A century ago, Italian immigrants were present in many cities in America, struggling to cope with a new language, blatant prejudices and a desperate need to earn money to survive.
In many cases, the battle to get through each day left little time for the faith that had been a big part of their lives in Italy. Among the persons who were trying to correct the situation was a 40-year-old woman from Italy Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini who had come to New York City the previous year with six companion nuns from her Mission Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
The nuns had no trouble talking with the immigrants in Italian. However, to do the job that Pope Leo XIII had assigned them – to perform religious and social services – they had to master English. Mother Cabrini wrote to a friend: "I am beginning to understand English a little bit, but at first I really believed that it was the language of geese."
From her early days in New York until her death in Chicago in 1917, Mother Cabrini devoted herself to being a missionary to all of America.
In 1913 she reported to Rome that the Catholic chaplain of Oregon prisons told her nuns: "You do more good in one visit to these prisons that I am able to do in a month!"
Among the 67 institutions Mother Cabrini founded was a school for the children of Italian immigrants in Scranton.
Mother Cabrini came here in the summer of 1899 at the invitation of Bishop Michael H. Hoban. She stayed at St. Cecelia’s Convent near St. Peter's Cathedral and spent much of her time visiting immigrant parishes and families in Scranton and Dunmore.
Problem Solved It was the practice of Mother Cabrini to build schools that charged no tuition. How such a school could be built and operated here took a bit of time to resolve. Then the Scranton School District offered for public sale an abandoned school on what was then Chestnut Street - now St. Francis Cabrini Avenue - in West Scranton. (The city erred and put an "i" in "Frances" instead of an "e.")
Bishop Hoban purchased the school and had it remodeled for a new parish he dedicated to St. Lucy. Part of the old school became the church while part was given to Mother Cabrini's order for a convent and school.
That school was operated by Cabrini nuns for over 70 years. Eventually, it closed. Then, last Friday, it was rededicated to a new purpose. The United Neighborhood Centers of Lackawanna County - through a separate nonprofit housing corporation opened it as a secular housing complex for senior citizens and the handicapped. For historical purposes, the building will carry Mother Cabrini's name.
The project was not an easy one. As the United Neighborhood Centers nursed it through the federal, state and city bureaucracies, it often got bogged down. During its darkest hours, there were often prayers offered for heavenly assistance. Then the project began to move again.
Maybe that's not the way things are supposed to happen in a nation that separates church and state. But I don't see why God can't lobby, too.
Besides, Mother Cabrini is a true historic figure. She helped Italian immigrants become Americans while keeping their heritage. In addition, she became the first American citizen to be canonized a saint by the Catholic Church. That process often takes centuries. In her case, it took 29 years!
She Was Right
The conversion of the school to an apartment complex prompted Tony Johns, 912 W. Linden St., to write to me about a visit made by Mother Cabrini to her school in 1913.
Johns wrote: "There was a big hullabaloo over Mother Cabrini coming." He recalled that when the big day came, the famous nun visited his class and spoke in Italian. "All the kids could speak Italian," he noted.
After her talk, Johns recalled, the nun walked up an aisle and stopped at his desk. He wrote: "She asked me in Italian, 'What's your name?' I said 'Antonio.' She said, 'Oh, Antonio! You know St. Antonio? He is a very big saint. Oh, yes, I think he is going to watch over you. Yes, he's going to watch over you a good long time - maybe 90 years!' She put one hand on my shoulder and the other on my desk and bent down her head for half a minute. I think she said a prayer."
Johns said that if she prayed for a long life for him, it is working. He noted that he is 86 and still alive and well in Scranton.
And, with her name now on the new apartment house here, the same can be said of Mother Cabrini.