Mother Cabrini the “Guinea Pig”

Among today’s most vocal anti-immigration, pro-deportation activists, you are certain to find some Italian Americans. Some of the vitriolic language these anti-immigration Italian Americans employ, or at least endorse, is reminiscent of what Mother Cabrini heard herself in this country as an Italian immigrant.

When Mother Cabrini arrived in America in March 1889, she immediately began ministering to Italian immigrants in Manhattan. The Italian neighborhoods on the island weren’t the chic enclaves that they are today and the tenements she discovered upon her arrival were rancid with indescribable poverty.

In fact, it wasn’t until muckraker photojournalist Jacob Riis’ groundbreaking 1890 photobook “How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York” that the wider world came to comprehend the magnitude of impoverishment in those infamous dwellings.

In addition to those poverty-infested tenements, what welcomed Mother Cabrini and her Sisters to America were racial slurs like “guinea pigs” shouted at Italian immigrants. The rampant anti-Italian immigrant sentiment in late-19th and early-20th Century America is not as well documented as tenement poverty, but was equally appalling.

In “Mother Cabrini, Italian Immigrant of the Century,” Mary Louise Sullivan, MSC, Ph.D., wrote:

It did not take long for Mother Cabrini to become acquainted with the ethnic slurs and prejudices of the day. After less than two weeks in New York she wrote to Italy requesting material for additional habits and veils for the Sisters so that they might present themselves well in public: “… otherwise they will call us ‘guinea-pigs’ the way they do the Italians here.”

And later:

Her [Mother Cabrini] deep concern for the Italian immigrants was noted in Mother Cabrini’s early correspondence from America. “The field is so vast to do good for our poor Italians who are abandoned and very much looked down upon by the English-speaking people … They cannot bear the sight of the Italians.”

Missionary Sisters who accompanied Mother Cabrini wrote in their journals. “… The fathers spoke of the unhappiness of the poor Italians who were treated like slaves … There are various factions here against the Italians, even among those who pretend to be our friends …”

Mother Cabrini’s comment on these early New York days: “To succeed in this City, it is first necessary to go through a novitiate of extreme want.”

In her biography, Sullivan concludes, “The tension between Italian heritage and American identity ultimately led Frances Cabrini to formulate an educational method blending knowledge and pride in national ancestry with the practical need to adapt to American language and customs.”

Today, Mother Cabrini—the Patron of Immigrants and the first American citizen saint—is beloved and universally applauded in America for building hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes and schools across the star spangled country. She is cited as the epitome of bootstrap Americanism. She is an example of the industrious, self-made woman. She is beloved today for having been a consummate doer in our “Just Do It” American culture.

Yet, she was also an Italian immigrant in America before becoming a U.S. citizen in 1909. A “guinea pig” who nativists (including some high ranking Catholic clergy) encouraged to return “home” during those early days in New York.

Little did they know then that for Mother Cabrini—who went on to establish her Missionary Sisters across the globe—the entire world was her home. She was an “engaged citizen of the world” and calls us to be the same.

By Christopher Grosso, Senior Writer, Cabrini College

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