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At the shrine of first U.S. saint, who came to America as an immigrant

The National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini

The National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini is the former chapel of Columbus Hospital, which was closed in 2001. The shrine, which re-opened in 2012 has the upper right arm bone of Cabrini, the first American saint, displayed at the altar. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The contrast would look trite in fiction.

Facing Lincoln Park, the luxurious Lincoln Park 2520, where condo prices soar toward $6 million a unit. The building, opened in 2012, has two pools, a movie theater and a private garden. Designed by Chicago architect Lucien LaGrange, the center 39-story tower is flanked by a pair of 21-story wings, given a distinct Parisian air with its metal mansard roof.

Nestled behind — the building actually wraps around it — and sharing the same address is the National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. It’s the former chapel of Columbus Hospital, shuttered in 2001; when the 3-acre hospital site was sold to developers, the stipulation was the shrine would be preserved.

OPINION

And it is, having re-opened in 2012. No pool, but the first American saint’s upper right arm bone displayed at the altar in a glass and bronze reliquary. The bedroom where she died in 1917. Her bed, where prayers for the sick are sometimes tucked under the pillow, and it is not unknown for a sick child to be laid upon the mattress in hope of a cure.

Born in Italy, Cabrini dreamt of working in China, but was sent to the United States instead, arriving in 1889. The contempt held for Italian-American immigrants at that time can hardly be overstated. They were seen as not white, lower than even the hated Irish, sometimes lynched — the largest mass lynching in the United States was of 11 Italian-Americans in New Orleans in 1891.

Cabrini, undeterred by all this, traveled the country, starting convents, schools, orphanages and hospitals. She was made a saint in 1946 — 100,000 people attended the celebratory mass at Soldier Field. In 1950 she became the patron saint of immigrants.

Which makes her particularly significant at the moment. I popped in last week, being in the neighborhood. Director Sister Bridget Zanin was sent for, and we spoke of Mother Cabrini.

Sister Bridget Zanin, of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Sister Bridget Zanin, of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is director of The National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in Lincoln Park, celebrating a festival this week honoring the first American saint. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

“During this time we need her help and her intercession more than ever,” Zanin said. “She is a saint. She is in heaven with God, therefore she can intercede with us.”

Well then, I said, she should get right on that. Because immigrants are being demonized wrongly.

“Though they’re immigrants, they’re people like we are,” she agreed. “They’re looking for a way to better their lives and the lives of their families. They’re still our brothers and sisters who are suffering, a lot of them fleeing from suffering, fleeing from violence, fleeing from poverty. They want a better life in a better country. The United States is the first country in the world.”

Or was. Some argue the country is now full, using slurs once reserved for Italians like Mother Cabrini; Zanin pushed back against the calumny coming from Washington.

“We can’t accommodate everybody,” she said. “But we can accommodate some people. There are a lot of good people, who make a big sacrifice, walking so far away. We have to give people a chance; we like people to give us a chance, why can’t we give others a chance? Mother Cabrini herself was an immigrant.”

As was Zanin, who came to the United States in 1964 from Brazil.

“I wasn’t treated so badly,” she said. “There was a roof over my head. I had work. I didn’t know the language.”

But as she continued, her tone darkened.

“I felt I was treated as a second-class citizen,” she said. “I may have an accent, but I picked up English pretty fast.”

Religion is neutral, a tool, like a hammer. You can use it to build a house, or use it to bash strangers. Some use their faith to oppress; some use it to elevate.

“Fear and hatred shouldn’t have any place in our lives,” Zanin said. “These people are people like we are. If we turn away from our brothers and sisters we turn away from ourselves and the values of the United States. Because God said He lives in each one of us. And God will bless us if we are open to receive our brothers and sisters. If we turn away from our brothers and sisters, we turn away from God.”

A Cabrini Festival runs through Tuesday. Sunday is “An Evening of Prayer” with Denise La Giglia; Monday, researcher Ellen Skerrett speaks on “Cabrini & Her Chicago Connection;” Tuesday is Cabrini’s Feast Day, with a celebration led by Bishop Frank Kane. All events start at 6 p.m. at the shrine, 2520 N. Lakeview, behind the big beautiful condo building.

National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini

A condo building towers over the National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. It’s the former chapel of Columbus Hospital, which was closed in 2001. When the hospital site was sold to developers, the stipulation was that the shrine would be preserved. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times