St. Frances Cabrini has been called “Mother of Immigrants” because of her great work in the Americas on behalf of Italian immigrants. Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini of Piacenza, Italy, has been termed “Father of Immigrants”, and deservedly, as we shall see. Interestingly enough, it was Scalabrini who bestowed their mission crosses on Mother Cabrini and her companions when they set forth in 1889 on their initial assignment to the United States.
Now, this “Father of Emigrants” has himself been beatified, and will doubtless be canonized in due time. He did a remarkable service for the thousands of people who left not only Italy but many other countries in the 19th and 20th centuries in search of a better life elsewhere.
Scalabrini was born at Como in northern Italy on July 8, 1839. A man of ability and vision, he studied for the diocesan priesthood and was ordained in 1863. First, he was assigned to teach in Como’s diocesan seminary, and before long was named its rector. Then he was appointed pastor of one of Como’s largest parishes. He succeeded well in both locales, and in 1875, when only 36, he was named bishop of Piacenza.
One of the first shocks this forward-looking young prelate received as he entered on his diocesan duties was the large number of Italians who were leaving their home country each year in search of a better livelihood in non-European countries. Between 1880 and 1914, in fact, some 13 million of Italy’s 30 million population were to sail west to begin again in North and South America; 28,000 of these came from the Diocese of Piacenza alone. The transition was to prove more difficult for the emigrants than they anticipated; yet in 1875, nothing was being done in Italy to counsel the departing, and little or nothing was being done in America to guide and comfort the exiles.
Bishop Scalabrini resolved to champion these poor wanderers. Well aware of the needs of publicity, he set about mobilizing Catholic opinion and assistance in Italy. He likewise asked the help of the Italian government and the Holy See. Meanwhile he established in 1887 “the Pious Society of the Missionaries of St. Charles” (popularly known as the Scalabrini Fathers and Brothers) to work among the Italian immigrants of the Americas. In 1895 he founded the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles to engage in the same apostolate. In 1901 the Bishop made a prolonged personal visitation of his missionaries in the United States, and in 1904 to those in Brazil. He was pleased with the good work they were doing. While in the United States he secured an audience with President Theodore Roosevelt. He and the President discussed the phenomenon of immigration, and he made bold to tell Roosevelt of the inhuman treatment of some of the immigrants that he himself had witnessed at Ellis Island.
Bishop Scalabrini died on June 1, 1905. Three weeks before his death he submitted to the Holy See a historic plan dealing with immigration policies to be followed not only regarding Italian emigrants but those from every country. He begged the Vatican to set up a department devoted to the needs of all those uprooted. His advice was heeded. Today, his Scalabrinians alone are at work in 25 countries.
In focusing on emigration, Scalabrini by no means neglected his own diocese. A very modern man, he promoted scientific studies of social problems; he welcomed industrialization; but he also defended the workers, as he did the disabled and the poor. He knew his own diocese thoroughly. During his regime he visited each of its parishes intensively three times. He also held three diocesan synods. An innovator in religious instruction, his catechetical work won for him, from Pius IX, the grateful title of “Apostle of the Catechism”.
A devout man personally (his three favorite devotions were to the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Virgin, and the popes), Scalabrini likewise wrote extensively on several subjects apart from emigration; such as, the reform of clerical studies, and catechetical methods. Politically alert, and a peacemaker, he worked to bring the papacy and the Italian government closer to reconciliation. This “Roman Question” was finally answered in 1929.
In beatifying Blessed John Scalabrini, Pope John Paul II has given an appropriate heavenly patron both to those who deal with the ever-increasing migration of peoples and to those who labor to re-evangelize the world.
-Father Robert F. McNamara