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In That Number



It was the feast of All Saints and even if most things are not nearly as good as they once were, you could still spot people strolling into cemeteries carrying things like sand-shovels and glass vases of sunflowers or Gerber daisies, looking happy if not holy or vice versa. We still do love our saints around here. You betcha ass.

It's not too hard to figure out some of the reasons why. One of the biggest is the Intermediary Principle. Like maybe we need a really big favor done but the One who can get things done well is like God. So we wouldn't feel quite right just barging into the throne room and asking for a favor, just like that. But maybe if we could ask someone else who's got connections to the One " an intermediary " to ask for us, we'd have a much better chance. And even better, this go-between maybe at some point wasn't much different than us, which is to say lazy, cowardly and pleasure loving.

Which is to say sometimes when we want something from the Most High, we ask St. Anthony. Or St. Dumas or St. Philomena or St. Jude.

(It is much the same thing that leaves us unable to reform our political system that makes outsiders retch and insiders chuckle. Call Larry. His brother-in-law has a sister who works in the office of the assessor or zoning permits or dogcatcher. The Intermediary Principle. Oh yeah, reform politics. Throw all the banditti out. Only please, don't mess with Larry's brother-in-law's sister.)

Enough of this digression. We were speaking of saints and our fascination with them. We love 'em so much, we named half of our streets for saints and we even invented a couple of our own. St. Tammany was named for a Delaware Indian chief and St. Expédite supposedly came from a misunderstanding of some French-speaking men to a crate from Rome marked 'E Spedito." In Italy this stood for 'sent off," but in New Orleans, it came to stand for a saint who could get things done in an expeditious manner " a patron saint of chop-chop.

You would think that a place with such a mindset would be better at appreciating saints than becoming one. Yet, a recent article noted that no less than three former residents of the area are under close consideration for sainthood: Francis Xavier Seelos, a 19th century Redemptorist missionary to local German immigrants, Monsignor Jean Eyraud, a beloved country priest from Reserve and Henriette Delille, a free woman of color who founded the Sisters of the Holy Family in antebellum New Orleans.

Take a minute to remember the little lady who has a local history " and sainthood already.

She was born July 15, 1850 in the Lombard village of Sant' Angelo near Milan. She was the 10th of 11 children born to Agostino and Stella Cabrini, who were not family-lucky. Seven of the 11 did not survive to adulthood, and one who did was described in parish church records as 'a harmless imbecile."

The new Cabrini girl was baptized Francesca, but nicknamed 'Cecchina" by her doting parents. She was pampered, perhaps because of the family mortality rate and because she herself was frail and tiny. Maybe her arresting blue eyes had something to do with it, too.

When she began school, she quickly fell under the spell of her teachers, nuns of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart. Soon she was daydreaming herself a missionary headed for China, pushing violets in paper boats down neighboring streams. Then one day, Cecchina fell into one of the streams and almost drowned. She was left with a lifelong terror of water.

She was still a child when her confessor advised her: 'Va, dillo al tuo Gesu" or 'Go and tell your Jesus." Two decades later, she reflected on the long-term impact of this advice:

—What sublime words. Because of my spiritual ignorance, I did not understand them then, but for now I understand the unique and sweet secret of those words. Each time that I encounter sufferings — I pour out my soul to Jesus and I am consoled and comforted.

Good, since suffering was not far off. When Francesca asked for permission to enter the novitiate of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, she was brushed off because of her frailty. Then she applied to Canossian order of nuns. Same results

She graduated from school and became an 'Elementary School Teacher," a title she proudly affixed to her name. In time, she gathered about her like-minded young women and then formed her own order, later called the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. She still dreamed dreams of China, but when the archbishop of New York wrote to Rome for help with the burgeoning Italian immigrant population, Pope Leo XIII advised her 'Not to the East, but to the West."

So Francesca overcame her fear of water and in 1889 made the first of what would be 23 trans-Atlantic crossings. The immigrant band immediately went door-to-door begging for their subsistence.

But the tiny (under 5 feet and 100 pounds) woman had a commercial shrewdness about her. When she came to New Orleans in 1891 on the heels of the infamous vigilante lynching of 11 Sicilian immigrants, she looked for ways to finance an orphanage. She decided to distribute a thousand savings banks to school kids, banks 'shaped like a little pig, which they call Saint Anthony's pigs here. For the close of the month the money boxes will all be full at the altar of the saint. Set your wits to work!"

Her own sharp wits soon zeroed in on Captain Salvatore Pizzati, a Palermo native who had come to New Orleans to form a banana-import shipping line to Central America. In time, Pizzati made a fortune and, being childless, gave some back in projects like the Alexander street gates to City Park.

Mother Cabrini (her nuns always referred to her as 'La Madre") guided Pizzati to her orphanage at 817 St. Phillip St. There he and his wife were moved to tears at the sight of three little girls to a bed and signed on $75,000 worth.

In the cold light of day, Pizzati's advisors urged him to reconsider. He wavered. But when the advisors showed up at the nun's door, she ran them off, waving a contract with Pizzati's signature. She then went to the Italian consul (Pizzati was not yet a naturalized American citizen) and told him: 'Just try and harm this work and you shall pay for it."

Pizzati thought it over and wrote a check. With it, Mother Cabrini bought property near the end of Esplanade Avenue, property that would become the site of a girl's orphanage and, after 1959, of Mother Cabrini High School.

That's only one of 67 schools, hospitals, orphanages and nurseries founded throughout America by this remarkable woman with the fear of water. She died at 67 in Chicago, and in 1946 was canonized a saint.

Every good saint has an element of the bizarre. Mother Cabrini's mummified body lies at a New York school. Except for the head, which has been replaced with a wax replica.

The real head is 'somewhere in Italy."

We love stuff like that in New Orleans anytime. But most especially when the saints go marching in.


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