An Investigation on the arrival of the cabriniane in Buenos Aires
Mother Cabrini and her travelling companion arrived in Mendoza on December 1, 1895, and from there, a few days later, they arrived in Buenos Aires, where the Italian nun began to travel the length and breadth of the city to find a home to begin her work. It was during one of these walks that Mother Cabrini saw a very high palm tree. Looking at it she said, "There, we will have a mission." It was the Flores district, where the sisters settled four years later, to protect orphaned girls and children of humble origins. After visiting about sixty houses she decided to take one in the centre, on Calle Belgrano, to open the College of Santa Rosa so that would have given the first Sisters a chance to sustain themselves.
The mission at the peripheral barrio , however, began gradually. The girls of the college went on days off to gather the children who lived on the streets and taught a little 'catechism’ between one sweet and another in order to attract them. But Mother Cabrini immediately thought of something more stable, as is written in: Memorie delle fondazioni argentine "Our reverend Mother Foundress, always thirsty for the salvation of souls, by divine inspiration, bought this house, located in a suburb of Buenos Aires, at that time exclusively inhabited by immigrants, mostly Italians of the underclass. It was a farm which had been abandoned for many years covering two and a half acres; there they discovered traces of an elegant park, flanking a majestic forest of eucalyptus and pine trees which ended surrounding a "chalet", Two hundred metres away were the remains of a ruined house, which was the former home of the first farmers who worked in the countryside. This was the only defence from a torrent of unclean water flowing in on one side.
All round scattered in a vast plain, without roads, immersed in the dust and mud, depending on the season, were zinc or wooden huts, dirty and wretched, where there lived (brutalized by excessive toil, the contempt of the natives, bad habits, poisoned by perverse ideas about religion) hundreds of Italian immigrants. For them, there was no longer a God, and no longer a homeland. Many did not even know that there were churches in Buenos Aires. They were born; they joined together and died without seeing a priest, truly worthy of compassion, since they lived far away from the church. "The sisters did not waste any time. From the first few days “they got going, rallying around the children to teach them catechism. They went from house to house, trying to make themselves understood by those uncouth people, who spoke the most complicated Italian dialects, yet hardly spoke Italian or Spanish. They were insulted, cursed at, mocked, and there was even someone who fled from their sight, believing them to be ghosts, but there were some who were willing to accept them. From nine in the morning until six in the evening, without pause, the children came to the chalet, to be instructed in our holy religion, and the sisters took it in turns to instruct them. Once they were inside, they often ran away to climb up the trees looking for nests, or to gather fruit, which was very abundant, or run into the tall grass, with the only aim of driving the nuns mad. There was some of such a temperament that they came to pick a quarrel with a knife in their hand. Almost everyone worked to earn their keep: the smallest, not being able to go to school due to bad roads and poverty, would mess around here and there, bathe in the river, living the life of little savages: dirty, insolent, corrupt, almost before reaching the power of reason. Having spent the day walking and catechizing, the Sisters gathered in the chalet (no locks, but full of cracks), where they attended to domestic chores, to practices of piety and work, mending linen to earn an income, even if very little, in order to provide for the Collegio Santa Rosa. While they were gathered there, criminals entered into the farm (until there was even one who entered the Community room) with the intention of stealing fruit or something else, if they had found it."
Soon, one can read on “they begin to celebrate religious services, and to administer the sacraments. It is truly touching to see these poor immigrants in such circumstances: the older ones are set to be returned to their villages and cry to console themselves. These poor rough settlers, are treated as beasts of burden by greedy businessmen to enrich themselves, whose endless arduous labour leaves no time except to eat and sleep, so they only know material pleasures; when hearing and calling to mind the truths of Faith, the harmony of sacred songs, the sweet sound of the word of true charity, which then sinks to the bottom of their hearts, moving undiscovered fibres, like an unknown echo forgotten for many years, of a new, intense and unexpected joy. Their drowsy spirits awake to a fire, a light that revives them almost like saddened flowers in the shadows, benumbed by the cold, revived by the kiss of the sun to open and adorn themselves with beautiful colours and perfume. Now this impression of moral well-being, this redemption of the soul, they, in their inarticulate ways, expressed it, then, whilst leaving the church to go back to their homes, with these words: Oh! You are better off here than at the tavern! Meanwhile, every year, the population grows, more houses are built, so that our orphanage is now almost surrounded.”
Towards the end of 1902 - the text continues - "they start to build a church of zinc and wood, capable of holding 800 people. It cost a lot of money and plenty of mishaps; however, there was the immense joy of those poor people in having a place to hear Holy Mass. They also begun to build a small house between the church and the other ruin, which served as a barn, this was cleared as well, so that there was room for a school with various classes, a refectory for the poor children, orphans and the abandoned, who were already being rescued, and several rooms for the Sisters, while the chalet, now reconditioned, served as a dormitory for the girls. These huge expenses were covered by the mercy of the heart of Jesus which moved the hearts of the rich."
Speaking with the older sisters of the Argentinian missions, you have an idea of the work of evangelization that the religious were doing. Every year a report of their apostolic works was sent to the Bishop. Among these are some episodes of evangelization and what the nuns call " Edifying facts." For example: "A child, made almost wild from poverty and filth when he was abandoned, the child’s face was deformed by an infinite number of ulcers, which no one had been able or willing to cure. The child was brought to the orphanage, and they tried to wash him. This was his salvation: in a short time he was healed, and, of course, as was believed, his soul was saved."
Le Memorie are a treasure trove of stories; the sisters were delighted when they could bring a person back to religious observance. For the orphanage, Mother Cabrini had spotted a villa, or rather a forest in order to give the orphans a good and healthy place to live. Here the sisters had built a grotto of the Madonna of Lourdes which was venerated for a long time in the district. Every year, every month, every week for over fifty years the cabriniane walked around the neighbourhood in search of Italian immigrants, and not just to restore their Christian identity which they had completely abandoned. The strategy was primarily that of prayer. Often the people who lived in the countryside remained isolated without hope and without anyone to care for them. This was a feature of the missionaries who "did not sleep" when they were aware of these cases of neglect.
Among the youth the "explorers of Regina Coeli" (they called themselves battalions) was founded, who worked with the sisters during the most important times, especially during the festivities, religious ceremonies, processions and the many initiatives that took place during the "missions" which were held every year in the post-Easter period. These young people actually intervened when they realized that the nuns and the orphanages were in danger, as was the case during the strikes and riots that took place in the city.
Today the neighborhood has changed and the missionary sisters have continued to intensify their pastoral work adapting to the times, so as to usher in the parish of Santa Francesca Cabrini, a short distance from the house where Pope Francis was born. For many years now, in place of the great forest which had housed the mission, there is a square.
These are just some of the thousands of examples of evangelizating work which the missionaries of Mother Cabrini were able to do with the help of some very good priests, prayer, and the many sacrifices which then contributed a bit 'towards making the neighbourhood more welcoming when Bergoglio family arrived in the twenties as immigrants from Italy.
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