Providing hope and compassion in the midst of misery

Sometimes it’s hard to grasp how incredibly difficult life was for the Italian immigrants Mother Cabrini came to serve. In 1889 orphans slept in the streets. Decrepit tenements teemed with families and vermin. Parents worked 12-hour days in dangerous jobs. There were few workplace safety regulations, no social safety net, and no health insurance.

The Italians were the poorest of the poor, and ethnic prejudice was rampant. Three days after they arrived the Missionary Sisters wrote that they “heard of the hatred that there is for the Italians.” Within two weeks Mother Cabrini wrote to Italy for additional fabric for habits and veils. This was needed so the Sisters could always appear immaculately clean for “…otherwise they will call us ‘guinea-pigs’ the way they do the Italians here.”

News stories of the age bring home the grim reality of life for unskilled laborers. A subway tunnel collapsed in 1903 less than a mile from where the Shrine sits today; 7 of the 10 workers crushed were Italian. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire — one of the deadliest workplace disasters in the history of New York — claimed 146 victims; forty were young Italian women.

Similar dangers existed for immigrants living in Chicago, where Italians worked in the  meatpacking industry; in New Orleans, where they were stevedores; in the mines in Denver and Scranton.

Mother Cabrini was unfazed by the massive obstacles involved in helping her countrymen. Her perspective was that she was doing God’s work — and that’s all she cared about. Compassion, resourcefulness, and profoundly deep faith were her main tools for making life better for others.

Her determined attitude was contagious. In 1890 she wrote about meeting a gentleman who said “that the mission we have undertaken among the Italians is difficult, most unlikely to succeed. Learning that this is exactly why we have accepted it, and want to succeed no matter what the cost, he holds us in even greater esteem and is eager to lend us his support.”

St. Frances Cabrini, pray that we may see Christ in the poor and needy, and grow to serve God as fearlessly as you did.

Photos by Jacob Riis

© 2015 St. Frances Cabrini Shrine.
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