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The sister with the suitcase

· ​Spirituality ·

Her symbol would be a suitcase: as is well known by the sisters of the institute she founded exactly 136 years ago who exhibited her leather travel bag, worn by thousands of journeys, at the museum they dedicated to her at the Mother House, Codogno. For this frail but determined Lombard woman who dedicated her life to helping Italian migrants, who in those years were turning full of hope to the Americas, did indeed make innumerable journeys. Francesca Cabrini received this mission from Pope Leo xiii and to carry it out she made herself into a migrant among migrants. Having sailed from Genoa with seven sisters in 1889 – she, to whom the sea was unknown, as it was to the majority of the women and men piled into third class – already during the crossing began to become aware of the appalling conditions in which migrants lived. Like them, she thought she would find a welcoming arrangement and help once she had arrived in New York, but bitter disappointment awaited her.

The commemorative postage stamp with the obliteration on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Frances Cabrini’s canonization and the travel bag used by the religious.

The Scalabrinians who were meeting her when she arrived began by telling her that they were not expecting her so soon and that their arrangements were not yet ready. The following day, after resting at a terribly dirty inn, she went to see Archbishop Corrigan and found that the situation was even worse. The prelate ordered them to leave on the same ship because the Irish Catholics, of which he was one, did not want Italian sisters under their feet. Indeed, the Irish, having by then been settled in America for several decades, deplored the arrival of other Catholic immigrants as poor, dirty and ignorant as were the Italians. They did not even allow them to set foot in their churches.

This experience only served to confirm to Frances Cabrini how badly their presence was needed. Moreover even without protection and without knowing a word of English, she set to work immediately to find a dignified abode and well-to-do supporters who would fund her schools and orphanages, even if she was to come up against a wall of difficulties. Nothing went right for her, everything seemed to conspire against her project: but rather than as obstacles she saw the difficulties and disappointments as spiritual trials to purify her intentions and give solid foundations to her work. “We came to hear”, the sisters wrote in their memoirs, “remarks and opinions, which had we listened to them, would, so to speak, have destroyed the work and in general the idea of doing good for the poor Italians. There was also talk about the hatred here for Italians and their schools, the great difficulties we would have to overcome, etc. Had the Reverend Mother General been a woman of little spirit, she would certainly have had to give up everything and leave immediately”. For her part, Cabrini wrote “People here cannot bear the sight of the Italians”. However, whatever happened Frances was sure that by entrusting herself without reserve to the Heart of Jesus, at the right time there would be no lack of positive results: she taught her sisters that “The mission must be going to go really well, since it is encountering so much opposition”.

The interior of the luxury Hotel Perry in Seattle, turned into a hospital by Mother Cabrini

They worked in two directions: visiting the poor and understanding their needs on the one hand; and on the other, seeking with focused meetings to understand American society. It was during this period that Frances’ great loves were born: for the poor ignorant and despised Italian immigrants, without protection and without help, and for America too, which she straightaway foresaw was full of prospects to be realized and openings for those arriving. She immediately made herself loved by the Americans for her frank approach, the fact that she went straight to the point and her practicality. The way to save Italian migrants was suddenly clear to her: to transform an army of ignorant and poor Italians into esteemed American citizens. Thus she succeeded in turning their enemies – like Archbishop Corrigan – into supporters who offered her assistance for building her first orphanages and schools. Indeed Frances was not asking for charity, but knew how to involve those she was speaking to by proposing investments in works of social assistance which, thanks to her skill, were to become prosperous institutions. Money is more willingly given to those who show that they know how to make good use of it. Her works, which always flanked services to be paid for side by side with charitable services, were managed as businesses and thus possibly also had to make a profit, which was immediately invested in other foundations.

This kind of integration into American society, lacking at the outset virtually any institutional coverage and money, was very like what the immigrants were experiencing, and the sisters found this invaluable in inventing strategies to help them. As is revealed by the words of an interview which Frances Cabrini granted the daily newspaper The Sun a few months after her arrival: “Our goal is to snatch the city’s Italian orphans away from the wretchedness and danger which threaten them and make them into good people”.

In fact Mother Cabrini elaborated a model of integration for the immigrants – a model which she herself, who acquired American citizenship in 1909, and of course her sisters, was to supervise – whereby, thanks to her membership in the Catholic religion, her new American identity could coexist with her Italian identity. It was precisely the universality of Catholicism, in her opinion, which guaranteed continuity between the situation of the migrants’ departure and that of their arrival.

Even though life for both the Italians and Catholics in general was quite challenging, Frances grasped the real possibilities for affirmation and integration in the new world, she saw the positive side of the freedom and coexistence of different religions, a guarantee of tolerance which Europe, sick with anti-clerical intolerance, no longer assured her.

A network of projects for the district which included the parish school and the visits to families spread from every house which she founded. The sisters not only took food and clothing to the most deprived, but they also encouraged the Baptism of children, the regularization of marriages in church and the return to practising the Catholic religion. Immigrants in difficulty knew that they could get in touch with the convent to ask for help, they knew that the sisters would help the unemployed to find a job, would take in children without a family and would ensure that poor families in need of legal assistance would have access to it. If necessary they would also help those who wanted repatriation. At every institute there was a secretary to help immigrants to write home, to comply with the bureaucratic practices and to keep in touch with the institutions in their country of origin. The intervention changed according to the needs and characteristics of the place where they were settling. In New Orleans, for example, where an ugly episode of violence generated a wave of anti-Italian feeling, the mothers succeeded in recovering the esteem and admiration of the citizens who were passionate about music by having Verdi sung during a procession.

Mother Cabrini’s strategy provided for the use of Italian with the immigrants: religious services were in Italian and so were school plays, just as the staff in hospitals were Italian, as was part of the teaching in schools. However in every school her constant concern was to guarantee good teaching in the local language to foster their integration.

The religious also looked after prisoners, the most wretched group of Italian immigrants: “It was a moving spectacle to see more than a hundred men familiar with every vice hanging like children on a humble sister’s words, learning what perhaps they had never known, raising objections and asking questions in order to understand better and to know more”, one Cabrinian sister wrote.

Whether it was a matter of mines or prisons, Mother Cabrini was not afraid to send her sisters – armed solely with their charity – to terrible places where few women would have dared to set foot The religious habit was not always a protection but they managed to make themselves accepted by these unfortunates by speaking to them in Italian, with gentleness and showing with simplicity and patience a sincere interest in their souls. For many miners and prisoners the sisters’ voices and smiles were their first human contact after months of humiliation and toil, of isolation and despair. The sisters’ aim was to give dignity and hope to that fringe of desperate people for whom emigration had been a failure.

In some cases the Cabrinian sisters also succeeded in obtaining the revision of trials with a favourable outcome for the condemned, penalized by their ignorance of the English language which did not permit them to defend themselves.

When opening a school, an orphanage or a hospital for the immigrants, Mother Cabrini always chose beautiful places and spacious and light buildings, if possible surrounded by ample green spaces. Thus the last became the first. But in this way too she wanted to allay the negative rumours that weighed down the Italian community, making it little accepted and little esteemed by the other ethnic groups, especially the Irish. The beautiful buildings, the style in which she prepared the inauguration celebrations, to which the religious and secular authorities were invited in order to taste Italian specialities and to listen to opera, contributed not only to reinforcing her fame as an entrepreneurial woman of value, but also to improving the image of the Italians.

In preparing the buildings for their new function of social assistance she often had to battle with entire neighbourhoods which did not want a settlement for Italian migrants to debase the market value of the houses. In Chicago, to force her to change her ideas, they sabotaged the hospital under construction but Frances did not give up her project, on the contrary, she decided to take in the sick immediately: “I don’t believe that our enemies want to get to the point of roasting the sick alive”. And events proved her right. In Seattle she overcame all the difficulties set in her way and managed to turn a luxury hotel into a very beautiful hospital.

Today the migratory flows, which in Mother Cabrini’s times concerned above all the poorest Europeans who went to the Americas, involve all Third World countries and Europe, from being the point of departure has become the destination. However Frances Cabrini had already seen in migrants the new people: rootless, no longer with any religious affiliation or homeland, they had to build their own identities and their own lives. Emigration has become the problem of our time and for this very reason the saint who died almost 100 years ago, in Chicago in 1917, is more up to date and more important than ever today.

Lucetta Scaraffia

PRINTED EDITION

 

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Aug. 20, 2019

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