St. Frances Cabrini’s ‘Empire of Hope’ Is an Inspiration for Catholic Women, Say Historians and Hollywood Star

‘We would probably need to make a 50-episode television series to do justice’ to the story of our ‘elder sister in the faith,’ said Eduardo Verástegui, during Women’s History Month.

The Mother Cabrini Memorial is seen in Battery Park City, New York City.
The Mother Cabrini Memorial is seen in Battery Park City, New York City. (photo: Ben Von Klemperer / Shutterstock)

Mexican film star and director Eduardo Verástegui and three American historians said that Catholics, especially women, will be inspired by the new film Cabrini and the enduring legacy of its heroine and saint, who overcame bigotry, misogyny and poor health and founded what has become known as an “empire of hope.”

Verástegui told the Register that the indomitable spirit of Mother Frances Cabrini, the first American citizen raised to sainthood, is an example of what a woman of faith can do. Verástegui is a lifelong Catholic who experienced a conversion experience as an adult and has become an outspoken pro-life advocate.

Verástegui was among the producers of Cabrini, which was released March 8. He said that, as a producer, his goal is to promote what is beautiful and true and that can transform society. “That’s our mission,” he said of the film, “and our goals.”

The film offers a dramatic, fictionalized version of the life of Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), or Francesca Saverio Cabrini in Italian, who was initially rejected by an Italian religious order because of her delicate health, yet founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and was its superior throughout the rest of her life. In Italy, she cared for orphans, founded a school and established seven orphanages within five years. This brought her to the attention of Pope Leo XIII, who, despite her ambition to work in China, convinced her to go instead to New York City to minister to the burgeoning Italian community there.

Verástegui recalled that Cabrini executive producer J. Eustace Wolfington, a Catholic entrepreneur who invested millions of dollars in the project, said that he didn’t want to die before seeing the life of the saint portrayed in a film. Wolfington was inspired throughout his life by the tenacity and entrepreneurial acumen of the saint and believes that the world can be inspired by her story.

Starting in New York City, despite initial reluctance on the part of Archbishop Michael Corrigan, Mother Cabrini and her sisters established schools, orphanages and a hospital, despite anti-immigrant and anti-Italian sentiment of the time. Long before governments provided social services, the Missionary Sisters and Mother Cabrini founded some 67 missionary institutions in the United States, Europe and South America.

On the centennial of Mother Cabrini’s death, Pope Francis met with members of the order she founded and noted they were especially beloved in his native Argentina. Reflecting on the saint’s devotion to the poor and immigrants, he said that her “clearly feminine, missionary consecration” came from “total and loving union with the Heart of Christ, whose compassion surpasses all limits.” That union, the Pope said, instilled evangelical fervor and strength to carry on.

“She lived and instilled in her sisters the impelling desire of reparation for the ills of the world and to overcome separation from Christ, an impetus that sustained the missionary in tasks beyond human strength,” the Pope said.

“This woman strove for justice and to help the needy. The world needs to listen to her story,” Verástegui said, “and learn about this great saint.”

Verástegui recalled that Wolfington approached him about making the bio pic while the Mexican actor was producing the blockbuster film Sound of Freedom, starring Jim Caviezel. Verástegui suggested screenwriter Rod Barr should write the movie script. Cabrini director Alejandro Monteverde, who also directed Sound of Freedom, collaborated on the writing.

Verástegui said, “In a way, the film is a little unjust to this saint.” He said, “She was someone who changed the lives of so many people and who continues to transform lives today. We would probably need to make a 50-episode television series to do justice to this Italian immigrant. For women in those days, it was very difficult to go against the grain. She even confronted members of the Church who didn’t approve of her project. In Italy, she clashed with organized crime, corrupt politicians and machismo.”

“Her strength came from God. She was a woman of God and of prayer. With God, she could make things grow,” Verástegui said. As for her legacy, he said, “She continues to help us today.” Highlighting how society and social media in particular can be harmful to women’s identity, he added: “Cabrini can create a new generation of women empowered by God. Any woman willing to ... allow God to take over her life can become a saint and a model for others.”

“My hope is that when parents take their daughters to see this film, they will imitate the saint’s life rather than a secular model. The modern feminist movement doesn’t want girls and women to see Cabrini because the film shows a woman truly empowered by God: the most beautiful human in creation,” Verástegui said.

“God our Father wants us to cooperate with him. But when women or men take God out of their lives, whatever they touch is destroyed because they aren’t living in the plenitude of truth and God’s love. Cabrini shows what the saint did when God guided her to found orphanages, hospitals and schools. Nothing was for herself: It was for everyone else. She incarnated the acts of mercy and is more alive today than ever because she is now a saint,” he said.

“St. John Paul II said that everything that comes from an artist reveals who he is. Whatever comes out of your mouth is what fills your heart. And where your heart is, so too is your treasure [Matthew 6:21]. You can’t give what you don’t have. You have to be filled with God in order to talk about the things of God. For those who worked on the film, St. Frances Cabrini is an elder sister in the faith. It helped me to refocus on the purpose of my life. If we forget where we are going and where we are from [we are lost]. Friendship is an elevator: A friend can take you up or take you down. If we study the lives of the saints and make them our friends, something has to rub off.”

The Register spoke with University of Notre Dame historian Kathleen Sprows Cummings, whose book A Saint of Our Own devotes an entire chapter to Cabrini. “I loved the film,” Cummings said, “because it is about a remarkable woman who had an indomitable spirit and wouldn’t give up. It gets a lot of things right: her persistence and determination. There’s a wonderful line in the film that she actually said, ‘The world is too small’ to do everything she wanted to do.”

“She was a ‘global citizen’ before we used that sort of language. She thought herself a missionary going out to all the world,” Cummings said. Noting that Cabrini did not stop at going to the Italian Senate and the Vatican for help, Cummings said of her, “She was incredibly bold.” Cummings recalled that Cabrini did not limit herself to the U.S., but also visited Argentina three times to minister to the growing Italian colony there.

Professor James Hedtke of Cabrini University, which was founded by the saint’s sisters, agreed that the saint can be counted among other women of the era, such as the Presbyterian Jane Addams, who also campaigned for social justice among immigrant communities, especially in Chicago. As to Cabrini’s legacy, acknowledging her faith, he said, “To my students, I portray her as a female Progressive reformer. From 1900 to 1920, there were all kinds of reforms and attempts at social justice. And Cabrini is among that number.”

Hedtke, who has authored books on the Civil War and U.S. presidents, said that the saint’s lasting legacy may be in the Cabrinian teaching method, “what Frances Cabrini called ‘the education of the heart.’ This is not only the education of the intellect and the body, but also of the spirit, so that students have a sense of their dignity and humanness and that they look for it in others.”

Historian Stephen Puleo, the author of The Boston Italians and several other books, emailed the Register, affirming that Cabrini “accurately depicted the poverty in which Italian immigrants lived upon arriving in the U.S.” As for discrimination they faced, even from fellow Catholics, Puleo wrote: “In the film, Mother Cabrini does a masterful job bucking the Irish religious and political hierarchy in New York to benefit immigrants. The composite character, the Italian opera singer, also expresses an accurate feeling of anti-church-hierarchy when he initially rebuffs Mother Cabrini to get involved in fundraising.”

“Finally,” professor Cummings said, “If I would have one critique of the Cabrini movie, it is that it minimized her faith, her belief in Jesus. Her favorite biblical verse was Philippians 4:13, in which St. Paul says, ‘I can do all things in him who strengthens me.’ That was Cabrini’s motto; she believed she could do anything and do the impossible through God. But you don’t hear about God in the film.”

Cabrini opens in Latin America and the rest of the world on March 21. Verástegui said that the next film being produced by his Metanoia Films company is about the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, which is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. That film will be released at Christmas. Verástegui’s company’s other credits include Bella and Little Boy.

“I pray that I can work with people and have projects that bring me closer to God,” Verástegui added, emphasizing that he looks to the witness of Frances Cabrini. “We can imitate the saint by seeking God, by imitating the saint’s union with God. By seeking God, the saint was able to accomplish many things. Her story is still relevant because we still find ourselves in an adverse world and encounter obstacles, sin and fallen nature. On our own merits, it is impossible to accomplish what God wants, which is saintliness. But with God’s grace, prayer, service, penitence and a sacramental life, it is possible.”