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The beautifully shot film Cabrini, released at the beginning of March, explores a forgotten piece of New York history: the tribulations and ultimate triumph of Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian immigrant nun. The Italian television actress Cristiana Dell'Anna, who plays Mother Cabrini, steals every scene she is in. Her dark, steely eyes portray a woman at war with the world and, in the quiet moments of the film, convey a deep sadness at not only the suffering around her but at her human frailty as well. Indeed, the film suggests that her ambition was brought on by the consistent reminder of her own mortality; lingering symptoms from tuberculosis as a child prompted doctors to give an adult Cabrini just a few years to live. Mother Cabrini’s story offers a treasure trove of insights for the Catholic Church in America today. 

When Cabrini arrives in 1880s New York, she quickly takes possession of a dilapidated and closed orphanage located in the slums of Five Points, New York City (what is now the Lower East Side Manhattan neighborhood between Little Italy and Chinatown). One wonders how many run-down assets the Catholic Church has in New York and beyond that could be reassessed, and hopefully put to more use.

She quickly becomes acquainted with the landscape of power in the city—and learns how to wield it. After becoming friends with a doctor and opera singer, she is introduced to rich immigrants and native-born Americans. When the Archbishop of New York prohibits her from fundraising among the WASP Americans living on the Upper West Side for her Italian orphans, she enlists the help of a New York Times reporter, who writes a story about how the rats live better lives than the children in her neighborhood. Cabrini decides to build a new hospital after many Italian immigrant men die in an explosion. When her hospital’s construction is threatened by arson, she marches to the mayor’s office with the same reporter to not-so-subtly explain that their voting will reflect their interests, and they will not be intimidated.

As I watched Mother Cabrini stoically handle slurs and rejection at multiple turns, I was reminded how Catholics face grim challenges today as well. After she is harassed by city officials, Cabrini moves her orphanage beyond their reach in the countryside. In today's world, that might mean moving Catholic charity operations to states that prioritize religious flourishing. The slurs used for Catholic Americans may have changed, but they have not disappeared. 

The soundtrack of the film is superb. Violin strings accompany the brisk walking of Cabrini and her squad of tranquil nuns. Opera motifs remind the viewers that the poor Italian immigrants portrayed at the bottom of the social hierarchy in New York come from a magnificent, cultured civilization. They, like Cabrini, are the founders, laying the groundwork for their children to build upon. Indeed, the film remarks that, one day, an Italian American will sit in the mayor’s chair: Fiorello La Guardia, the first Italian mayor of New York, was born in 1882, a little less than seven years prior to Cabrini's arrival in the city. 

The relationship between men and women is an enduring theme throughout the film. Mother Cabrini faces many challenges, as women were systematically excluded from political and economic positions of power during her time. A carriage driver refuses to take Cabrini and her five fellow nuns to Five Points when they first arrive in the city. Men openly jeer at the nuns. Contemptuous priests seem content to sit on the sidelines as children suffer and die. An abusive pimp is killed in self-defense by Vittoria, a prostitute Mother Cabrini befriends and takes under her wing. 

The film takes a more nuanced approach to the pope and archbishop of New York. The pope, Leo XIII, seems genuinely appreciative of the tenacity Mother Cabrini brings to her mission despite its many hardships. He reminds Cabrini that both her successes and her failures in her mission will be attributed to women. Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York faces the pressure of maintaining the reputation and modest influence of the Catholic Church in a city still dominated by the WASP elite and only begrudgingly tolerant of the children of Irish immigrants, let alone first-generation Italian immigrants. Archbishop Corrigan’s warnings go unheeded, leading to the ultimate climax of the film: Mother Cabrini’s Italian-American opera fundraiser is broken up by police, and she is arrested. The archbishop orders her home, but Cabrini, ever resolved to make each moment of her life count, secures funding from the Italian Senate for her new hospital and a letter from the pontiff to neutralize the archbishop’s objections. 

Mother Cabrini says to the many doubters in the film that one needs to begin the mission first, and the means will follow. In a world where the Church faces all manner of regulations, financial abuse, hostile civil authorities, and declining affiliation, these are important words to remember. There will never be a time when the conditions for ministry are perfect. But our duty, in the small time we have in this mortal realm, is to be able to answer without shame the question our Lord asks at the moment of our death: What did you do for the poor? Mother Cabrini set out to build an empire of hope. Her work remains unfinished to this day. 

Jacob Adams is a junior fellow at First Things.

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Image by Sheila1988 licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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