Mother Cabrini was no prude. She would not have been scandalized by HBO’s acclaimed mafia drama, The Sopranos, even with its compulsive philandering, illegal gambling haunts, prostitution-fueled strip joints, and murderous violence. So when The Sopranos’ first-family mentioned Mother Cabrini in Season One, Episode Eight, Cabrinian devotees just shrugged: Fuhgettaboutit!
Because we know that when Mother Cabrini arrived in American for first time to the dire tenements of lower Manhattan, the Saint and her Missionary Sisters ministered to the Italian immigrants who called that then-ghetto home. Philandering, gambling, prostitution, and violence abounded among the peasants there. The same when she arrived in New Orleans. The same when she arrived anywhere where poverty was endemic. Theses vices feed on the hopelessness of poverty. One can only imagine the sordid tales the great Saint heard when she ministered in prisons and death rows. The Sopranos might have seemed tame to the Saint.
In her biography on Mother Cabrini, Mary Louise Sullivan, MSC, Ph.D. ’63 tells us the presence of organized crime—Cosa Nostra (Sicilian for ‘Our Thing’)—was known to the Sisters during their ministry:.
…found in the annals of the Missionary Sisters is an interesting note from New Orleans, which suggests the strength of Old World ways, and, possibly of the Mafia in that port city: “The cases of Italians condemned to death are few, because although murders occur frequently, those people are cunning and band together among themselves to keep the secret, so they are rarely discovered and keep clear of police investigations.”
Still, it is unsettling to note that The Sopranos’ namesake first-family invoked Mother Cabrini in that Season One episode titled, “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti.” In it, the protagonist and mafia chieftain Tony Soprano, wife Carmela, daughter Meadow, and son AJ are having a vigorous dinner conversation over Chinese takeout after just having had their home searched by a cavalry of warrant-waving FBI agents. Over dinner, relativistic justifications abound, and the family works to convince one another that the raid was not about Tony’s criminal empire, but was instead a case of anti-Italian American bias. I.e., persecution, not prosecution.
When we find the family discussing that one of the FBI agents who conducted the raid had the Italian name “Grosso,” the scene spirals into false persecution, transcribed here:
Tony Soprano: Grosso. Do you think it’s a coincidence they sent him? If he wasn’t an Italian, he’d be back at the office sweepin’ up. The stupid jerk. They probably frisk him every night before he goes home.
AJ Soprano: Why?
Tony Soprano: Why? ’Cause he has a vowel at the end of his name. That’s why. Grosso. What’s he think, he’s gonna make it to the top by arresting his own people?
AJ Soprano: Pass the mushu.
Tony Soprano: He’ll see. He’ll learn.
AJ Soprano: We have a vowel.
Tony Soprano: Effin’ right, and you be proud of it. Jesus Christ, you’d think there never was a Michelangelo the way they treat people.
The family discussion then turns to famous Italian Americans like our Saint, as captured in a bit of the scene transcribed here:
Carmela Soprano: A. J., did you know that John Cabot was Italian?
AJ Soprano: Whoa.
Meadow Soprano: Like he knows who that is.
Carmela Soprano: It’s the famous discoverer of Canada.
Tony Soprano: The bank of America. You ever heard of it? One of the biggest banks in the world, started by an Italian.
AJ Soprano: The first American saint was Italian. Mother Cabrini.
Carmela Soprano: That’s right.
AJ Soprano: Is it true that the Chinese invented spaghetti?
Tony Soprano and his family might have tried (in vain) to make themselves victims of predatory anti-Italian American sentiment and prejudice, but Mother Cabrini never allowed herself to slip into this thinking. Sullivan tells us:
Mother Cabrini did not link her prison ministry to any commentary on the American legal system. Nor did she link it to any critique of American stereotypes of Italian criminality, prejudices which could not have failed to affect the fate of at least some Italians in trouble with the law.
Sure, Italian-American stereotyping does exist and has existed since this land (or thereabouts) was discovered by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus and named for Italian cartographer Amerigo Vespucci. But as the above quote exemplifies, scapegoating criminality because of stereotyping was not Mother Cabrini’s “bag.” And using her name in such hollow justification then seems profoundly unjust.
In a 1910 letter to the Commissioner General of Immigration, Mother Cabrini wrote:
For me, to serve my country means to make her loved by the children entrusted to our care. It means to train them so they will not be ashamed to be Italians; it means to develop young people who will prove to their country of adoption that Italian migration is not a dangerous element, but a desirable factor in the civilization and progress of a nation on whose shores Italy annually cast thousands of its emigrants. This is my way of thinking…
Mother Cabrini would not have been shocked by The Sopranos, but she would have been disappointed in them. Case closed (in the words in law enforcement).
By Christopher Grosso, Senior Writer, Cabrini College