Cristiana Dell’Anna stars in a scene from the movie Cabrini. OSV News photo/Angel Studios

Film an injustice to Mother Cabrini’s mission

  • March 14, 2024

Cabrini, the latest movie from the team that produced Bella (2006) and Sound of Freedom (2023), opened on March 8 in cinemas across North America.

The choice of International Women’s Day for the premiere was no doubt intentional, a way of telegraphing to the world, “See? See? The Catholic Church has strong, powerful women, too.”

The lush biopic highlights the remarkable work of St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini among the impoverished Italian immigrant population living in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. 

The film has a high production value that combines a smattering of established actors, notably John Lithgow and David Morse, with some very cute Italian kids.Unfortunately, the film sews a predictable, “Feisty woman fights the patriarchy to get really important things done” thread throughout.

In 2015, Sr. Mary Louise Sullivan, a member of the order of sisters that Cabrini founded, approached Philadelphia businessman Eustace Worthington to help raise funds for a movie about the Italian-born, U.S.-naturalized saint. Worthington, a lifelong admirer, was not convinced by Sullivan’s pitch. He thought the sisters were planning on making the saint into a “fairy tale.”

“I had to make a better movie — to capture who she was, a woman who didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, not from the pope, not from her archbishop, not from the mayor of New York or the head of the Senate in Italy.”  

In a curious case of mansplaining, it is Worthington’s vision that has made its way to the screen and, while it may appeal to the American entrepreneur, it doesn’t actually vibe with the historical record.

An opening scene shows Cabrini fighting her way into the presence of Pope Leo XIII like a peasant supplicant in a Tudor court. She stands out as the only woman surrounded by biretta-topped princes of the Church who seemingly delight in looking down their long Roman noses at the little nun. When made aware her request to take some of her sisters to the mission field had been denied, she turns on the pope and demands to know, “Is it because I am a woman? Is that why I must limit my scope?”

The real story is that Cabrini was sent to America with the full support, backing and active encouragement of the episcopate. In 1880, Dominic Gelmini, Bishop of Lodi, told Cabrini, “You wish to become a missionary, the time is ripe; I do not know a community of missionary Sisters, you must found one.”

It was Bishop Scalabrini, founder of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo for Italian Emigrants, who would speak to Cabrini of the miserable conditions of the Italians in America and brought the attention of Pope Leo XIII to her work. Pope Leo would personally pay for the second-class steamer ship fares for Cabrini and the six nuns she took with her to New York in 1889. He would say with brotherly affection, “Let us work, Cabrini. Work, work, work.”

The authorizing document Cabrini carried with her was drawn up by Msgr. Giacomo Della Chiesa, a lifelong friend and eventually Pope Benedict XV.

However, the film’s most glaring omission is the almost complete absence of a portrayal of the animating love responsible for Cabrini’s mission. 

Italian actress Cristiana Dell’Anna seems to have been directed to play Mother Cabrini as an angry social worker. The viewer is left to wonder why an infirm woman, an aquaphobe to boot, would cross the ocean multiple times, traversing the Americas to found 67 schools, orphanages and hospitals.

In one scene, as she and another sister attempt to dig a well (in the rain, in the dark) she is asked, “Aren’t you afraid to die?” Cabrini replies that she is very afraid, but explains she relies on a relentless work schedule to escape the fear.

If you read even a few of the many letters that Mother Cabrini wrote to her community, it is laughable to think that such a response would have come from her mouth.

In one she writes, “Oh, if I could build a steamer for myself to traverse all these seas! I should call it ‘Christopher,’ i.e. the bearer of Christ to the people.” In another, “Oh! How beautiful is the hymn of that fortunate spouse who can say, ‘Jesus loves me, and I love Him! He is the only object of my thought. I have printed Him on my hands and on the deepest recess of my heart.’ ”

Those letters betray not just an evangelical zeal but a lively humour and a wonder at God’s creation sadly lacking in the film.

In 1923, the atheist, socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw took a female Catholic saint as the subject for his play, St. Joan. Shaw superimposed his Fabianite worldview on St. Joan of Arc. In his preface to the play, Shaw introduces St. Joan as “the pioneer of rational dressing for women” who “refused to accept the specific woman’s lot” and was burnt at the stake “essentially for what we call unwomanly and insufferable presumption.” 

The poet T.S. Eliot speculated that Shaw’s rendering of St. Joan was “perhaps the greatest sacrilege of all Joans: for instead of the saint or the strumpet of the legends to which he objects, he has turned her into a great middle-class reformer, and her place is a little higher than Mrs. Pankhurst” (Emmeline Pankhurst was an English activist and suffragette).

Unfortunately, Cabrini suffers a similar fate as the St. Joan. Two female saints have been re-visioned by male interpreters as champions of their sex rather than fellow workers in the vineyard of the Lord.

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