First U.S. Saint
by Bill Droel
She is the first U.S. citizen to be an official saint. But it almost didn’t happen.
Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, MSC (1850-1917) and half a dozen others from the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart arrived in New York Harbor in March 1889, following a difficult Atlantic Ocean crossing. Italian priests serving in New York, the story goes, sent disturbing reports back to Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini (1839-1905) of northern Italy. The U.S. church, largely populated by Irish-Americans, treats Italian immigrants as second rate, those reports said. With the blessing of Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) Cabrini was thus dispatched to remedy the situation. Church officials in New York promised her a house, a school and an orphanage.
Upon arrival, Cabrini met with New York’s Bishop Michael Corrigan (1839-1902) only to learn no preparations were made for her. Paul Moses recounts the scene in his illuminating study, An Unlikely Union: the Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (New York University Press, 2015). “I see no better solution to this question, Mother, than that you and your sisters return to Italy,” Corrigan said. “No, not that, your Excellency,” Cabrini replied. “I am here by order of the Holy See and here I must stay.” Keep in mind that until the 1978 administration of Pope John Paul II (1920-2005), the Holy See was an Italian-run operation. Read more