what comfort they could and leading them in prayer — a harbinger of things to come.

And a side note: When they first arrived in New York, they initially lived with the Sisters of Charity, the same sisters who would care for the survivors of the Titanic.

It was Pope Leo XIII who famously directed the young Cabrini, who wished to travel to China as a missionary, “Not to the East, but to the West …” This landed her in the slums of New York among her suffering countrymen.

Mother Cabrini is next to two postulates in white veils in the back row. Orphanage in New York City, N.Y. circa 1890. Photograph is published in Mother Cabrini: Italian Immigrant of the Century by Mary Louise Sullivan MSC. Copyright 1992 by the Center of Migration Studies. © Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus | Archivi Missionaire del Sacro Cuore, Rome via Cabrini University Collection

Discrimination was rampant and the living conditions that they would be absorbed into atrocious.

A famous Italian saying goes, “Before I came to America, I thought the streets were paved in gold. When I came here I learned three things: First, the streets were not paved in gold, second, the streets weren’t paved, and third, that I was expected to pave them.”

Over the span of 28 years, Mother Frances Cabrini and her missionary Sisters established 67 institutions. Her mission to acculturate, educate and inspire Faith laid the foundation for a hope-filled future for the Italian immigrants who, like most immigrants, were greeted by hardship and rejection.

Mother and her Sisters became the loving arm of Christ wrapped around the shoulder of the immigrant restoring the Faith and dignity of these people who arrived to America seeking of a better life.

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Patroness of Immigrants, please pray for us.

Some Rare Photos

The baptismal certificate of Maria Francesca Cabrini. Daughter of Augustino and Stella Oldini. Born on the 15th day of July 1850. Godmother Angela Oldini of Rombi. Signed by the parish priest. Born two months premature and expected not to survive, Maria Francesca was baptized the same day of her birth. © Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus | Cabrini University Collection
The youngest of 11 children, Maria Francesca was born into a family of peasant farmers. Known as Cecchina or “Chatterbox,” she was small and weak and longed to be a missionary in China. Who would have thought seeing the photograph of this girl that she would one day become a saint? The photograph, made around 1860, shows Francesca Xavier Cabrini. © Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus | Cabrini University Collection
This memorial card is a reproduction of a black and white photograph taken of Mother Cabrini in 1880 when she was 30 years old. Card was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Inmaculata School in Nicaragua, along with the 25th anniversary of the canonization of Mother Cabrini as the Patron Saint of Immigrants. © Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus | Cabrini University Collection
The small travel utensils carried by St. Mother Cabrini throughout her travels. © Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus | Cabrini University Collection
This is a reproduction of the last known photograph of Mother Cabrini, taken at the ceremonies that marked the opening of Sacred Heart School in Dobbs Ferry, Westchester County, New York, in 1914. This celebration coincided with the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart’s arrival in America. © Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus | Cabrini University Collection
Formal portrait taken in 1905 at the inauguration of Columbus Hospital in Chicago. © Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus | Cabrini University Collection
The passenger manifest that lists St. Mother Cabrini, Sr. Antony and Sr. Mary’s arrival in New York a few weeks before the Titanic sinks. © Liberty Ellis Foundation
The S.S. Berlin that transported St. Mother Cabrini and her companions, rather than the ill-fated Titanic, which they would have been aboard had they not left earlier. © Rudolf Kämmerer via Bernd Rossberg | Europeana Collections CC BY SA 3.0
Mother Cabrini became a naturalized citizen in Seattle, Washington, on October 9, 1909. The document certifies that Cabrini is 59 years old; 5 feet in height; color — white; complexion — fair; color of eyes — blue; color of hair — blonde, with no visible distinguishing marks. The complexion, eye, and hair color witness that Francesca Cabrini was born in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, in Italy’s northern Lombardy region. Citizenship expressed her solidarity with the immigrants she served, guaranteed the welfare of her institute after her death, and upon canonization granted her the title of First American Saint. © Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus | Cabrini University Collection

A very special thanks to Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for allowing publication from the Cabrini University Collection.

Also to Rudolf Kämmerer |Bernd Rossberg | Europeana Collections for the wonderful CC BY SA 3.0 image of the S.S. Berlin

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(Originally published on Aleteia.org)



Jeffrey Bruno

Jeffrey Bruno is an award winning photojournalist and creative director specializing in the mission and beauty of the Catholic Church around the globe.