Millions of migrants almost adrift
Mass migrations have always existed, sometimes caused by nature, as is the case with prolonged droughts; other times for man himself, with his rivalries and wars; or by circumstances arising from social systems and structures, when they do not meet the primary needs of the population. Add to this the permanent and common desire to overcome, generating “dreams” and “horseback riding” to “lands of promise” that in many cases reveal the imaginary.
The phenomenon of migration must not necessarily be regarded as a negative thing. Most countries have had in their origins or in their subsequent evolution various migrations, thanks to which they were shaping their culture, their customs, their legislation.
Migration movements, since they generally respond to a need, presuppose undisputed rights of people, even if they are also subject to regulations that safeguard justice and promote solidarity.
Migrants deserve the respect and help of the populations whose territory they pass through, and a benevolent, understanding and supportive reception by the country where they arrive in the hope of being welcomed. The economic well-being of nations where, preferably, those seeking security, employment and integration are directed should go hand in hand with platforms and regulations that not only consent to welcome, but ensure integration and assistance to newcomers.
These were francisca Cabrini’s reflections (1850-1917) when he personally noted the situation of millions of his countrymen who had given in to the “American dream” and did not yet find the necessary conditions of security, work and assistance for themselves and their families.
Between 1901 and 1913, 4,711,000 Italians emigrated to the United States, most of whom came from the south of the peninsula.
Such a huge contingent could not be quickly absorbed by American society and the economy, nor were there the necessary structures to offer everyone, in a reasonable proportion and promptly, work and assistance. Overcrowding of semi-worker migrants was not uncommon and medical services were not enough for them; there were no schools suitable for the children’s population that was still expressed with the dialects of southern Italy, and there was no one to deal with orphans, the disabled and widows.
The teacher who wanted to be a missionary
Francisca Cabrini was born in 1850, in San Angel Lodigiano, in the enterprising Italian region of Lombardy, so in contrast to southern Italy, that he distinguished himself by his high demographics and low resources. This explains why most Italian migrants were from the south of the peninsula.
Agustín Cabrini, Francisca’s father, was a hardworking and fortunate peasant, owner of productive lands; with his wife Estela, originally from Milan, he formed a happy family with strong Christian roots. They had thirteen children. Maria Francisca was the last.
As is often the case in large families, where one of the older daughters takes care of the youngest, so happened in the Cabrini family: Rosa was always watching for her little sister Francisca. Rosa was a teacher in Lodigiano, and was known for her righteousness and energetic character. She gave Maria Francisca to volunteer; encouraged her to study the teaching career as well.
For a young lady, in the village of Lodigiano, being a teacher was already a very dignified aspiration, but Francisca had higher aspirations. For a while she thought of becoming religious, and would have entered the convent if she had not had the impediment of precarious health. He agreed, on the other hand, to take over an orphanage in Codogno, at the request of the parish priest of that place. This care work was called the House of Divine Providence and had been founded by Antonia Tondini.
Francisca’s experience among orphans only increased his longings for greater and more extensive service. Since, at home, she heard the reading of the Annals of the Propaganda of the Faith, she felt the strong desire to be a missionary, as had been the fearless Saint Francis Xavier, who had come all the way to China carrying the cross of Christ and his Gospel. She too wanted to be a missionary in the farthest reaches, China, first.
The missionary feats to which she felt called should not be an individual work, but a collective, organized work. She began, therefore, to invite other young women to form, together with her, the initial nucleus of what would become the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. This was encouraged by Father Serrati, parish priest of Codogno, and the Bishop of Lodi; but both clerics thought more about the continuation of the orphanage, while Francisca was thinking of a religious institute of broad horizons, in the spirit of St Francis Xavier. It was so much Francisca’s love and admiration for the holy missionary that, in casting his first vows as a consecrated woman, he added Xavier’s name to hers.
When the Bishop of Lodi appointed Francisca superior of the new institute, the problems caused by the founder of the orphanage began. Whether out of envy, whether it was a disorder in his head, the difficulties continued until the bishop decided to give up his project and let Francisca follow the one that God inspired him.
Beyond a simple orphanage
Francisca Cabrini and seven companions then stayed in a former Franciscan convent that had been abandoned in Codogno; there the new missionary institute began authentic and there the founder drafted the Rules, which the Bishop of Lodi approved immediately. Two years later, in Gruello, the first subsidiary house was opened, and shortly the following house in Milan.
In 1887 Mother Cabrini traveled to Rome to ask the Holy See for the approval of her missionary institute, and permission to open a house in the Eternal City. Despite many obstacles and objections that Mother Francisca had to overcome, Cardinal Parocchi, Vicar of Rome, asked her to open not one but two houses in Rome, and within two months the Decree of first approval of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart was published.
In the meantime, other events took place that showed Mother Cabrini the primary purpose God had for her missionary congregation. News, usually not comforting, of the conditions in which the thousands and thousands of poor Europeans who had emigrated to the United States were arriving in Europe. They were mostly Italians, Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs, Croats and Slovenians. In and around New York alone there was a concentration of 50,000 Italians, most of whom lacked religious instruction and lived in a very precarious social condition. For some reason Bishop Scalabrini, Bishop of Piacenza, had founded the Society of San Carlos in order to work among Italians departing for the United States. It was this bishop who first tried to convince the founder of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart to send some of his nuns to support the work of the priests of St. Charles. She did not give in, for she kept thinking about missionary in the East. The Archbishop of New York, Msgr. Corrigan, then intervened with a plea on behalf of the migrants.
Not China, but New York
One day Mother Francisca Xavier had a dream that left her baffled. He then decided to consult the Pope. Leo XIII gave him a short and firm answer: “Go not east but west; to New York, rather than China.” Disbanded with this indication of the Pope, he crossed the Atlantic for the first time, with six nuns from his congregation and landed in New York on March 31, 1889. He was then thirty-nine years old and had a great job ahead of him.
The Missionaries of the Sacred Heart did not find in New York the welcome they expected. They had been asked as a first service to deal with the organization of an orphanage for Italian children and to take charge of an elementary school, but they found that there was no accommodation for them, and that because of difficulties between the archbishop and the benefactors the orphanage project had been renounced; there was also no building for the projected school. Msgr. Corrigan ended up suggesting the return of Mother Francisca Xavier and her nuns:
–Under the circumstances, you’d better go back to Italy.
“No, Monseignean,” Mother Cabrini replied firmly, “the Pope sent me here, and here I am going to stay.
Faced with such determination, the archbishop set out to find accommodation for them and managed to get them to stay with the Sisters of Charity for the time being.
In the following days, Mother Francisca Xavier earned the sympathy of Countess Cesnola, the main benefactor of the planned orphanage, and managed to reconcile it with Msgr. Corrigan. He started the orphanage and obtained a house for his nuns; the first Italian-American vocations entered there.
In July 1889, when he made his first visit back to Italy, he took with him the first two religious of American nationality. She returned to the United States nine months later, accompanied by another group of Sacred Heart Missionaries, to settle in West Park, on the Hudson River, which had belonged to the Jesuits. He fixed the “mother house” and the novitiate of the congregation there and moved the orphanage to the same place. His first trip to Latin America was to Managua, Nicaragua, where he agreed to take over another orphanage and opened a boarding school. When he returned to the United States, he took into consideration the plea of the Bishop of New Orleans to know up close the dramatic situation of the Italians who lived in his diocese; as a result of the interview and experience in New Orleans, he founded one more house of his congregation there.
In 1892, at the fourth centenary of America’s discovery, Mother Cabrini undertook one of her most recognized initiatives: Columbus Hospital in New York. He had started the work the Society of San Carlos, so that it was a transfer and, as is well known, in such cases things are more complicated and it takes a brilliant mind and a strong will. Mother Francisca had those gifts and Columbus Hospital was brought to a happy end.
A non-stationary soul
The founder of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart did not have a stationary soul. New York’s initiatives inspired others undertaken in Chicago and several American Union cities, such as Brockley School. The Pope, who had asked him to point to the West, had not placed limits on his missionary horizon, so Mother Cabrini and her nuns became present in different Latin American countries, such as Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Brazil and Argentina. When in Buenos Aires she opened a school for young women, to the people who warned her that it was a difficult company and would bring her many problems, she merely asked them, “Who will carry it out, us or God?”
This response encrypts the secrecy of the fruitfulness and success of the works undertaken by Mother Cabrini, both in the United States and in other countries: to see in the needs of the people, in particular the migrants, the sign of God’s will; work where others do not seem to see the socioeconomic, educational, health and religious precariousness of migrants, and to do so with lasting initiatives, capable of resurbing from their foundations, the conditions of this neglected and grieving population.
Sixty-seven institutions founded
The institutions founded by Mother Cabrini were sixty-seven in total. A true record of the apostolicity of a woman who, because of her poor health, had been declared inability to live religious life.
Because of a fall in the river at the age of six, he was horrified by the water. Despite this, twenty-four times he crossed the ocean by boat during his apostolic races, and on the back of a donkey he traveled through the Andes mountain range.
In the humble orphanage of Codogno they had committed their social work, in 1907, but when the constitutions of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart received final approval, the sisters of their Institute were already over the thousand and were established in eight countries, with more than fifty educational and welfare foundations.
In the second decade of the twentieth century, Mother Cabrini’s health began to decay. Although physically exhausted, she was able to continue working for a few more years, until she died on December 22, 1917, on one of her trips to Chicago.
Beatified on November 13, 1938 and canonized on July 7, 1946, she was the first American citizen to deserve the honor of the altars.
Pope Pius XII proclaimed her patron saint of migrants and, closer to our time, in July 1996, St John Paul II declared her missionary of the new evangelization. Ω