The most important Italian emigrant to the US, a marvelous person who spent her whole life helping their fellow Italians and not only them, and then acquired the American citizenship later becoming the first American saint ever: we're talking about Francesca Xavier Cabrini, the Patron Saint of Immigrants and Hospital Administrators.
After being fundamental for the life of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, Mother Cabrini died in Chicago on December 22, 1917. This is why, 100 years after her death, we celebrate her life, her achievements, her commitment and, through her, the experience of those who left Italy in search of a future, and landed in the United States. We do that meeting Lucia Mauro, a talented writer-director and author of "Frances Xavier Cabrini: The People’s Saint", a wonderful film/documentary out in these very days
Lucia, who was Francesca Saverio Cabrini?
Saint Francesca Saverio Cabrini, born in 1850 in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, Italy and dead in 1917 in Chicago, Illinois, was a great humanitarian and humanist who ministered to children, the poor, the sick, and immigrants adapting to life in a new land. She founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and is the first naturalized United States citizen to be canonized a saint (1946). While prayer was fundamental to Mother Cabrini, she did not remain behind cloistered walls. She went out into the big world, and despite frail health and a fear of water, she crossed the ocean many times to found orphanages, schools and hospitals (80 institutions). Her reach is global and remains relevant for our times.
How did she become the Patron Saint of Immigrants and Hospital Administrators?
These titles are the result of Mother Cabrini’s tireless work with restoring dignity and faith to the countless Italian immigrants living in tenements in America. Because they did not speak English, they had limited access to education, safe and sanitary housing, and quality healthcare. Pope Leo XIII urged Mother Cabrini to help the immigrants in America. While she was working in New York City, she stepped in to improve conditions at and the financing of a hospital for Italian immigrants originally established by the Scalabrian Brothers. Throughout her life, Mother Cabrini assisted immigrants and her work continues around the world today. I would like to add that, in my film, we feature interviews with immigrants from various parts of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Mexico, Eastern Europe and more. Mother Cabrini’s spirit lives in them all.
She is famous for the help she gave to the people who emigrated, from Italy but not only, to New York and to Chicago. Colorado was also very important in her life, right?
Yes. Mother Cabrini spent a great deal of time in Denver physically going down into the mines to pray with and bring food to the Italian miners. With mining being such a dangerous occupation and many of the men killed or injured, she raised funds to take care of their widows and children. There is a well-known Shrine to Mother Cabrini in Golden, Colorado. She also did extensive work in New Orleans, Seattle, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. We filmed a lovely fountain at Mother Cabrini’s Casa Natale in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano that show her journey across the globe. It’s also important to note that, having been raised in the agricultural environment of Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, she insisted on establishing her schools, orphanages and hospitals in areas with fresh air and water, gardens and trees. She understood the salutary effects of nature. Even at the end of her life, Mother Cabrini purchased a farm just outside Chicago in order to grow organic produce for the patients at Columbus Hospital.
Mother Cabrini has been named "The most important Italian emigrant to the US". Was there something peculiarly Italian in her?
Absolutely! It’s clear from reading Mother Cabrini’s letters and the descriptions of her by fellow Missionary Sisters that she loved life and was a wonderful pragmatist. Because she was used to living in a country where family is the true core of being – not a government often mired in bureaucracy – she treated her fellow sisters as if they were her daughters. She had a beautiful sense of humor and loved good wine, beer and food – risotto alla Milanese being one of her favorite dishes.
There’s a delightful story about Mother Cabrini in Spain. She found herself traveling with tourists, who stopped in Malaga to buy expensive boxes of the famed local raisins. She thought they were over-priced and not fresh. So she caught sight of a mule hauling a load of fresh-picked raisins; paid the farmer a modest fee; and chose and enjoyed those raisins instead. She was a shrewd businesswoman and a persistent fundraiser. When the businessmen tried to cheat her on the amount of acreage she was purchasing for the site of Columbus Hospital in Chicago, she insisted that she and her fellow sisters measure the plot of land. And she was right. Her natural “Italian” sense of distrust worked in her favor. Mother Cabrini embraced challenges. No matter what types of roadblocks people tossed before her, she saw them as leading to better things.
Let's talk about your film. How did you come up with the idea of working on it?
My film, "Frances Xavier Cabrini: The People’s Saint", is a divine gift that came about unexpectedly. My husband, producer Joe Orlandino, and I presented a screening of my short film, In My Brother’s Shoes – about the brother of a fallen U.S. Marine who takes a healing pilgrimage to Rome in his sibling’s combat boots – at Chicago’s National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in March 2017 for the Lenten season. This film won Best Short Film at the 2015 Mirabile Dictu International Catholic Film Festival at the Vatican.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Mother Cabrini’s entrance into eternal life. One of the members of the National Shrine’s Centenary Planning Committee was quite moved by our film and asked if we would like to film the upcoming Cardinal’s Mass in December. Instead, I imagined a film showing how Mother Cabrini lives around the world today. I was greatly inspired, and we immediately started raising the production budget. We filmed in Italy in June and in Chicago in July.
The film received its world premiere on Sunday, November 26, 2017 at Santa Cabrini Hospital in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The film screening was part of the dedication of the hospital’s Chapel to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. The venue, named for the Patron Saint of Immigrants and Hospital Administrators, was founded in 1960 by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to serve the many Italian immigrants in Montreal.
Following the world premiere, Frances Xavier Cabrini: The People’s Saint will receive its U.S. premiere on Tuesday, December 5, 2017 at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, just outside Philadelphia, with sponsorship by Cabrini University of Radnor, Pennsylvania. Cabrini University, founded in 1957, is a residential Catholic institution that welcomes students of all faiths, cultures and backgrounds.
The movie is part fiction and part documentary, with interviews. Who did you talk to?
I like to call this an art film that is an expository documentary. I also want to stress that the film is entirely factual. Mother Cabrini’s life is presented in a more poetic way through a combination of actor reenactments of pivotal moments in her life; archival footage and interviews with individuals who embody her humanitarian qualities. Three actresses portray Mother Cabrini at different stage of her life (childhood, young woman, and at the end of her life). For example, an actress portrays her as a child sending paper boats filled with flowers across the Venera River in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano. She imagined the flowers to be missionary sisters crossing the ocean to China. We also show her life-changing meeting with Pope Leo XIII, who urged her to “go West, not East,” to serve the Italian immigrants in America.
The film includes interviews with individuals from all walks of life, who carry on Mother Cabrini’s work today as the needs of immigrants and other populations continue to evolve. Each interview reveals a different aspect of Mother Cabrini’s life and mission. In Italy, we feature author-scholar Achille Mascheroni, who was born across from the house where Mother Cabrini was born; Sister Maria Regina Canale, who presents a dynamic tour of Mother Cabrini’s birth home in Sant’Angelo and the convent she founded in Codogno; artist Meo Carbone, who paintings are inspired by Mother Cabrini’s work with Italian immigrants; Sister Bridget Zanin, director of Chicago’s National Shrine, as well as the architect who restored the Shrine. There are a number of interviews with new immigrants(African, Latino, Filipino, Burmese, Eastern European, and more) to America about their needs and about the educational work of Youth Ministers.
Original music is composed by Enzo De Rosa (born in Napoli and based in Montreal). In Rome, we filmed Il Grande Coro di Roma singing Enzo’s original Hymn to Mother Cabrini at Sant’Alessio Church.
There are many personal and symbolic touches in the film. For example, the sounds of the bells ringing are from the Basilica of Santa Francesca Cabrini in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano. We filmed the opening sequence of a field, church and the Venera River precisely where Mother Cabrini as a child played. And we were at the Convent that she founded in Codogno on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Language is very important. The first part of the film is in Italian to show Mother Cabrini’s native land and her close connection to the Italian language. Part Two, which focuses on her work in America, is in English. Part Three, about Mother Cabrini’s global reach, is also in English. However, we highlight immigrants speaking in their own languages, with a scene of a Burmese-language Mass at Saint Ita Church in Chicago.
Will it be available for the Italian market, too?
Yes, the film is in both Italian and English, with corresponding subtitles. Our goal is to take the film to all the places where Mother Cabrini lived and worked … and beyond. We also will be promoting the film for TV broadcast and streaming. More people need to know this powerful and compassionate woman and be inspired by her good works.
Part of your movie is filmed in The National Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Chicago. Please describe this beautiful place to those of our readers who haven't already visited it.
The National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini is a spiritual and architectural wonder saved and restored from the demolition of Columbus Hospital, where it was once hidden from street view for decades. It reopened in 2012 and is located inside a luxury condominium complex. The Shrine contains the meticulously restored chapel, as well as a garden, spacious lobby, and exhibit rooms including a re-creation of the room where St. Frances Xavier Cabrini died while preparing Christmas candy treats for children on December 22, 1917.
Today Italy is a country from which people leave (more than 100,000 Italians emigrate every year) but also one to which many more arrive. We are the first country to meet the wave of those who flee from Africa to seek fortune in Europe: an experience in some ways similar to that with which Mother Cabrini had to deal, but in some ways very different. What would Mother Cabrini do if she lived in Italy today?
I believe we need to start with how dramatically different the immigration situation was during Mother Cabrini’s time compared to today. When Pope Leo XIII redirected her goal of being a missionary in China to helping the newly arrived Italian immigrants in America at the turn of the 20th century, immigrants in America were being greatly exploited and discriminated against. They were enticed by American entrepreneurs and politicians to help build a burgeoning new country (railroad workers, laborers, miners, stonemasons, etc.) with the promise of prosperity. Many ultimately achieved the American Dream, especially for subsequent generations. But, in most cases, immigrants at that time were welcomed as a source of cheap labor.
They were simultaneously accepted for their ability to help expand the country’s businesses and infrastructures, and shunned for being perceived as poor and lower class. They were initially escaping poverty, but they also were given an opportunity to prosper over time in their adopted country. This is quite different from the wave of refugees and immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe pouring in overwhelming numbers into Italy and other parts of Europe. They are fleeing out of utter and total desperation from war, terrorism and extreme poverty to a country, such as Italy, which has been in the midst of an economic crisis for a long time. Though humanitarian organizations have been created to improve refugees’ situations, great tension and hostility has developed between them and the local people who feel they are taking away work from a country already experiencing high unemployment and economic distress.
So to answer the question of what would Mother Cabrini do if she had lived in Italy today, I honestly don't think she would be living in Italy today. Mother Cabrini was constantly traveling and serving those in need around the world. Besides her desire to be a missionary in China, she wanted to assist those in need in Africa – but that’s one of the few continents she was not able to travel to. She spent a great deal of time in South America (Nicaragua, Panama, Argentina, Brazil), and established missions, schools and orphanages despite oppressive regimes. I truly believe she would have been creating humanitarian programs directly in the countries facing crises today.
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