Saints for Our Times: Blessed Scalabrini witnessed plight of many migrants
By Mary Lou Gibson
In the 18th and 19th centuries thousands of Europeans left their homeland braving dangerous journeys to come to America hoping for better opportunities for work and lives. It was such a group of people who were crowded together in a Milan, Italy, railway station that caught the attention of Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini.
In 1887 he saw three or four hundred individuals, poorly dressed ... “marked by premature wrinkles drawn by privation.” They were emigrants leaving various provinces of northern Italy. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that Bishop Scalabrini found they were waiting for the train to the Mediterranean and from there they would embark for the Americas ... to find less hostile fortune.
At that time Bishop Scalabrini had been a priest for 13 years and a bishop for two years. On the first of his many pastoral visits, he began to have a great concern for migrants and became a passionate champion for their welfare.
Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini (Giovanni Battista Scalabrini) was a man of boundless energy and purpose. He was born in Fino, Mornasco, Italy on July 8, 1839, the third of eight children. His intelligence and capacity for hard work led him from junior high school, to minor seminary and then to major seminary. He was ordained in 1863 at the age of 24 and appointed professor and rector of St. Abundius Seminary.
It was during his first pastoral assignment at San Bartolomeo in Como that he became active ministering to the young people and to the textile and other factory workers in the parish. Paul Burns writes that he founded a Kindergarten here and wrote his first catechism dedicating it to the memory of his mother. Some years later Pope Pius IX recognized this accomplishment and called him the “Apostle of the Catechism.”
In 1876, he became bishop of Piacenza, a rural diocese in northern Italy. For the next 29 years, he worked tirelessly for the clergy and people. Father Stelio Fongaro writes in “A Portrait” that Bishop Scalabrini’s first concern was for the clergy. He introduced a new curriculum in his three seminaries and started courses in Gregorian chant. He also worked to bring harmony among the clergy.
Burns describes him as a model bishop visiting all 365 parishes under his care at least five times, sometimes traveling on foot or mule to parishes in the mountains.
These pastoral visits included popular missions where he met with all the people –– children, young people, women, workers, the sick and the aged. He also took time to consecrate churches and cemeteries and to bless bells.
Bishop Scalabrini celebrated three synods during these years designed to bring about renewal programs and restoration of doctrine. He was a great defender of the poor and helpless. Matthew Bunson writes in “John Paul II’s Book of Saints” that during a cholera epidemic, Bishop Scalabrini sold all that he had to buy food and medical supplies that saved hundreds of lives.
At one point he opened the bishop’s residence as a dispensary. Burns describes his charity as abundant and discreet when he aided both the poor and noble families who had lost their wealth. He founded an institute for those with hearing and speaking difficulties and organized protection for the young women who worked in the rice fields. He established mutual aid societies, workers’ associations, rural banks, cooperatives and Catholic Action centers.
He spoke often of the plight of emigrants and refugees and according to Burns, forced this topic into the arena of national debate. In 1887, Bishop Scalabrini founded the Congregation of Missionaries of St. Charles (with St. Charles Borromeo as their patron). They were called the Scalabrinis and were to be migrants with the migrants. He convinced Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini to go to America to care for Italian immigrants. And in 1895, he founded the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles.
One account credits Bishop Scalabrini’s innovative thinking, analysis of the migrants’ and refugees’ plights and efforts on their behalf as inspiration to the church’s efforts in defense of migrants to this day.
In the last 10 years of his life, Bishop Scalabrini made pastoral visits to his missionaries in the U.S. and later to Brazil. His three-month visit to the eastern U.S. in 1901 included the seldom visited Italian immigrant neighborhoods. He was also received by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Throughout his life, Bishop Scalabrini had a special devotion to the Holy Eucharist and to the Blessed Virgin Mary. His motto as pastor was St. Paul’s “make yourself everything to everyone.” He died on the feast of the Ascension on June 1, 1905. St. John Paul II beatified John Baptist Scalabrini on Nov. 9, 1997.
Today, the Scalabrinis serve in Europe, Africa, North and South America, Canada, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. They run seminaries, parishes, schools, missions, migration study centers, offices and shelters.