Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Saint of Immigrants

The patroness of Italian immigrants, Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917) was born in Lombardy in what was then still part of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire. In 1880, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of which she remained Superior General until her death. When she asked Pope Leo XIII's approval to establish a mission in China, he advised her to go "not to the east, but to the west" - i.e., to go to the United States to serve the immense needs of the hordes of poor Italian immigrants who were then flooding the cities of the United States. So she and six other sisters came to New York, where they founded an orphanage, the first of more than 60 schools, hospitals, and orphanages they established in the United States and in Latin America. She died in Chicago on December 22, 1917 (the 29th anniversary of the death of Isaac Hecker). She had become a naturalized American citizen in 1909 and so became the first American citizen to be canonized in 1946. Her body was enshrined under glass in the altar of her chapel at Mother Cabrini High School near Fort Tryon park and the Cloisters in New York City.
When I was growing up, at least once each year my grandmother made sure we all visited her shrine and venerated he on-display body. Unlike Italy, where there a lots of saint - and saints' bodied on display - hers was the only such shrine around at that time. So it was a great curiosity to me as a youngster. I remember trying to imagine what it would be like to serve Mass at that altar and be kneeling there and staring at that body the entire Mass!
Along with her body, Mother Cabrini's story and the subsequent devotion to her is a vivid reminder of the centrality of the immigrant experience in the story of our country.  Her life is likewise a vivid illustration of the importance of immigration in the life of the Catholic Church in this country. Today, we continue both as a nation and as a Church to be enriched by the presence of new generations of immigrants, many of whom - like the impoverished Italian immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries - find their first home here in the Church. Sent to make disciples of all nations, the Church is the oldest and most successful multi-cultural society in the world. Saints like Mother Cabrini remind the Church of its perennial mission to migrants - and of the Church's mission to remind our society of both its debt to immigrants past and its responsibilities to immigrants present and future.

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