Often overshadowed by the building of hospitals, orphanages, and schools, prison visitation was a prominent ministry of Mother Cabrini and her Missionary Sisters. In New Orleans, Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles, Scranton, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Philadelphia, Mother Cabrini and her Missionary Sisters routinely visited inmates in county and state prisons.
They were so welcomed by inmate and jailer alike that in New Orleans “the sisters had the captain’s permission to come to visit the imprisoned when they wished and remain as long as they liked.” In 1906, Italian men in Sing Sing published a poem dedicated to Mother Cabrini. In 1907, they published a pamphlet of letters of gratitude to the future Saint and a chaplain that she secured for them.
Even less known than her prison ministry was Mother Cabrini’s fierce opposition to the death penalty and the death row ministry of her Missionary Sisters. From “Mother Cabrini: Italian Immigrant of the Century,” Mary Louise Sullivan, MSC, ’63, Ph.D., says, “Cabrini was repulsed by capital punishment and moved deeply to compassion for those sentenced to die in the electric chair.”
In fact, her Missionary Sisters went to the governor on behalf of Antonio Moretti and had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Afterward, via Sullivan’s biography, “Mother Dositea Maspoli said ‘the young man cheered up, frequented the sacraments, learned to be a nurse, and behaved well in prison, which made Mother Cabrini very happy.’”
For those they couldn’t save from state-sanctioned murder, the Missionary Sisters did their best to ease the suffering of the condemned. From Sullivan’s biography:
She [Mother Ignatius] related that another prisoner, Antonio Priori, had trampled on the crucifix and was to be put to death the next day. Mother Ignatius obtained a stay of execution for one month ‘and with exhortations he became resigned and went to his death giving an extraordinary example of tranquility and conformity to God’s will.’
And later, another example:
On Tuesday, Mother Ignatius arrived in the morning and remained with the prisoner until 8:30 p.m., conversing and praying with him…he died in the electric chair clasping the crucifix Mother Ignatius had given him.
When Sing Sing prisoners sent Mother Cabrini a letter in 1902 welcoming her back to America, she replied with a letter where she addressed the criminals as “Miei Buoni Amici,” or “My Dear Friends.” The inmates—her Dear Friends—published Mother Cabrini’s letter in its entirety in the Sing Sing biweekly newspaper, Star of Hope.
By Christopher Grosso, Senior Writer, Cabrini College