These past few months, having begun a new parochial assignment in the summer, I’ve come to know a retired Monsignor, who at the age of 84 generously travels to my parish twice-a-month to celebrate one of our Sunday Masses. Everyone calls him “Monsignor F.X.” When I asked about his curious name one day, I was not expecting to hear the incredible story that followed, a story which reveals the greatness of one of our own American saints as well as the consoling fact that the age of miracles has not passed.
The story begins midday on March 14, 1921, when Peter Smith was born in a newly built annex to Columbus Hospital on 34th Street in Manhattan. The hospital was a charity institution originally founded by Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini in 1892 to render free service to the poor immigrant population of New York. When little Peter was born, it was still staffed by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who were established by Mother Cabrini back in Italy in 1880.
The newborn was handed to his delighted mother Margaret, who commented on how beautiful her son’s blue eyes were. She reluctantly relinquished hold of her little bundle of joy to one of the lay-nurses so he could be cleaned. It was a common method at that time to put a one percent solution of silver nitrate into a newborn’s eyes to protect them from any bacterial infections that could have occurred during birth. But the nurse was in a hurry and made a terrible mistake; she realized, to her dismay, that instead of the one percent of silver nitrate, she used a 50 percent solution. She ran down the hall, child in her arms, screaming: “Sister! Sister! Come and do something. I’ve done a dreadful thing. Get a doctor!”
Peter was evaluated by two doctors and an eye specialist. The specialist said flatly: “The corneas are gone. Nobody can do anything.”
The Superior of the hospital disagreed. She certainly knew of someone who could do something. She touched a relic of Mother Cabrini, who had only died less than four years prior—on December 22, 1917—to little Peter’s eyes. She then pinned the relic to his nightgown and with her sisters spent the entire night praying in the hospital’s chapel. When they arrived to begin their prayers they found the despondent nurse already in the chapel, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament. She was pleading aloud: “Please Lord, please Lord! Don’t let that baby get blind! Mother Cabrini, won’t you work a miracle?!”
Who was this remarkable woman, Mother Cabrini, that all in that hospital were so devoted to? Who was this woman who all in that chapel believed could grant them a miracle from her place in heaven?
Born in 1850 to a devout family in the Lombard plains of northern Italy, Francesca Cabrini would sit with her siblings and listen to her father read aloud from the Annals of the Propagation of the Faith. The stories of missionaries working for the salvation of souls in far off lands, such as China, enkindled within her a burning desire to one day do the same. In 1880, she founded the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, adding “Saverio” (or Xavier) to her name in religion, after the great missionary to the Far East, St. Francis Xavier. She longed to go to China but kneeling before Pope Leo XIII she was told, “Not to the East, but to the West.” The Holy Father had a deep concern for the plight of Italian immigrants seeking a better life in America who had to endure poverty, exploitation, and tremendous prejudice—even from among many in the clergy. Relegated to basement chapels of parishes, many of those immigrants were alienated to the point that many became “free-thinkers”, abandoning the practice of religion altogether, while others were poached by Protestant clergymen. The Pope wanted Mother Cabrini’s missionary congregation to help maintain the Catholic faith among the Italians of the New World, as well as to help ease their sufferings.
Ever the humble and obedient daughter of the Church, Mother Cabrini put her dreams of China behind and set out for America, eventually adopting it as her own country. For the last decade of her life she was a naturalized citizen of the United States, and she is the first of them to rank among the saints with her canonization in 1946. She lived to the age of 67 and in her life managed to establish that same number—67—of institutions including convents, orphanages, schools, and hospitals.
But Mother Cabrini’s work was not confined to just one city or country. She often would say that for her missionary ambition: “The whole world is too small!” Among all the saints of Christian history, the apostolic activity of Mother Cabrini is among the most extraordinary. She crossed the Atlantic Ocean a staggering 23 times by boat, establishing centers of apostolic work throughout the United States in New York, Illinois, Washington, Louisiana, Colorado, California and Pennsylvania. In addition, she established centers in Europe, as well as in Central and South America. Although most of her travels were by boat, perhaps the most emblematic image of Mother Cabrini’s missionary zeal is her riding a mule over the Andes Mountains on a journey that resulted in the establishment of a school in Buenos Aires.
Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini sets before us an inspiring example of Catholic action. She never rested in her holy pursuits, believing firmly in the words of St. Paul, which she took as her motto: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13). And there are people still alive today who knew people who worked with her and knew her well. She did not die in some far off land, but in Chicago and was laid to rest in New York. She shows us that it is possible to accomplish great things for God in our troubled, modern world and that God’s supernatural grace is still active.
Now back to the infant Peter Smith. After the nurse and sisters spent all night in the chapel, their prayers were answered with the requested miracle. When the doctor’s came to inspect the eyes of the baby again, they could not believe what they found: the corneas were intact and the eyes were perfectly normal. Peter’s eyesight had been restored!
The joy of the moment was short-lived, however, when that same day little Peter got double pneumonia. His mother Margaret was exhausted from the emotional stresses. Taking her son into her arms, she looked into his miraculously cured eyes, but then felt a feverish heat on emanating from the sick baby. Peter’s temperature reached 108 degrees. It was one thing to fear that he would be blind throughout his entire life, yet now his poor mother feared he wouldn’t live to see another day.
One of the the doctors told the sisters that they had more praying to do. The Superior replied: “Doctor, Mother Cabrini has not cured his eyes just to let him die of pneumonia.” The sisters prayed yet again for a miracle and by the next morning another one came. Through the intercession of Mother Cabrini, all traces of the pneumonia in the boy had disappeared.
Peter left the hospital ten days later with the vestigium miracoli, that is, “the traces of the miracle” upon his face in the form of two scars from where the silver nitrate ran down from his eyes. These scars would eventually dissipate as he grew older.
Fourteen years later the Smith family had another boy. They named him John Frances Xavier Smith after Mother Cabrini, in thanksgiving for the two miracles she worked for his older brother. Everyone affectionally called him “F.X.” throughout his life.
Monsignor F.X. and I recently visited the Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. It was a joy for me to concelebrate Mass with him at the altar where Mother Cabrini is interred and then to sit down with him in the sacristy to ask him more about this inspiring story.
He remembers being three years old and crying with disappointment when he was told by his mother he was not old enough to endure the long journey to Rome by boat. Margret and her 17 year-old son Peter would be leaving the family on a trip to Mother Cabrini’s beatification, which took place on November 13, 1938. The miracle of Peter’s restored sight was accepted by the Vatican as corroborative of Mother’s sanctity, which brought about her being raised to the rank of Blessed. On the same boat Peter and his mother took to Rome was the nurse who accidentally put the 50% solution of silver nitrate into little Peter’s eyes. Both were probably equally grateful to Mother for her intercession.
Before the Beatification Mass, Peter was able to meet Pope Pius XI in the sacristy of the Basilica. The customary banner depicting the new Blessed was hung high for all to see. In the bottom right corner was a depiction of a nurse holding up a baby before Mother Cabrini as the glory of heaven shown forth. It must have been quite an experience for Peter and the nurse to gaze upon that scene throughout the whole Mass.
When Mother Cabrini was canonized on July 7, 1946, by Pope Pius XII, Peter was unable to attend any festivities celebrating the moment. He was still finishing up his military service after nobly serving our country in the fierce fighting that took place on the island of Okinawa in the Pacific theater of World War II. His younger brother F.X. was eleven at the time, and he and their mother attended a Mass celebrating the event in the chapel of Mother Cabrini High School in upper Manhattan, where the saint was then interred. Mother and son would come to the shrine regularly on Sunday afternoons to pray together. Each time they arrived the sisters would treat them as honored guests.
Both boys, Peter and F.X., grew up to become priests. Fr. Peter generously answered the call to serve the Diocese of Corpus Christi in Texas, which was in great need of priests. He was ordained at Mother’s Shrine in New York in 1951, and served the parishes of his diocese until his death in 2002. Monsignor F.X. was ordained in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1961 and served the parishes of his family’s home Archdiocese of New York. At the age of 84 he is still active in offering Sunday Mass at two different parishes.
When we finished our interview in the shrine’s sacristy and began to take our leave, Monsignor F.X. stopped as we walked in front Mother’s remains interred within the altar. A thought had come to him that he wished be emphasized to all who read this story. He wanted everyone to know the words of his then 17-year-old brother Peter on a broadcast from Vatican Radio, uttered just before before the Beatification Mass. In the midst of this unbelieving age, in which it is especially hard for young people to hold onto the Faith, Monsignor F.X. says it’s important to remember what his brother said regarding his cure: “I, for one, know for certain that the age of miracles has not passed.”
In the midst of this unbelieving age, let us never forget that.
(Author’s note: In addition to my interview with Monsignor John F.X. Smith, Theodore Maynard’s 1945 book Too Small a World: The Life of Mother Cabrini was a source for this article. More information can be found in Frances Parkinson Keyes’s book Mother Cabrini: Missionary to the World and in the film Mother Cabrini.)
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