A NUN IN the BUILDING BUSINESS
By W. J. IGOE
CATHOLICS were as Scarce as ghosts in Lincoln Park in 1904. But one of the former was a policeman on the beat, a pious man named Officer Clancy.
In Lincoln Park, fringing on Lake Michigan a few miles north of the Loop, Chicago's city centre, a policeman's lot was happy; Mr. Clancy's life was quiet until one spring morning he was disturbed by two nuns behaving in an extremely odd way.
Neat in black habits. black bows tied beneath their chins, they raced up and down the pavements surrounding the North Shore Hotel. Each held an end of a long piece of string. Every few yards they stopped and bobbed down on the pavements Nuns in Ireland do not hob on pavements; in Lincoln Park nuns were rare.
Mr. Clancy. according to records, reacted in the traditional way: he scratched his head and reported to the sergeant. another Celt. who answered curtly: "They must be the Eyetalion Sisters who are going to buy the hotel."
HIGHER authority, as ever, was right. The bobbing nuns were Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and their superior. the foundress of their Order, Mother Frances Cabrini, had instructed them to measure the property she was about to buy.
The newly appointed Archbishop Quigley of Chicago had counselled her on business methods in the city. Mgr. Quigley, much pre-occupied with a still pioneer diocese, which expanded like a prairie lire in midsummer, and an extremely mixed flock which he dearly loved. was, like his successors in the see. Cardinals Mundelein and Stritch, a man of simple faith.
But his faith was not in real estate agents. upon whose operations, indeed, he cast painfully realistic eyes. Carefully he had instructed Mother Cabrini.
In negotiations, the real estate agents selling the property told the nun she was being offered the whole "block' of land on which the hotel was built. In documents. they set out the measurements. Mindful of her archbishop's counsel, Mother Cabrini sent her nuns. equipped with a piece of string. accurately measured. to check the documents.
ACCORDING to their calculations, a nice slice of land had been mislaid by the lawyers making out the deeds. Mother Cabrini challenged the sellers. The sellers expostulated; she kept to the point. They apol
ogised and rectified the deeds. The way being clear, the nun set builders to work remodelling the hotel. and soon found that they were idling and stealing fittings. It is said her English was limited; if so it was lucid in its terseness.
After explaining to the free enterprisers that she would pay what was just-"not a penny more"-she added: " 1 am going to take this in hand myself."
A nun in the building business
was something new even in Chicago. One naive scoundrel asked what she meant.
"What do I mean?" she replied.
"I mean you are all fired. I'm in charge from now on."
SHE built her hospital and named it, as was her way, after the first Italian immigrant -she had a nice sense of irony -Columbus. In it her Order had fashioned a marvellous workshop of healing.
Today, fifty-five years after she bought the hotel, Columbus Hospital has 450 beds and covers the whole "block" she bought. As smoothly running as a great Atlantic liner it dominates the view over Lincoln Park and the approach to the Lake. A small room to the left of the entrance is preserved as a shrine to the foundress, who died there a few days before Christmas, 1917.
In July. 1946, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was canonised in Rome. the first citizen of the United States to be raised to the altars of the Church. She was 67 when she died, nearly 40 when she first landed in the United States, sent by Leo XIII. and her journeyings far exceeded those of Christopher Columbus. her countryman. whom she venerated
R A NCESCA CABR IN I, a farmer's daughter, was born at Sant'Angelo di Lodi in Lombardy in 1850, and it is said that even as a child she aspired to the mission fields of the Church.
But her Introduction to the religious life was unconventional. After her parents died, while working as a teacher, she was practically conscripted by her bishop who sent her to an orphanage run by an eccentric lady named Sister Antonia Tondini.
Sister Antonia's conception of discipline must have given the bishop of Lodi nightmares-indeed
he admitted as much. With great patience Sister Frances Cabrini brought order into the orphanage. attracted postulants, and eventually was given permission to found an Order to do the work to which she aspired. She begged and laboured to the necessary material end; when money was scarce she set her nun,. to work carrying bricks and mortar for craftsmen building to he' specifications. Her heart was fixed on the Far East.
LEO X111 had another plan for her. In the 19th century Italian immigration to the United States was on a scale that would have depopulated any other country in Europe. Whole emptied. A
prob lem was created for the Church in America that would have baffled all but saints.
The majority of the clergy were of Irish extraction; few could speak the Italian language. Ironically, racial prejudice was vicious in its opposition to Italians; the people who built Rome. who gave birth to Dante and St. Thomas Aquinas, not to mention Columbus, were put on the same level as Negroes, who were thought animals.
Italians were lost to the Church, and exploited as cheap labour, debased and brutalised by "big business". A missionary was needed. But Mother Cabrini's heart was set on China.
In 1889 Leo XIII decided for her. Under orders she went to America. Armed with the Pope's commission she arrived in New York on March 31, 188q.
THE arrival was not encouraging. The day was cold and damp. Fog hung upon the river. Her companions had been seasick. She did not speak English.
No place was prepared for the nuns; the harassed, overworked Fr. Morelli, who greeted them. could offer only one night's lodging in a bug-ridden roominghouse. They spent the night sitting upright on chairs-the beds were filthy-trembling as mice scrambled about their feet.
Next clay. the Archbishop of New York. Mgr. Michael Quigley, gave the Superior audience and told her there was no place in the diocese for her and her nuns. He advised her to return to Italy.
She produced the Papal instructions and the advice was withdrawn Thus began an extraordinary odyssey, 28 years of travelling during which this small, often ailing. woman crossed the Andes by mule-train, sailed to Latin America.
voyaged to and from Europe to watch over her foundation in Rome. always keeping in touch with "my dear daughters-.
SHE begged in the streets, sought out the sick, the illinstructed, and the wicked in the stinking. narrow lanes of cities where human beings were used as little better than slave labour, living in slums that were human slag heaps. All the time creating her institutes, planning the tasks of her nuns, she had her eyes on the destination just ahead.
I N November, 1898, she visited London and fell in love with England and the English:
"We went around admiring the great edifices, which are really beautiful. When we asked people the way, they not only answered of Milan ... and were treated with great kindness and courtesy. We were offered chairs and shown whatever might interest us.
"In other countries they speak of nobility and courtesy, in Eng
land they practise it, In one shop where we were unable to get a trunk, the manager had us accom
panied by one of his clerks and gave him instructions to help us get what we wanted. Similar examples I could cite by the hundred.
"This is how they treat Sisters in England: and God, Who considers
as done to Himself whatever is done to His servants, will bless this nation and give it the grace of entering into the One True Church."
In 1902. the first English convent of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart was opened in Southwark
THE Chicago to which Mother Cabrini came in 1904, had in 1898, one priest for every 7,500 Italians; in New Orleans. there was one priest for every 35,000; there were five churches available and 19 priests serving 250,000 Italian souls in New York. In each of these cities she founded thriving missions for her compatriots.
They were uprooted peasants, unschooled in their own language. often speaking only rural dialects. She served them and her adopted country well. To the traveller in the U.S.A.. it seems appropriate that the first citizen saint should have been a nun, an exemplar to thousands of girls who took up her task After voyaging, Mother Cabrini came back to Chicago in April, 1917. when she was suffering from malaria which affected her pulmonary veins. All through the summer of that year she worked in her hospital. The autumn was unhappy; the Italian defeat at Caporetto to her was a great sorrow. As Christmas drew near she was happier, preparing gifts for doctors and nurses.
She was told that more than 500 children of Italian immigrants at a local school would have no Christmas gifts. Times were bad. She gave instructions that gifts must be bought at the Order's expense.
ALL through Friday, Decem
ber 21, she drove her helpers on, wrapping parcels for children. On Saturday morning she was too ill to attend Mass, and after rising from bed about noon collapsed into her rocking chair and died.
The Catholic people of Chicago. descendants of the Italians and Poles who worked in the steel mills that surround the city and the great stock yards that span it, come to the bedroom shrine to pray to her. The rocking chair in which she died is there. her bed neatly made, the desk where she worked, business-like, the inkwell polished, a letter addressed in her severe plain handwriting, now faded brown. to a mission in Brazil.
T LEFT her shrine, which is A quiet, on an October Saturday morning, dropped into the cafeteria in the basement of her hospital, drank a coffee and smoked a cigarette under a portrait that hangs above the tables. The half-smile on the face was quizzical.
Trains roared above the Loop when I left the bus. In Chicago hundreds of nuns come out walking on Saturday mornings; the bookshops swarm with quiet ladies in black, Sisters of all ages, tall and small, each intent on shopping or in conversation with another nun All Orders, all in their different congregation. somehow, Mother CabrinTs "daughters".
I bought a paper and read that Archbishop Meyer had announced the opening of a new Catholic high school; staffed by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It will accommodate 1,200 pupils. Women's work in the Church never ends.
The good Archbishop Quigley. beset by the problem of his thousands of Italian and Polish peasants striving to live in an alien and hostile milieu, would see great changes in his archdiocese today. St. Francis Cabrini would find work.
She died at Christmas time; as a girl and young woman, she wished to convert China. Even today. I believe that task would not intimidate her. A prayer for China at Christmas time would make the perfect present. one feels, for the saint who died after preparing Christmas parcels for hungry children. whose fathers and mothers were Europeans.
She halted from work only once in her life and it was to die. Her work throughout all the Americas is thriving still.