Upon her arrival, Mother Cabrini learned that there was no house for her to live in; that a school her sisters were to teach in was not ready; and that Archbishop Corrigan was adamantly opposed to orphanage she planned to start.
Corrigan was annoyed that Countess Mary Reid di Cesnola, a Manhattan socialite whose Italian-born husband, Count Luigi Palma di Cesnola, was a general in the Civil War and later the first director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had pushed the orphanage plan with the Vatican. Corrigan argued there wasn’t enough money committed and opposed the location di Cesnola chose on upscale East 59th Street, far from Italian neighborhoods. Scalabrini’s priests had told him there could be government funding available for the project, but Corrigan knew that was not so.
A history written by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the order Mother Cabrini founded, describes what happened next:
And so it was that the sisters found out from the priests who greeted them at the dock that their promised house wasn’t actually ready. They were taken to a dirty, rundown hotel in the Five Points and put up in two filthy rooms. The beds were so uncomfortable and the neighborhood so frightening to the sisters that they passed the night without sleep.
The next morning, Mother Cabrini and the sisters met with Archbishop Corrigan at his residence near St. Patrick’s Cathedral. That was when Corrigan said there would be no orphanage—certainly not in the neighborhood Mary di Cesnola insisted on.
“I see no better solution of this question, Mother, than that you and your sisters return to Italy,” Corrigan announced.
Mother Cabrini paled, thinking about the storm she had experienced. She informed the archbishop that a higher authority—the Propaganda Fide, overseer of all the churches in America at that time—had sent her to New York. “No, not that, Your Excellency,” she said. “I am here by order of the Holy See, and here I must stay.”
At one point in the conversation, “the Archbishop grew red in the face,” according to testimony in the proceedings for Mother Cabrini’s canonization. It is described in Sister Mary Louise Sullivan’s 1992 biography Mother Cabrini: `Italian Immigrant of the Century, published by the Center for Migration Studies.
“Very well,” Corrigan replied to the formidable mother superior. “Stay here, but give up all thought of the orphanage and think only of the schools.” The archbishop then brought Mother Cabrini and her sisters to meet the Sisters of Charity, who welcomed them in their convent. Later, Archbishop Corrigan agreed to let Mother Cabrini open the orphanage on East 59th Street. The New York Sun noted as much on May 14, 1889, reporting that “the project has the approval of Archbishop Corrigan.”
The sisters recognized immediately that as Italians, they would be subject to prejudice. As Sullivan wrote, Mother Cabrini mailed home to get clean clothing because “otherwise they will call us `guinea-pigs’ the way they do to the Italians here.” The sisters saw that the prejudice reached into the church. One wrote that “We have to recognize more and more clearly that Italian sisters are not too highly regarded by the Irish and this will cause us difficulties.”
Despite the extraordinary poverty of the Italian immigrants, Archbishop Corrigan limited Mother Cabrini’s fundraising to the Italian community—knowing full well that his own priests complained to him all the time that they couldn’t raise money from the Italians. After seeking a donation from the superior of the Jesuits, Mother Cabrini wrote, “But, alas! He was more than Irish, that is to say for nothing was he disposed to help the Italians.” The sisters ended up going door-to-door, begging, and got some aid from the American Sisters of Charity.
Mother Cabrini eventually struck up a warm correspondence with Archbishop Corrigan. And the archbishop overcame his initial hesitation and founded many national parishes to welcome immigrants from Italy and elsewhere.. In one letter, Mother Cabrini assured him that he was appreciated in Rome (although there is evidence to the contrary; he never became a cardinal). And she bailed out both Archbishop Corrigan and Bishop Scalabrini by stepping in to administer the failing Cristoforo Colombo Hospital, which one of Bishop Scalabrini’s priests, a poor administrator, had run into financial trouble.
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Mother Cabrini walked into a fairly early stage of the great Italian migration to the United States, and we are in a somewhat later period of a great Latino migration. That is, the church today has had more time by now to adjust to the Latino migration than Archbishop Corrigan did with the Italians arriving in the 1880s. They’re different historical periods, but the occasion of Mother Cabrini’s centennial should prompt reflection among American Catholics on how they view today’s immigrants, and how the church is responding to them. Much has been done, but certainly, a truly immigrant church would have made it a higher priority to oppose the anti-immigrant rhetoric heard during the 2016 presidential campaign.
As Pope Francis noted in a letter to the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in September, their founder was not afraid to take on difficult situations to help the marginalized. “One such example was when Mother Cabrini opened a house in the most infamous Italian quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, just one year after the cruel lynching of Italians accused of having murdered the city’s Chief of Police,” he wrote. He was referring to the 1891 lynching of 11 Italians following acquittals in a trial on charges of murdering Chief David Hennessy, a vigilante attack that mainstream opinion approved of.
Pope Francis held her out as a model for working with immigrants and refugees. Praising Mother Cabrini for her focus on poverty, he continued:
She combined that with a lucid cultural sensitivity by continuous dialogue with local authorities. She undertook to conserve and revive in the immigrants the Christian tradition they knew in their country of origin, a religiosity which was sometimes superficial and often imbued with authentic popular mysticism. At the same time, she offered ways to fully integrate with the culture of the new countries so that the Missionary Mothers accompanied the Italian immigrants in becoming fully Italian and fully American. The human and Christian vitality of the immigrants thus became a gift to the churches and to the peoples who welcomed them. The great migrations underway today need guidance filled with love and intelligence similar to what characterizes the Cabrinian charism. In this way the meeting of peoples will enrich all and generate union and dialog, not separation and hostility.
The saint’s motto, Francis said, was from Philippians 4:13—“I can do all things in Him Who strengthens me.”