Mother, May I?

by Susie Hodgson

Have you ever seen that pretty condo development in the hills on the border of Burbank and Sun Valley, off of Glenoaks? It’s called Cabrini Villas and it winds into the hills, a sea of little beige homes all around. People who live there love it, but what was there before? They say that Woodbury University was founded in 1884, so was nearby Woodbury always the condos’ neighbor? Not quite!

That area used to house a “preventorium” (to help tuberculosis sufferers) and, later, there was a school there (The Villa Cabrini Academy, an all-girls Catholic school) from 1937 to 1970. It was conceived by Mother Frances Cabrini, a beloved Catholic – and one with great initiative and courage. Let’s take a look at her.

Frances was born in Italy two months early in 1850. Being that premature was a real risk in those days. Frances was the youngest of 13 children. Only four of them lived past adolescence. Although small and frail, Frances survived with a strong set of beliefs. Frances was schooled by nuns and when she graduated cum laude, she did so with a teaching certificate so that she could join her teacher-nuns (the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). But they rejected her. She was considered delicate and not physically able to keep up with the work. Cabrini “took her vows” in 1887 and changed her name to Frances Xavier Cabrini, in honor of the saint Francis Xavier, patron saint of missionary work. Then in 1880, she and another group of women who had become nuns with Frances started their own order, The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and they went gangbusters helping everyone they could.

So Frances visited the Pope, who was impressed with how much – and how quickly - Frances had accomplished, and heard her out. When she said she wanted to be a missionary in China, the Pope smiled and beseeched her to go west, young (nun)! There were a LOT of Italian immigrants greatly in need of her help. So off she went to “New York, New York! It’s a wonderful town! The Bronx is up but the Battery’s down!”

In New York, she opened an orphanage, taught Italian immigrants catechism, built hospitals and learned the fine art of fundraising to keep her projects afloat. And then it was off to Chicago, where she again produced ethnically diverse housing and much-needed hospitals, all of which have since been torn down. But at least there’s still a Cabrini Street in the Windy City.

Mother Cabrini became something of a superstar, traveling across the country and even around the world at least 67 times, constructing homes, hospitals, schools and more. A stone house summer camp dorm built by Cabrini in Golden, CO, often called an “architectural gem,” has even been dubbed a historic monument.

In 1946, the Pope officially made her a saint (canonized) – the first woman to be so named. To become a saint, you must have performed miracles. Mother Cabrini’s miracles were making a blind newborn baby see, as well as healing a parishioner who suffered from a terminal illness.

Mother Cabrini’s contribution to Los Angeles was built on a 30-acre tract of land in Burbank, bordering on Sun Valley. The “preventorium” (TB center) was erected in 1907; the academy was built in 1944.

The following are a few interesting points about Mother Cabrini:

In 1917, Mother Cabrini died of what some call malaria and even more call dysentery. Neither is fun. She was 67 and was buried at the Mother Cabrini Home in New York. BUT her body was exhumed as a part of the canonization process. Brace yourself: Her head was removed and preserved in the chapel of the congregation’s motherhouse in Rome. Her heart was kept in Italy where she founded her missionary order. An arm bone made its way to a national shrine in Chicago. Most of the rest of her are in New York.

One of Mother Cabrini’s miracles was making a blind baby see. That blind infant grew up to be a priest!

Saint [Mother] Cabrini was proclaimed the Patron Saint of Immigrants.

The movie “Candyman” took place at the Cabrini housing development in Chicago. So did the TV show “Good Times.”

Mother Cabrini built the country’s first Free Clinic just outside Detroit.

The Villa Cabrini Academy in Burbank closed in 1970 because of a lack of maintenance.

Eventually the land was sold to Woodbury University, a long-time (1884) school once located in both south and central Los Angeles. It is a small, private nonprofit university that is not exactly cheap. Try roughly $60,000 a year!

The Cabrini Villas condos were completed in 1979. As of this writing, depending on the size, these homes can range in cost from the mid $500,000s to the upper 600,000s.

There are only two Cabrini buildings remaining in Burbank. (The 1971 Sylmar earthquake destroyed most of the rest.) In 1958, a fiery blaze surrounded the small chapel that Mother Cabrini loved – but shockingly the fire didn’t touch the sweet little chapel. That chapel was moved to St. Francis Xavier school.

Then there was a larger chapel. It was converted into a library for Woodbury University.

Woodbury University was one of the first colleges to treat males and females as equals.

Villa Cabrini Academy in Burbank was originally built in the hills to protect crops / residents from fires (!)

An alumnus of Villa Cabrini Academy was Cheryl Crane, daughter of Lana Turner, who was acquitted of killing one of her mother’s husbands (Johnny Stompinato) because he was abusing her mother.

And this alum might have been the Original Influencer: Helen Gurley Brown (long-time Editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine and author of Sex & the Single Girl) who attended Woodbury. Perry Como’s niece went there too.

The State of Colorado changed the name of Columbus Day to Cabrini Day.

And, get this! Mother Cabrini had an uncanny knack for always finding good parking spaces! Even at Trader Joe’s!! (Okay, I made that Trader Joe part up! But she COULD find parking spots!)

Want to learn more about Burbank? Come visit us!

The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
Web site:

Return to Burbankia