St. Frances Xavier Cabrini depicted in stained-glass window at saint's shrine chapel in Washington Heights section of New York City (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The November 13 feast day of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, patron saint of immigrants, comes with a special resonance this year. 2017 marks the centenary of her death on December 22, 1917, and Caritas Internationalis has launched a “Share the Journey” campaign that highlights Mother Cabrini as a model for how to love immigrants and refugees.

It fits with Pope Francis’s response to the nativism sweeping through the United States and other Western countries. “Journeys are made by two: those who come to our land, and us, we who go towards their heart, to understand them, to understand their culture, their language,” he said in initiating the campaign.

Mother Cabrini embodied both aspects of the journey. The first U.S. citizen to be canonized, she was an immigrant to the United States who devoted her life to welcoming immigrants. She remarkably established more than fifty institutions aimed mainly at serving Italian immigrants, including orphanages, schools, hospitals, and convents. What makes it all the more remarkable is that she did so while overcoming the considerable discrimination she faced as an Italian and as a woman: She was a double minority.

Mother Cabrini quickly learned what it was like to be considered a “guinea,” and soon discovered that church politics in America worked against the Italians. The Italian priests she had to work with were often incompetent. But, simply put, Mother Cabrini was more competent and more compassionate than the churchmen she had to deal with; she usually got her way.

Francesca Saveria Cabrini was born July 15, 1850 in a town south of Milan, the youngest of thirteen children, of whom just four survived. Having grown up in poverty, she was a determined young woman who at first was turned down by a religious order because she was considered sickly; she’d had smallpox.  Once she entered the convent, she pursued a childhood dream of serving as a missionary in China. But Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini of Piacenza wanted her to go instead to New York, and pulled the strings needed to get Pope Leo XIII to order her, “Not to the East, but to the West.”   

Scalabrini, who was beatified in 1997 and given the title “Father of the Migrants,” had noted that the mass of Italians who began arriving in America in the 1880s were receiving a chilly welcome from the church. He led a departure ceremony for the thirty-eight-year-old Mother Cabrini and six other sisters who traveled with her to New York, giving them a crucifix as a gift and then going with them to the train station in Milan (which would one day be named Stazione Cabrini). From Le Havre, France, the sisters traveled on La Gourgogne, a four-hundred ninety-five-foot-long, four-masted steamship with two smokestacks—and the sisters endured the fright of their lives when a violent storm struck on their third day at sea. When she saw the Statue of Liberty at the entrance to New York Harbor on March 31, 1889, Mother Cabrini asked the other sisters to sing a hymn to Mary, “Ave Maris Stella,” or “Hail, Star of the Sea.” One day, her achievements would land her name on a plaque on the statue’s base, the first on a list of famous immigrants.

Mother Cabrini quickly learned what it was like to be considered a “guinea,” and soon discovered that church politics in America worked against the Italians.

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Mother Cabrini’s mission to America grew out of Pope Leo XIII’s concern that the American church, then still under Vatican supervision as a missionary territory, was doing a poor job with the arriving Italian immigrants. The American bishops skirted the issue at their Third Plenary Council in Baltimore in 1884, even after the Vatican had urged them to take action.

Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York, who Mother Cabrini was to meet after her arrival, was perhaps the most influential of the bishops who initially saw no need to give special attention to the newcomers. According to the minutes of a Roman meeting held December 1, 1883 to prepare for the Baltimore council, Archbishop Corrigan “observed that it was difficult to provide special churches for the Italians because: 1) the Italian immigrants did not ordinarily frequent the church; 2) they had their dwellings dispersed throughout the various parts of the cities; and 3) they made no offerings to priests either for the latter’s support or the maintenance of the church.” The bishops told a Vatican prefect that “it was impossible to provide at the moment a specific plan for meeting the spiritual needs of the Italian immigrants.”

Following the tepid response from the bishops at their 1884 council, Pope Leo commissioned a report the following year on what American churchmen called the “Italian problem.” Archbishop Corrigan sent him information gathered from the pastor of Transfiguration Church, which encompassed the lower Manhattan slums where the greatest number of Italians in New York resided. The pastor argued against creating separate parishes for Italians, saying they wouldn’t have the money to support one, and mentioned that the Italian Mass in his parish was held in the church basement.

Corrigan, surprisingly oblivious to Vatican sensibilities given his priestly training in Rome,  sent a cover letter that explained further. It was translated in For the Love of Immigrants: Migration Writings and Letters of Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini, 1839-1905.

For four years now, they have had free use of the basement of Fr. Lynch’s church. Why only the basement? Forgive me, Excellency, if I tell you frankly that these poor devils are not very clean, so that the others do not want to have them in the upstairs church. Otherwise the others move out, and then good-bye the income. In time we hope to remedy these things. But it is necessary to move slowly.

In response, the Vatican issued a sharply critical 1887 report that said Italians were treated in a humiliating way in the U.S. church. It suggested that the religious indifference the immigrants were accused of was their reaction to an indifferent church. For the Love of Immigrants translated: “It is sufficient to point out that they are so despised for their filth and beggary that in New York the Irish granted them free use of the basement of the Church of the Transfiguration, so that they could gather for their religious practices, since the Irish did not want to have them in the upstairs church.” (Like Corrigan and the pastor of Transfiguration Church, most bishops and priests were Irish or of Irish ancestry.)

Pope Leo followed up on this report in 1888 with the encyclical “On Italian Immigrants,” which was addressed to the American bishops. The Italian pope, born Giacchino Pecci, took the opportunity to remind the bishops that his “love for men who spring from the same race as ourselves makes Us more zealous for their benefit, and We had the certain hope that your zeal and assistance would never be wanting to Us.”

The following year, Pope Leo dispatched Mother Cabrini to America, sending her not only through a frightening storm at sea but into a whirlpool of ecclesial politics.


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I see no better solution of this question, Mother, than that you and your sisters return to Italy

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.”

Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.

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