Dear Mother Cabrini,
I am writing to you with an idea for a TV mini series. It is called Saint and the City and will be based around your life.
Of course, the city will be New York, the place you reached after you left your native Italy in 1889. But this series will be everything that Sex and the City never was. There will be no high heels and few tall buildings. There will, however, be plenty of food and clothes, the basics of life which you helped to provide for immigrants who were fleeing the destitution of Europe and floundering in the chaotic energy of America.
I doubt that you require Netflix for entertainment in heaven, so allow me to tell you that one of the themes in Sex and the City was the search for Mr Big, the perfect partner. In your series, the search for Mr Big will be about the deeper search that motivated you, the longing for an authentic relationship with God. You knew that God does not shop on Fifth Avenue. Nor does God dress to impress. Your Mr Big had no fear of commitment.
Unlike millions of others, your heart was touched not so much by the great American success story as by the stories of those who met with everything but success. Your people struggled in every way: with language, jobs, money, homesickness, dislocation, family stress, grief, exploitation and poor access to health and education. You are an inspiration to those of us who are called to respond to the extraordinary level of dislocation in the modern world. The UNHCR tells us that over 60 million people throughout the world have been uprooted; over 20 million have been forced into exile from their own countries as refugees. Every day, 34,000 people are displaced because of persecution and conflict. These numbers are staggering. Yet you saw the movement of people as something like the movement of the Holy Spirit. It can be hard to fathom but is always an invitation to embrace life, without fear. You were a tireless traveller in every sense.
When you arrived in New York at the age of 38, along with six other sisters, you had very little to call your own. You weren’t even sure of your welcome. Your little community moved into a slum and had to beg to make ends meet. You knew in your bones what it was like to be unwelcome and began serving others dealing with the same experience. I am sure you’d be pleased all these years later to see your name associated with the Cabrini Asylum Seeker and Refugee Hub in inner Melbourne.
I know that we are not supposed to mention such things but you were short in stature, well under five feet. I have always been drawn to the story of those whose passion and tenacity belied their physical stature. Saint Teresa of Calcutta, for example, was only five feet tall. You were a good deal shorter even than that. You were the second youngest of eleven children, only four of whom reached adulthood. So you were nurtured in a family that had learnt to cope with loss. Your own health was considered fragile. Yet nobody who met you ever doubted your strength.
The United States has a significant role well beyond its own borders and, watching this year’s election campaign, I sometimes wished that somebody such as yourself, one of the small number of American citizens to be made a saint, was there on the podium, giving voice to a sense of direction and openness that had nothing to do with image, only with honesty and love. I believe there is a tribute to you near the Statue of Liberty, a monument that carries that famous invitation ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.’
It is ironic that you died a few days before Christmas in 1917, falling sick as you prepared gifts for poor children. Christmas invites us to ponder again the words of the Mother of Jesus, ‘his mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him.’ That is a better message than all the lights of Times Square. It surely needs a TV series.
Michael McGirr is the Dean of Faith and Mission at St Kevin’s College in Melbourne and author of Finding God’s Traces.