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How Mother Cabrini Became the First American Saint

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It takes a long time to become a saint — unless you’re Frances Cabrini, the woman who 70 years ago became the first American saint.

By the time Catholicism was well established in the United States, it was a lot harder to become a saint than it once had been, as the Catholic Church had stabilized the canonization process, as TIME explained after Cabrini’s sainthood was set. The process of investigating miracles performed by the candidate became so involved that the church was less willing to undertake it without strong preexisting support for the person, and the candidate also had to have been dead for at least 50 years.

When it came to Cabrini, however, Pope Pius XI decided that, after her death in 1917, the canonization process could begin early. (One less-savory part of the process: her body was exhumed in 1938 so one of her limbs could be brought to Rome for ceremonial use as a relic.)

What made her so special? It wasn’t just a matter of her claim to the requisite miracles. Here’s how TIME described it upon her canonization:

On March 31, 1889, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, a tiny, frail nun, daughter of a Lombard farmer, arrived in New York with six’ members of the order she had formed, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Pope Leo XIII had sent her to work among the Italian immigrants who were finding neither a welcome nor prosperity in the New World, and worse, in the eyes of the Church, were losing their faith and piety.

Mother Cabrini and her six set to work in the New York slums. To support their first orphanage they begged their way through the squalor of Little Italy, later managed to set up a tiny, ill-equipped hospital for the Italian poor. Though funds came mostly in small change, Mother Cabrini‘s masterful will again & again overcame obstacles that seemed insuperable. For the next 28 years she traveled indefatigably, setting up schools, hospitals, orphanages and novitiates in Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver and other U.S. cities.

Her shrewdness in acquiring property for these institutions and raising funds to pay for it made her seem to many a sharp businessman a kind of saintly Hetty Green. And she was as tough as she was canny.

When a group of highbinding Chicago contractors tried to get the better of the sisters in remodeling a hotel into a hospital, the little Italian nun fired them out of hand, tucked up her habit, and stumped about the scaffoldings for weeks directing the laborers herself. She was an American after America’s heart, and in 1909, in her 59th year, she became a U.S. citizen.

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Though she had been born in Italy, that citizenship would earn her the title of the first American saint. The first saint born in the U.S. would come later, when Elizabeth Ann Seton was canonized in 1975.

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: First U.S. Saint

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com