I had the pleasure last Saturday to visit and pray at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. It is the largest Catholic Church in the USA and I have a great love for that place. When I was studying in DC in 1996 and 1997, I served as a tour guide in the Basilica. It is an amazing place and a beautiful architectural metaphor for the American Church. I hear some people complain that it is a mix-match of architectural styles and seems to be thrown together haphazardly. Those complaints are usually in contradistinction of the (Anglican) National Cathedral, a pristine and unified neo-Gothic building. I get that, and I too will not argue that the National Shrine is as aesthetically pleasing as the many medieval Cathedrals and Basilicas I enjoyed in Spain last year; but I will argue for its beauty and appropriateness as a National Shrine of the American Catholic experience. It is in this context that I am inspired to write about it today, the Feast of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, "Mother Cabrini," the first American Saint. Mother Cabrini's statue is front and center in the part of the Shrine crypt called "the Hall of American Saints." and like the Shrine, Mother Cabrini is a beautiful representation of the Church on these shores; and I cannot imagine a better 1st canonization in the young American Church.
The National Shrine is really a complex of chapels. Yes, it is a massive basilica style Church that can easily seat 2000 worshippers, and has an equally impressive crypt Church. But the Shrine's real glory is its impressive array of nearly 100 separate chapels housing a host of images of the Blessed Mother and other saints. These various chapels and their impressive art have been funded by and pay homage to 2 important realities of American Catholic history: immigrant populations and religious orders. There could be no greater representation of American Catholicism than this. The Church in the United States is an immigrant Church and many of its great institutions owe their existence and their thriving to the tireless work of Religious, especially Religious women. Wandering from chapel to chapel, from shrine to shrine throughout the Basilica, one wonders at images dedicated to various immigrant groups: Irish, Polish, German, Filipino, Chinese, African, French, German, Italian, Mexican... and many others. At the Center of most of these chapels are images of the Blessed Mother precious to that particular homeland: Black Madonna of Częstochowa for the Poles, Our Lady of Mariazell for the Austrians, Our Lady of Fatima for the Portuguese, Our Lady of Lourdes for the French, and so on...
But there is an equally impressive collection of chapels and images sponsored by and dedicated to many of the Religious Orders whose missionary brothers and sisters built the American Church from the ground up - staffing the parishes, running schools and colleges, providing hospitals and healthcare, running orphanages and other charitable institutions - the American Catholic Experience was constructed by the blood, sweat and tears of Sisters, nuns, friars, monks, and priests who left the relative security of their European cloisters to answer the missionary call to bring the Gospel to the New World and to provide the needs of the growing Church in a new nation.
Predictably, my favorite of the chapels dedicated to the honor of Religious Orders is that which commemorates the Order of Preachers. It is the first complex of chapels on the right side of the Nave (facing the altar) closest to the main doors of the Basilica. There are three chapels - the central has a simple image of Our Lady of the Rosary, to the left an altar dedicated to St. Dominic, and to the right, one dedicated to St. Catherine of Siena.
As I said above, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, whose Feastday we celebrate today, is honored with the Central Sculpture in the "Hall of American Saints" in the Basilica's crypt.
When she was canonized in 1946 by Pope Pius XII, Mother Cabrini was the first American Citizen so honored. Our nation and our Church are so young that nearly every canonization is a "first something" (Seton, the first Saint born in North America; Kateri, the first Native American, Neumann, the first (and, so far only) American Bishop canonized...). But, we could not have had a better "First American Saint;" there is no one more representative of the American Catholic Experience than Mother Cabrini.
Even as a youngster, Francesca Cabrini, dreamed of being a missionary. Her choice of the religious name "Xavier" betrays her dream of following in the footsteps of that great Jesuit Missionary and Evangelizer of China. When ordered to by Pope Leo XIII, Mother Cabrini and her young Missionaries of the Sacred Heart gave up the dream of going to China and instead went to serve the needs of Italian Immigrants in New York. Because they had run an orphanage in Italy, the Sisters first established a similar ministry in their new home. But soon, they realized that the needs of immigrants demanded many other kinds of institutions. Rising to those needs, the sisters founded school and hospitals and worked to provide a solid religious education to children in the many Italian Parishes that grew up in the populations centers of the East Coast. Before her death in 1917, her sisters had spread their work from Coast to Coast wherever there was a need in an immigrant population. But Cabrini's heroic story and that of her missionary sisters is hardly unique. Change the names and geographic location and you could be telling the story of many remarkable sisters' congregations on whose backs the Church in America was built: the Ursulines in New Orleans, the Dominicans and Mercy Sisters in the Bay Area, the Franciscans in Chicago, the Daughters of Charity in Mobile, and the list goes on. Mother Cabrini is a great "First American Saint" precisely because her story is so representative of American Catholicism: a dedicated immigrant making a new home for herself and countless others by heroic works of charity and mercy.
On this Feast of the patron Saint of Immigrants, I could not help but enjoy the patchwork of faces that attended the Mass I celebrated this morning: Filipinos, Mexican and Central American, Native American, Indian, VietNamese, African, Portuguese, and various shades of "white people." We are truly a multi-cultural parish!
As I reflect on this first American Saint and the American Catholic Immigrant experience, I cannot but help reflect on the precept of the law of Ancient Israel regarding the treatment of immigrants: "When an alien resides with you in your land, do not mistreat such a one. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God." (Leviticus 19:33-34)
On the Feast of the Patronage of Immigrants I encourage my American Catholic brothers and sisters (indeed all my fellow Americans), even as we are cognizant of the complicated issues of national security, economic well-being, and the reality of borders on our map, that we remember and pay homage to our immigrant past. That as we formulate our own attitudes and policies about immigration and migrants, that we always do so remembering that once, whether we arrived yesterday or, like me, our family showed up before the US even existed, we too were strangers in a strange land.
Yes, I have heard the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception referred to as an architectural hodge-podge, a disastrous mixture of styles, colors and motifs, that seems to be cobbled together with no regard for any sense of unity. I even agree (a little). But that's what makes it, along with the First American Saint, a PERFECT representation of the Church in the United States of America. HAPPY FEAST OF MOTHER CABRINI!
Fr. Bart Hutcherson, OP
Fr. Bart Hutcherson, OP is a Roman Catholic Priest & a Friar of the Dominican Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus-USA. He is on the Pastoral Staff at Most Holy Rosary Parish in Antioch, California, and uses this page to post Homilies and Scripture reflections.