Before the great wave of Hispanic immigration that swept the U.S. in the last several decades, historians spoke of four main periods of Catholic immigration linked to four ethnic groups: the Irish (peaking in the 1850s), the Germans (1880s), the Italians (early 1900s), and the Poles and other Slavs (1920s). The immigrant experience, including entry into the Catholic Church as they found it in the new country, was in some ways different for each.
And for none more difficult than for the Italians.
Between 1880 and 1920, as many as 4 million of them came to America, mostly from poverty-ridden southern Italy. Many were temporary workers — “builders of bridges, tunnels and subways, longshoremen and factory workers,” as one writer said — who came to earn money and, that done, hastened home. But many stayed and made new homes in America. Or tried.
Early in those years, Frances Cabrini had met with Pope Leo XIII and told him of her dream to go to China as a missionary. “No,” Pope Leo answered, “not to the East but to the West.” He wanted her and her new Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart to go to America and do pastoral work among the Italian immigrants.
What happened after that is a bright page in the sometimes tumultuous story of Italian-American Catholicism. The heroic love of God and neighbor that motivated her was formally recognized in 1946 when Frances Cabrini was declared a saint. That made her the first U.S. citizen to be canonized — even though she remained, in the words of a historian, “Italian ... to the very marrow of her bones.”
Francesca Cabrini was born July 15, 1850, in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, a town in Lombardy, youngest of 13 children in a well-off farming family. A pious child — the “little saint,” neighbors called her — she longed to be a missionary and played at sailing paper boats filled with violets representing the sisters she meant to send all over the world.
But her father had other ideas, and after studying to be a teacher, Francesca taught school. On two occasions, she sought admission to religious orders but was turned down — ostensibly for poor health but in fact because a local monsignor had other ideas: He wanted her to take over direction of a troubled orphanage.
After she had run the orphanage for six years, the bishop of the diocese asked her and her companions to form a religious community. The Missionary Sisters were born, with the foundress taking Frances Xavier as her religious name — “Xavier” for the 16th-century Jesuit missionary to the Far East, Francis Xavier.
Although the new order was at first only a diocesan institution, Mother Cabrini had larger plans from the start. After establishing new convents in Cremona and Milan, she went to Rome to seek papal approval and, she hoped, open a convent there. At first the cardinal in charge of such matters said “no” — Rome had enough convents already — but this determined woman of great charm persisted, and the cardinal ended by allowing her to open not just one convent but two.
It was around then that she had the interview with Leo XIII that sent her on her way to the United States. Already in 1884, the American bishops at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore had discussed the desperate pastoral situation of the Italian immigrants. Little came of it, except that “the Italian problem” was by now recognized as a problem for the Church at large.
New York already had some 50,000 Italians, but only a handful ever went to church. The newcomers’ situation included poverty, a critical shortage of Italian-speaking priests, habits of anticlericalism and spotty religious practice that accompanied them from the old country. There was also pervasive anti-Italian feelings, not only outside, but within the American Catholic community.
Sister Dolores Liptak, a historian of the immigrant experience, comments wryly that the fact that some of these immigrants managed to practice the Faith “cannot be understood in terms of their being understood or well-treated either by American Catholics or Americans generally.”
Over time, a pastoral strategy began to take shape, bolstered by the arrival of new Italian religious communities like the Scalabrinian Fathers and the Pallottines as well as by training American priests to work with the Italians. The first parish in the U.S. specifically for them had been founded in Philadelphia in 1852, and now these spiritual enclaves retaining the language and devotional traditions of Italy multiplied. Mother Cabrini and her sisters were part of the increasingly effective response to a situation of obvious need.
Mother Cabrini arrived in New York on March 31, 1889, and, after a short-lived period of tension with the local archbishop over where to set up shop, she and her companions got to work. Within a month, they were running an orphanage. In less than three years, they had a hospital as well. (Mother Cabrini called all her hospitals — two in New York, two in Chicago — Columbus Hospital.)
There’s not enough room here to list here all the orphanages, schools, hospitals and clinics these women were responsible for establishing and operating. But numbers at least suggest the magnitude of what they achieved. By the time Mother Cabrini died 34 years after her arrival, the 2,300 Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart working in the United States and throughout the Western Hemisphere had launched 67 institutions devoted to the physical, moral and spiritual welfare of people in need. Italians were not the only ones they served, but Italians remained the special focus of the sisters’ efforts.
As early as September 1891, Mother Cabrini took 14 sisters to Nicaragua to start an academy. Returning to the United States by way of New Orleans, she discovered that a year earlier a mob there had lynched a number of Italians accused of crimes. Her response was to summon several sisters from New York to begin work among the Italians of the Crescent City.
Like the little girl who years before had dreamed of dispatching missionaries all over the world, Mother Cabrini carried on a ministry of expansive horizons. Argentina and Chile, France, Spain, England — Missionary Sisters went to all these places to work. In the U.S., the order spread west across the United States — to Chicago, to the mining camps of Colorado and Sing Sing prison in New York, Mississippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington state.
In 1909, Mother Cabrini became a naturalized citizen. The following year, knowing her strength was failing, she announced her intention to resign as superior general of her order and devote herself exclusively to prayer. But the houses of the Missionary Sisters voted unanimously in favor of her staying on. Observing those results, the cardinal-prefect of the Vatican’s congregation for religious told her, jokingly, “Mother Cabrini, though up to now you have governed your institute badly, I have decided to give you another chance. You are to remain superior general.” The foundress wasn’t fazed. “Well, I warn you that I shall be just as severe as in the past,” she replied.
She died Dec. 22, 1917, at Columbus Hospital in Chicago. After the unusually brief interval of 21 years, Pope Pius XI declared her Blessed. Pius XII canonized her in 1946 and in 1950 designated her “Patroness of the Immigrants.”
At a point in Edwin O’Connor’s novel about big city politics, “The Last Hurrah,” Frank Skeffington, mayor and politician extraordinaire, mulls a problem. A statue must be placed in an Italian district, but there are conflicting views about whose it should be. Skeffington’s solution: Mother Cabrini. He explains:
“Italian born, and the first American saint. Let’s see them get out of that. The first man, woman, child or monsignor who objects will be stoned out of town.”
For a politician like Skeffington, honoring Mother Cabrini may have been no more than a smart idea, but for others it is welldeserved recognition of a brave woman who served her people, her adopted country and her God, and served them all remarkably well.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.