STAMFORD—Frances Xavier Cabrini was 38 years old when she first came to America in 1889 with six religious sisters, inspired by the hope of helping Italian immigrants in their new homeland, which held promise but more often prejudice.
After arriving in New York from Italy, the sisters encountered challenges both in the Church and society, said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Paul Moses, whose book, “An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians,” explores the Italian and Irish immigration experience.
During her life, Mother Cabrini, founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was driven by her devotion to the Sacred Heart to travel across the globe and establish 67 institutions to help immigrants and the dispossessed.
“She went into many impoverished homes, across continents, through jungles, deep into mines where Italian immigrants labored, and prisons, hospitals, classrooms and church basements,” Moses said.
Her example is particularly relevant today, given our national debate about immigration, Moses said during a talk at Sacred Heart Church on Sunday, following a Mass celebrated in her honor by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano.
“I find Mother Cabrini to be an inspiring figure,” Moses said. “She accomplished so much and was an amazing woman who had to deal with her own fears and overcome health problems to accomplish all she did. She combined traditional Catholic piety and her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus with practical social outreach to people who were marginalized.”
She was the first naturalized U.S. citizen to be proclaimed a saint in 1946 and today is recognized as the patron saint of immigrants.
Much of the adversity she confronted came from the hostility between the Italians and the Irish, which is the theme of Moses’ book. But prejudice also was prevalent in the Archdiocese of New York, where Italian immigrants from Southern Italy were often treated as second class and had to hold their services in church basements amid complaints they did not contribute enough money.
“The U.S. Catholic bishops took some time to warm up to the immigrants flooding into the United States from Italy, starting in the 1880s,” Moses said. “They were under pressure from the Vatican to address the needs of the immigrants.”
One of Mother Cabrini’s principal antagonists was Archbishop Michael Corrigan, who at one point during a tense meeting recommended that she and her sisters return to Italy, to which she promptly responded, “No, not that, Your Excellency. I am here by order of the Holy See, and here I must stay.”
It was Pope Leo XIII, himself, who asked her to go to New York, instead of China, which had been her hope since childhood. As he told her, “Not to the East, but to the West,” which is where she helped hundreds of thousands of immigrants across the United States.
Mother Cabrini also founded an academy in Nicaragua and had other projects in Latin America. In 1892, she traveled to New Orleans so three sisters could begin a mission in the city where 11 Italians had been lynched for the death of the police chief, despite being acquitted of the crime.
“While society at large smeared these Italian immigrants as criminals, Mother Cabrini opened her heart to them and saw them as people,” Moses said.
In recent months, Mother Cabrini has also been a topic of political wrangling in New York City after a mayoral commission turned down a recommendation to erect a statue in her honor.
“The larger question is how can we honor Mother Cabrini,” Moses said. “A statue in the nation’s largest city in the place where she began her ministry to immigrants would certainly be a good way to honor her…And the institutions that she founded are monuments to her. But we can also honor her by emulating her love for people whom society may despise, people who are marginalized — especially immigrants — and by finding the compassion to overcome society’s prejudices, person to person, in our everyday actions.”
The event was organized by Peter Maloney, a board member of Catholic Charities of Fairfield County.
“Catholic Charities is doing all the things on behalf of the Diocese of Bridgeport that Mother Cabrini did,” he said. “We are feeding the poor, we are housing the homeless and we are also helping immigrants by providing localized legal services in Fairfield County.”
Proceeds from the sale of Moses’ book following his talk were donated to Catholic Charities. (“An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians” is available at Amazon.com)
Moses is also author of “The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace,” which won the Catholic Press Association award for the year’s best history book and became the basis for the Emmy-nominated PBS docudrama titled “The Sultan and the Saint.”
Moses worked for 23 years in daily journalism, mostly at Newsday’s New York City edition. He served as the paper’s City Hall bureau chief, Brooklyn editor, city editor and religion writer. As a rewrite man, he wrote the paper’s lead stories on the World Trade Center attack and on a subway crash that killed five people, the latter winning the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Reporting in 1992. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Maureen.