Francesca Cabrini was born in Sant'Angelo Lodigiano, Lombardy, Italy, one of eleven children from Agostino Cabrini and Stella Oldini who were rich cherry tree farmers. Sadly only four of the eleven survived beyond adolescence. Small and weak as a child, born two months premature, she remained in delicate health throughout her life.
Cabrini took religious vows in 1877 and added Xavier to her name to honor the Jesuit saint, Francis Xavier.
She became the Superior of the House of Providence orphanage in Codogno, where she taught, and drew a small community of women to live a religious way of life In 1880, the orphanage was closed and then opened again by her. She and six other women who had taken religious vows with her founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (M.S.C.) on November 14. Mother Cabrini composed the rules and constitution of the religious institute, and she continued as its Superior General until her death. The congregation established seven homes and a free school and nursery in its first five years. Its good works brought Mother Cabrini to the attention of Giovanni Scalabrini, bishop of Piacenza and of Pope Leo XIII.
Cabrini went to to seek approval of the Pope to establish missions in China. Instead, he instructed her to go to the United States to help the Italian immigrants who were flooding to that nation in that era, mostly in great poverty. "Not to the East but to the West" was his advice. She followed the Papal mandate and left for the United States, arriving in New York City on March 31, 1889 along with the other six Sisters. There she obtained the permission of Archbishop Michael Corrigan, the Archbishop of New York, to found an orphanage, which is located in West Park, New York, today and is known as Saint Cabrini Home--the first of 67 institutions she founded: in New York, Chicago, Des Plaines, Seattle, New Orleans, Denver, Golden, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and in countries throughout South America and Europe. Long after her death, the Missionary Sisters would achieve Mother Cabrini's goal of being missionaries to China. In only a short time, after much social and religious upheaval there, the Sisters left China and, subsequently, a Siberian placement.
In New York City, she founded Columbus Hospital and Italian Hospital. In the 1980s, they were merged into Cabrini Hospital. This facility was closed in 2002. In Chicago, the Sisters opened Columbus Extension Hospital (later renamed Saint Cabrini Hospital) in the heart of the city’s Italian neighborhood on the Near West Side. Both hospitals eventually closed near the end of the 20th century. Their foundress’ name lives on via Chicago's Cabrini Street. Cabrini was naturalized as a United States citizen in 1909.
Mother Cabrini died of complications from dysentery at age 67 in Columbus Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, on December 22, 1917, while preparing Christmas candy for the local children. By that time, she had founded 67 the sick and poor and train additional nuns to carry on the work. Her body was originally interred at Saint Cabrini Home, an orphanage she founded in West Park, Ulster County, New York.