The city of New Orleans, my home town, has a very strong Catholic subculture and a long memory. All my life, I have heard of “Mother Cabrini,” the little Italian nun who lived there during her remarkable life in the United States. The convent she built is just across the street from the cemetery where most of my family is buried. She was canonized while I was in college, which made her the first American citizen to become a saint of the Catholic Church.
She was born in north Italy in 1850, the youngest of thirteen children. She wanted to become a religious sister and a missionary to China. But when she had an audience with Pope Leo XIII, he said to her, “No, Cabrini. Not east. West! I need you in America. The Italian immigrants there need you.” And so it was. The little Mother Cabrini with 7 or 8 Sisters sailed for America, arriving in New York in 1889. She had no money to speak of; she had no political influence. She didn’t speak English very well. But . . . the Pope had said “America.” Here she was, and here she would stay. She worked hard—very hard, especially among the children of the Italian immigrants. Some had been orphaned; most were very poor, both physically and spiritually. She recruited other Sisters; she built orphanages, schools, missions. She traveled in this new world from New York City to Denver, Colorado, to New Orleans, to Buenos Aires in Argentina. In 1909, at the age of 59, she became an American citizen. And during World War I, in December, 1917, she died at the age of 67, worn out by her unremitting labor for the spread of our holy faith in this new world. In 1946, during my college years, she was canonized by Pope Pius XII. Our first American citizen saint!
Her canonization made official sanctity seem very close to many Americans, and especially many New Yorkers, Chicagoans, and those in New Orleans. Before that, saints had been people who lived long ago. Now, we had a saint who had died only 29 years ago, who had walked our streets, begged groceries from the merchants along Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans to feed her orphans, known people whom we later knew. One morning in New Orleans, she met a ten-year-old altar boy after Mass. The priest said to her, “Mother, this is Charles Greco.” She looked attentively at the child, then laid her hand on his head and said, with her thick Italian accent, “My son, you will go far in the Church.” He became a priest and a bishop, and never tired of telling the story of having been touched by Mother Cabrini.
Years ago, I knew an old lady in New Orleans who remembered going shopping with her mother and encountering Mother Cabrini with a big basket over her arm, going from store to store and asking for contributions for the Italian orphans. And when you know someone who once knew a now-canonized saint, it makes sanctity seem very close indeed!
November 13 is her feastday: this wonderful apostle and missionary to whom Pope Leo XIII said, “America, Cabrini. America!” Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This Message was composed some years ago.