The gift of obstinacy

Mother Cabrini was a little ball of holy fire. Standing five foot, from her heels to the highest ridge on her cape, and softly spoken, she was not formidable until you crossed her. God had given her a mission, and by God it would be done. It was not the mission she had selected for herself: to be some sort of teacher in China. Rather, with a most unexpected but very useful letter from the Pope, she had been sent to America.

Help was needed for the Italian immigrants in the ghettos of Boston and New York — and of Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, New Orleans, St Louis, San Francisco, and so forth. Help: not only spiritual but material. They had nor priests nor even bread, sometimes; just a surplus of bedbugs and cockroaches in their crowded tenements. The “American dream” hadn’t hit them yet. Most would probably have been better off, had they never left home.

She arrived herself with six sisters in tow, and the usual nothing; and was, by the first bishop she met, told to get back on the ship that brought her. She paid no attention to him, of course. (“I have a letter from the Pope.”) Even within the sprawling, mostly poor American Catholic community, circa 1889, Italians were considered a nuisance; a pain in the gluteus maximus. Even the Irish looked down on them. They tended to be dirty and sickly and hapless. Mother Cabrini looked the part: herself weak and usually ill, all her life. But she paid no attention to that, either.

Her mission, to start, was to those beloved Italians. Finding them was no trouble at all: “just follow the smell.” The mere sight of the little woman seemed to change everything. She, and then her growing cohort, would walk past Italian bakers and grocers and be loaded down with gifts of food; with medicines donated by Italian pharmacists; with whatever they needed: carpe diem! Within a couple of decades they had founded hospitals, schools, orphanages — each by the dozen.

We forget that Christian missions were the “welfare state,” until they began to be appropriated by the Servile State, only a few decades ago; and that although Catholics remained a fairly small minority, and relatively skint of resources, they provided services out of proportion to their size in every American city, and to all comers, whether Catholic or not. Look at any large-scale map of an inner city from a century ago, and see the truth of this inscribed in the titles of the many, often large, and unmistakably religious eleemosynary institutions. Even today, the prefix “Saint” continues to append to so many of the buildings they erected on their widow mites — with donated labour to build, and volunteer staff to operate, and daily offerings of cooked food and hand-sewn clothes and nickels and dimes from anonymous parishioners, in the face of real prejudice. (We forget that e.g. the Ku Klux Klan was founded to persecute Catholics and Jews; Blacks were an afterthought.)

And the Protestants copied them, when they saw how it was done. … And yes, yes, there were scrooges who gave nothing, and there always will be: making the argument for bureaucracy and taxation and the Servile State. Who give nothing and whose slogan is, “Make the rich pay!”

Everyone remembers Mother Cabrini today, not only Italo-Americans. Or rather, everyone should. For the works of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus were soon extended much beyond the Italian community. They spread like the works of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, all around the world.

There is no such thing as an economist who can explain this.

Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first USA citizen to be canonized (she got her citizenship papers in due course), was an easy call. The number of miracles witnessed in her person, and accomplished in her name, overwhelmed the “devil’s advocates.” But these, merely additional to the grand miracle of the life of this gentle, tiny, very obstinate lady, who took no for an answer only to sin. (It is unfortunate that her name is currently being used in the dishonest political propaganda for illegal immigration: for that had never been her mission.)

I mention Mother Cabrini today only because it is her one hundredth anniversary. She was struck down by dysentery while wrapping Christmas presents for the poor; died the 22nd of December, 1917. But she is still at work, praying for us, and we ought to thank her occasionally.