How Fear and Prejudice Attracted a Saint
A tragedy unfolded in New Orleans on March 14, 1891: the largest mass lynching in United States history. The eleven men killed were Italians.
The day before nine Italians accused of murdering city police chief, David Hennessy had been acquitted. Two were declared not guilty because no evidence had been presented against them. Four were let go because of gross discrepancies in testimony. A mistrial was declared for the remaining three.
Ten more Italians languished in the Parish Prison awaiting their own trials for the same murder. These included a shoemaker who happened to live across the street from where the shooting took place, a fruit vendor, and a 14 year old boy.
The day after news of the verdict broke, a mob – including the future president of the American Bar Association and a future governor of Louisiana — gathered outside the prison. Furious at what they considered a miscarriage of justice, and filled with vitriol against the “filthy Italians” they used a battering ram to break down the prison door. The mob dragged some of the trapped Italians outside, where they were shot or hanged. Others were clubbed to death within the prison walls. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “some corpses were hung; what remained of others were torn apart and plundered for souvenirs.”
Father Giacomo Gambera, a Scalabrian missionary, wrote that the event “made a profound impression, discouraging and terrorizing the Italians, even those who enjoyed influence and esteem for their social and financial position. It was precisely this most sorrowful state in which the Italians lived which induced me to call for the help of Mother Cabrini’s missionaries.”
Mother Cabrini responded with alacrity. She sent three sisters from New York to beleaguered New Orleans with instructions to meet Fr. Gambera, introduce themselves to the archbishop, find a good Italian lawyer, look for a house to buy, and beg for funds. Never timid, she also told them to “find a person who will lend you a thousand dollars, without interest” since they would need a downpayment on the house.
A month later she arrived in New Orleans herself, bringing four more sisters. Mother Cabrini examined the various houses the sisters had scouted, opting for one in a densely-populated Italian slum with a high crime rate. It was loud, hot, dangerous, full of disease-bearing mosquitoes, and — most important — brimming with souls who needed to know the love of God.
The sisters stayed to teach, console, and nurse fearful immigrants through yellow fever epidemics. They established schools and orphanages, and carried out a mission of hope and consolation. Over time, the prejudice against the Italians subsided. One of their schools, Cabrini High, is still in operation today.
As we encounter hardship, prejudice, danger, and feelings of hopelessness in our world today, let us pray that we may respond to them with the confidence and trust in Jesus that Mother Cabrini did.
St. Frances Cabrini, pray for us.