‘Cabrini,’ Though Imperfectly, Tells a Proud Part of Catholic History

COMMENTARY: The saint carries on a tradition of powerful women religious that stretches back centuries.

Mother Frances Cabrini is portrayed as speaking on equal terms with Pope Leo XIII, who supports her initiative and treats her with kindness, in ‘Cabrini.’
Mother Frances Cabrini is portrayed as speaking on equal terms with Pope Leo XIII, who supports her initiative and treats her with kindness, in ‘Cabrini.’ (photo: Angel Studios)

Holy Week and Easter Week are a popular time for religious films, and many Catholics might head out to see Cabrini, the film about Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American to be canonized.

Despite being dominated by religious characters — Mother Cabrini herself, Pope Leo XIII, Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York, prelates, priests and sisters — it is not really a religious film, in that religion takes very much a secondary role. Indeed, some critics have judged (correctly) that the film is “an injustice to Mother Cabrini’s mission.”

“Unfortunately, the film sews a predictable, ‘Feisty woman fights the patriarchy to get really important things done’ thread throughout,” writes Anna Farrow in the Canadian Catholic Register.

The film was released on March 8, International Women’s Day, indicating both its approach and its orientation toward secular, not religious, themes. And yet the film does inspire, even if not in a Spirit-led way. It does implicitly teach an important lesson about the role of women in Catholicism.

In the 21st century it is difficult to appreciate how distinctive Christianity was in its treatment of women. Holy Week emphasizes that. During the holiest days of history, it is the men who come off badly, while the women shine.

In St. Mark’s account of the Passion, read this past Palm Sunday, it is a woman who is praised for her lavish anointing of the Lord, while Judas grumbles. Mark, for his part, records that he “ran away naked,” lacking even a fig leaf to cover his shame.

There is no masculine equivalent of the Eighth Station, focused on the weeping women of Jerusalem. The admirable man on the Via Crucis is Simon of Cyrene, himself commandeered by the Roman guards.

At the foot of the cross — and again on Easter morning at the tomb — it is only women present, save for St. John, who seems to have taken courage from staying close to the Blessed Mother. It is to Mary Magdalene — “Apostle to the Apostles” — to whom is given the astonishing news of the Resurrection.

The long life of the Christian Church is certainly marked by discrimination against women, the abuse of power by men that is a consequence of the Fall: “and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). Yet, comparatively, it was the Church that provided for feminine creativity, authority and advancement when other paths were closed.

In Cabrini, this is demonstrated when the heroine appears before the Italian Senate, only to hear derisive shouts that no woman should speak in such a place. And the mayor of New York tells her that it was a pity that she is a woman, as she would have made an excellent man!

In contrast, Mother Cabrini is portrayed as speaking on equal terms with Pope Leo XIII, who supports her initiative and treats her with kindness. (It’s a delight to see Leo XIII portrayed as an avuncular, even portly, figure, rather than the more austere images we usually have of him.) Mother Cabrini frustrates Archbishop Corrigan, and they clash, but he provides a property for her orphan children and personally welcomes her sisters.

If the film is more woman-fights-the-patriarchy than on-a-mission-from-God, it is the worldly patriarchy that is more difficult to overcome. Whatever their shortcomings, Churchmen were on Mother Cabrini’s side in the film — and much more so in real life.

Yet even on its own terms, Cabrini comes up short. The film presents her as something entirely novel — a female missionary in a man’s world. That is simply not historically true. Mother Cabrini was in a tradition of powerful women religious that stretches back centuries.

There is no excuse for the film’s claim that the Church expected the Cabrini sisters to fail because they were women. It has been nearly 30 years since the publication of a seminal work on the history of Catholic women religious, Sister in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia (1996) by Jo Ann Kay McNamara. With feminist sympathies, McNamara is not short of tales of patriarchal abuses. Yet she shows how constant were the achievements of women religious. The chapter entitled “Martha’s Part” — another Holy Week echo — starts in the 12th century and focuses largely on the 16th and 17th centuries. Quebec is just one example:

“In 1632, Father Paul Lejeune, like Saint Boniface many centuries before, put out a call for nuns to support their work [in Quebec]. In Europe nuns already longed vainly to enter the mission field,” writes McNamara. “Marie de Saint-Josèphe and Marie de l’Incarnation answered the Jesuit call to forsake their homeland and brave the hardships of the Canadian wilderness. The Hospitalières de Saint Jean, led by Jeanne Mance, arrived in 1659 with enough money to establish the Hôtel Dieu of Montreal to care for Indians as well as French settlers” (p. 479).

That was two centuries before Frances Cabrini, who was not the first missionary nun even in North America. It was partly because of the work of the women religious in Quebec that Italian bishops sought to find equivalents for the Italians who had emigrated to New York.

The story of Cabrini’s “empire of hope,” with missions all over the world and its American hospital system, is an example of how women in the Church were able to create, own and operate their own educational, social and medical institutions, on a grand scale, when such opportunities were denied in broader society. That tale, often ignored today, needs to be told again.

Recall another American saint, Katharine Drexel, who went to Pope Leo XIII asking that something be done for Native Americans and Black Americans. Leo told her that she could, and should, do something about it herself. Mother Drexel came from one of the leading families of American banking; she had more authority in the Church than she would have had in her own family business.

Cabrini tells that story, though imperfectly. It’s a proud part of Catholic history.