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As a man born and bred in Chicago, I was baptized at St. Peter Canisius parish on Chicago's northwest side and lived among many Italian Americans. In our neighborhood, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was known as our saint. Even after her canonization in 1947, most citizens of the Windy City continued to call her simply Mother Cabrini, as she was considered a second mother to Chicagoans.
During her lifetime, Mother Cabrini (1850–1917) founded a religious community of nuns, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as well as 67 caring institutions throughout the world. For a woman who did not like to travel, she traveled hundreds of thousands of miles to spread the Gospel.
After arriving in the United States in 1889, Mother Cabrini became well-known in the Italian community for delivering basic education, health care and spiritual guidance to the poor. She and the many sisters she recruited ministered to the thousands of immigrants who came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were looking for work in factories, on railroads, in mines or on farms.
Two of her first achievements were establishing an orphanage and a hospital in New York City. But by 1895, she had traveled to many cities in North America and had even been to Nicaragua in Central America to set up a school for Italian children.
Mother Cabrini spent her last days at Columbus Hospital and she died on Dec. 22, 1917.
Chicago's Italian-Catholic community grieved her passing and was instrumental in promoting the cause for her sainthood.
As I was growing up, my family had a full-sized bust of the saint in one of the most prominent spaces in our home — atop our grand piano.
My mom routinely kept a vase of fresh flowers next to the figure, which reminded us kids to ask the saint to intercede for us on one or more issues. As a large family, we always had issues that mom would enlist Mother Cabrini's help in solving. The humble nun who would one day be known as the patron saint for immigrants was recognized in our home as a fixer — the saint who helped when you had a problem.
During my grade school years, I would spend hours practicing piano with the figure of Mother Cabrini looming over me. Her image was always in my field of vision, just above my sheet music. I found myself talking to her a lot while practicing one arpeggio after another.
Time passed, and at age 16, I left home, first for a year living abroad and then for university studies. After leaving home, my friendship with Mother Cabrini waned, as did my skills with the piano.
Decades passed, and then, in a strange turn of events, she came into my life once again.
As part of seminary training, I was required to complete a series of courses designed to get seminarians out into the community. I learned that Mother Cabrini Memorial Hospital in New York was highly recommended as a place to gain this practical experience, so after making a few phone calls and talking to the site director, I found myself on its doorstep.
After working at the hospital for a couple of weeks, I quickly rekindled my friendship with Mother Cabrini. She did not hold any grudges against me for neglecting our relationship for so many years.
One of the challenges I had as a student chaplain at the hospital was caring for AIDS patients. Back then, before so-called drug cocktails were introduced, most people who were diagnosed with AIDS died. Cabrini had two full floors of AIDS patients during those years.
Twice a victim of homosexual predation, I found it spiritually challenging to care for these men. I resisted the tendency to cast aspersions on their sinful lifestyle. Thanks be to God, my chaplaincy supervisor, a sister from the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, helped me overcome my pain so I could treat each patient as a child of God, which we all are.
The sister was also helpful in teaching me more about Mother Cabrini. She told me about the powerful miracle that took place at Cabrini Hospital in 1921, just a few years after Mother Cabrini died.
The miracle involved a baby boy, Peter Smith, who had been accidentally blinded after birth by a nurse. Jonathan Smyth wrote about this miracle in the publication Times Past:
An hour after Peter's birth, he was attended to by an extremely tired nurse who washed the baby's eyes in a 50% solution of silver nitrate instead of the usual one percent solution, with the effect that "the membranes and cornea of the eyes were destroyed." Both eyes became black, deep furrows "burnt by the acid," which ran down onto the baby's chest leaving him with third degree burns. The acid's powerful fumes brought on double pneumonia in the baby when he inhaled them. The terrified nurse screamed for help, and a sister came running. Having obtained permission, the sister attached a medal of Mother Cabrini on the baby's clothes. An article in this paper stated that the nuns "stormed Heaven" with prayers, "invoking the intercession" of the "venerable foundress."
Twenty-four hours later, to the astonishment of the doctors, the burns had disappeared, and the little one's eyes were fully restored. The doctors checked by shining a light on them, and one of the doctors asked, "am I seeing things?" To which the second doctor replied, "no, you're not seeing things, but he is, those eyes are perfectly normal." They realized something truly supernatural had taken place.
However, the doctors feared that Peter was not out of the woods, for pneumonia still affected him and so they asked the sisters to keep praying. To which one of the nuns replied, that the child had not been healed by Mother Cabrini's intercession, for him to die. They prayed some more and, within a short time, his pneumonia was gone.
This miracle at Cabrini Hospital was just one amazing incident that moved Pius XII to canonize Mother Cabrini on July 7, 1946. She became the first American citizen to become a saint.
For Peter Smith, the miracles in his life did not end with the restoration of his sight and health. On June 2, 1951, he was ordained a priest. The nurse who blinded him just after he had been born attended his ordination. Father Peter Smith died in 2002 after a long life serving God.
Today, both Columbus Hospital in Chicago and Cabrini Memorial Hospital in New York are closed. But Mother Cabrini's legacy lives on in the religious community she founded and its ongoing missionary work.
A new movie about the saint titled Cabrini is coming out in March to further advance her legacy. Based on the trailer, the movie looks like it will be a blockbuster. When it comes to the big screen, a whole new generation will be introduced to this motherly, missionary saint.
Also in the works for 2024 is a new Church Militant show called This Extraordinary Road. Church Militant's Andy and Veronica Vance will journey to various U.S. sites graced by Mother Cabrini.
As for me, having learned to play the piano under her watchful care and felt her heavenly presence throughout much of my life, I can't wait to view both tributes!