The pervasive sentiment among Cabrinian writers is that our namesake Saint is “not very quotable.” The common explanation for this (as if this is a flaw to be explained) is something usually to do with Mother Cabrini being “a woman of action, not of words,” or thereabouts.
How very saintly, if only a half-truth. She is quite quotable at moments, while at other moments, her dogged bluntness feels unsettling.
This frankness is only problematic if we hold fast to the childish misbelief that a saint’s life—especially a female saint—is a soft, passive life of quiet suffering. Or if we succumb to the maternal narrative that female saints encounter an abusive, abrasive world with downcast eyes and sotto voce prayers. I.e., all sanctity, not tenacity.
That is not how most saints lived. Few nuns in the modern era could be accused of passivity. Mother Cabrini did not speak sotto voce.
In 1901, to the Commissioner General of Emigration, Mother Cabrini wrote:
In acknowledging receipt of your esteemed letter No 7399-30 of the current month, I wish to thank you for informing me of the impressions which were communicated regarding my orphanage in New Orleans. I use the word “impressions,” but perhaps I should say the superficial evaluation made by an inexperienced observer…When all is said and done, Honorable Commissioner, words are easy.”
Mother Cabrini’s pen was as active as any modern-era saint and she left her biographers and global admirers voluminous written source material to parse. Therefore, the lack of “quotable Cabrini” speaks more about us than her.
In her business writings, she was respectful, but more honest than is acceptable today. In regards to a request for 500,000 lire for Columbus Hospital, New York, Mother Cabrini writes to an Italian legislator, “Now permit me, Honorable Senator, with all frankness to tell you what I think.” She goes on to say “…fear and quibbling, which are the fruits of bureaucracy, certainly not of elect minds.”
Protestantism too was not excused from her candor. “She did not live in an ecumenical age,” said Mary Louise Sullivan, MSC, Ph.D., ’63, in her biography of the Saint. “It was a time of real competition for souls. Having been brought up in a Catholic household in a nominally Catholic country, the diversity of religious beliefs which she was encountering for the first time was overwhelming to her.”
In such a context, a prayer she wrote while in New York in 1889 seems not harsh but almost bland: “I will offer all my suffering and deprivations to obtain the conversion of so many Protestant ministers residing in this City.”
There was an equal weariness of agnostic practices. “Take religion away from man,” Mother Cabrini said, “and nothing remains in this life but illusions, trials, and afflictions without number.” And, “Rebellions and seditions arise from lack of religion.”
The list could go on. The Saint’s perceived political incorrectness, however, is only a perception. She was not insensitive in her place and time and her candor is not a shortcoming. To think otherwise is a simple case of ahistoricism.
Like all Saints, Mother Cabrini was a person of her time, even if a saint for all time.
And the Cabrinian writers who lament Mother Cabrini’s less-than quotable pen are just lazily accepting an untested hypothesis. While she might not have had the poetic flare of Francis of Assisi or St. Therese of Lisieux, spend just a few moments in her writings and you discover a woman who said, “Blessed will you be, if acknowledging the gifts of God, you render yourselves more worthy to receive greater gifts.” And a saint who said, “Live by faith and you will see God.”
By Christopher Grosso, Senior Writer, Cabrini College