Today the Church in the United States commemorates Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), an Italian-born religious foundress, who crossed the Atlantic ocean multiple times to serve Italian immigrants in both North and South America. She became a U.S. citizen, was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946 (the first American citizen to be so recognized), and then declared the patron saint of immigrants by the same Pope in 1950. (Why we commemorate her today, I don’t know. In the old liturgical calendar, she used to be celebrated more logically on December 22, the date of her death in Chicago in 1917.)
Although Mother Cabrini (as she was known in life and is still referred to even now that she is a saint) died in Chicago, her body is famously exposed for veneration under the altar in her shrine in the New York City Washington Heights neighborhood, in the convent of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the order she founded in 1880. When I was growing up a short distance away across the Harlem River in the Bronx, it was a shrine, which had special significance for my Sicilian grandmother, who made sure we went to visit it yearly. It was always a treat to visit the shrine, not least because of its magnificent location in Washington Heights, the highest part of Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River, a mile or so north of the George Washington Bridge. But, while we took in the sights and enjoyed being in the beautiful park (home also to the world-famous medieval art museum, The Cloisters), my grandmother always made certain that we visited the chapel and there venerated the great Italian patron of immigrants to the New World.
Trained in Italy as a teacher, Frances Cabrini originally applied to join the order she had been taught by, but was rejected. So she gathered a group of like-minded women around her and formed her own religious community, founding a school and homes for orphans. But, when she applied to Pope Leo XIII for his approval for a missionary outreach to China, the Pope instead directed her to the United States and the growing Italian immigrant communities there. "Not to the East, but to the West," was his advice. Like so many of the Italian immigrants, she was less than enthusiastically received at first by the Irish-American Catholic establishment. But she persisted in her mission and over time founded some 67 institutions (schools, hospitals, orphanages) in major cities in the United States and in South America. In their day, those institutions served Italian and other immigrants and made a notable impact in their communities.
Those days are gone now and with them and many of those once impressive institutions, but structured outreach within immigrant communities as an explicit expression of the Church’s commitment to social solidarity remains central to the Church’s life and work in the United States – now as it always has been, and (given our contemporary crisis of social solidarity) now maybe more than ever. Not unlike our attitudes toward the accumulation of wealth, our response to the immigrants among us is a profoundly spiritual and moral matter - a fundamental affirmation or not of the Gospel's demands.
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