‘Cabrini’ and the American Dream

Cristiana Dell’Anna in 'Carbini.' (Photo: Courtesy of Angel Studios)

In his 1919 poem “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats describes our fledgling modernity as follows:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

The life of Mother Francesca Cabrini, who is the subject of the new film Cabrini, provides a one-woman refutation of Yeats’ perspective. 

Director Alejandro Monteverde’s new film is a poignant depiction of the life of this first American Catholic saint. Played with grace and gravitas by Italian actress Cristiana Dell’Anna, Cabrini becomes the center-that-holds in Five Points, a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan where poor Italian immigrants lived “worse than rats” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The movie captures her determination to start the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, beginning by running an orphanage in that poorest of New York City neighborhoods.

The film establishes early on how Cabrini and her fellow religious sisters, despite the reluctance of the local archbishop and even the pope, quickly begin caring for impoverished Italian immigrants upon arriving in America. Cabrini looks for several little girls whom she has seen roaming the streets, and her search soon leads her into a squalid sewer beneath the city. There, filth fills the air and water, criminals ply their trades, and children shiver in blankets near open flames. But Cabrini lights a single candle and trudges through the sewer in her nun’s habit, neither cursing the darkness nor complaining about her bothersome lung condition. She just holds the flame and moves her feet, a Christ figure willingly on the way to her own Calvary.

Somewhere between allowing a teenage boy to steal from her and giving a pep talk to a former prostitute (her compassion is genuine and free of judgment, extending to the guilty and the innocent alike), Cabrini learns that her lung problems are worsening. In a scene when a doctor tells her that she likely has just two or three years to live, she immediately responds: “Then I’d better get to work.” (She winds up living another 20-plus years).

And work Cabrini does—while expecting others to do the same. 

Cabrini’s intensity and conviction movingly display maternal compassion, fitting for someone called “mother.” Indeed, Cabrini’s tireless labor on behalf of each and every needy child is the stuff of self-sacrifice rooted in bottomless empathy for the poor, the sick, and the struggling. 

Many of my fellow Catholics viewing Cabrini, particularly those who lean left politically, will feel great admiration for its titular character. Certainly, we should all take inspiration from Cabrini’s compassionate pursuit of dignity and justice for the poor—as well as from her defiance against the sexist and anti-Italian power players of both the Church and the state who tried to undermine her and her work, ultimately in vain.

But I wonder how many of those who approach Cabrini primarily through a progressive lens will overlook the politically inconvenient fact that her ambition extends beyond charity. The film depicts Cabrini not just helping her fellow Italian immigrants but also encouraging them to love their new country and empowering them to assume their own moral agency.

There’s a scene in the film where Cabrini, while raising funds for her mission, assembles a group of financially successful men whose parents were immigrants. They are Irish, Polish, and Jewish. Far from shaming them for their success in America, Cabrini makes clear that she wants to give her fellow Italians the same opportunities to achieve the nascent American Dream that earlier generations of immigrants received.

Relatedly, Cabrini insists that the Italian orphans in her care speak English at school. She wants them to have a common bond with other immigrant groups, as well as to feel ties and pride in their new country.

When Cabrini is accosted on the street by Enzo, the teenage ruffian who tries to steal the rolls for her orphans’ dinner, she is certainly afraid. It would have been easier to just hand over the bread basket and go without that evening—and Cabrini does hand the basket over. But she doesn’t succumb to an easy, pseudo-compassionate treatment of her assailant because he is poor and needy (which he is, but so are those he’s stealing from). 

Cabrini tells Enzo that he should come to dinner at the orphanage, implying that he should return the bread. “The choice is yours,” she says gravely. Cabrini’s capacity to recognize moral agency in all, and to have high ambitions for the moral development even of those in great need, makes her compassion especially valuable. She seeks to raise up her fellow Italians so that they, in turn, may raise up one another.

Too often today, compassion for the underserved becomes inextricable from a kind of condescension that fails to acknowledge the universality of individual agency. Not so for Cabrini. Generous compassion flanked by a belief in individual ambition—exercised by those like Cabrini and the wider culture they influenced—is what made possible a United States in which Italians have long since become quintessential Americans while Italian food has become standard American fare.  

So, if we take a forward-looking lesson from Cabrini about compassion for the poor, the immigrant, and the needy—as I believe we should—let’s be sure to take it all in all. 

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