Steve O’Dorisio, Adams County Commissioner, has family roots that run deep in North Denver. He has been talking to the angels asking the legislature to embrace a new subject in place of Columbus for commemoration of an Italian holiday, an immigrant saint and a humble nun, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.
Tom Noel, in his 1989 definitive history of the Denver Archdiocese, “Colorado Catholicism”, recalls the legend that “a flock of white doves came to rest on the home of Agostino and Stella Cabrini on July 15, 1850, the day their thirteenth and last child was born.” That home was near the town of Lodi in Lombardy in Northern Italy.
At 24, she began her career teaching orphans and at age 30, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart whose mission was to teach and care for orphans. She opened a school in Rome and, when she met him, told Pope Leo XIII that she wanted to go to China and convert the vast throngs there. Leo asked her to go west instead of east for her order’s apostolate. He thought she could do better to care for the many Italian immigrants who were coming to America facing economic and social prejudice as every set of newcomer has experienced.
Traveling 67 times across the world, Mother Cabrini first worked in New York in 1889, where she opened an orphanage and a hospital. She first came to North Denver in 1902, opening a school in the home on loan from Michael Notary on West 34th Avenue and Navajo Street, still there and a Denver landmark. The home stands one block south of Mt. Carmel Church at West 36th Avenue and Navajo Street, also a Denver landmark and still there.
Mickey Lava Clayton, North Denver activist, told me that as kids learning their math lessons at the Notary house, they would put their breaths on the cold windows of the house to do their sums with their fingernails.
In 1904, Mother Cabrini bought an old farm house at West 48th Avenue and Federal Boulevard where the restaurant McCoys is now, not a Denver landmark. A year later, she opened Queen of Heaven Orphanage for girls from age 2 to 16. The orphanage’s old wall is all that remains of the campus along West 49th Avenue to Grove Street.
In 1957, the orphanage was forced to sell 16 of its 43 lots to the voracious and insatiable Colorado Department of Transportation for I-70, which has wrecked North Denver ever since. Some 12 years later, the sisters closed the stately neoclassical orphanage, which was demolished to make way for the restaurant.
Mother Cabrini would actually defy mining superstition and climb into cage hoists to go down to the depths of mines to uplift the lives of Italian miners working long hours for slave wages. Somehow, she managed to purchase 900 acres of land in Mt. Vernon Canyon in Jefferson County along I-70. She wanted her orphans and nuns to have a pleasant mountain retreat. The seller warned her that the land had no water under it. Mother Cabrini hit a rock with her walking stick and up popped an sumptuous well, full of holy water which flows at the Cabrini Shrine property to this day, even during droughts.
The shrine hosts a staircase of 373 steps to the top of a mountain on the campus. Exercise anyone?
Cabrini became an American citizen in 1909 and was always proud of her connection to America. She is patron of immigrants and our first American citizen immigrant saint. The Mother Cabrini Shrine today offers a Spanish language mass at 2 p.m. on Sundays for immigrants continuing their founder’s mission to assist newcomers to America.
Saint Frances Cabrini was buried at her shrine, Mother Cabrini High School in New York City. A petite statue of her likeness can be seen at Mt. Carmel Church on West 36th Avenue and Navajo Street. Her large, piercing brown eyes ask you to be a person for others, a good appeal in this age of political selfishness, narcissism and vaulting ambition. If she was with us today, she would be fighting for the immigrants, the least among our social structure.
Congratulations to Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio for talking to the angels about the proposed civic feast day transfer to Mother Cabrini. I hope the angels answer “yes.”
The Honorable Dennis Gallagher is a former city auditor, city councilman, state senator and state representative sharing thoughts and stories from North Denver’s past and future. His column, Shaping Our Future by Remembering Our Past, runs monthly.