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A Black As Coal Soul!

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“CABRINI” is a wonderful new movie that is now playing in theaters across our country.

The movie has been getting great reviews. It is the story of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini who was born in 1850 in Lombardy, Italy, the youngest of 13 children. She died in 1946 in her convent room at Columbus Hospital in Chicago, which is now a national shrine. She is always referred to as Mother Cabrini. 

In 1880 Mother Cabrini founded a religious order of nuns, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. In September, 1887 she went to see Pope Leo XIII for permission to go with her nuns to do missionary work in China. But there were so many poor Italians flooding into the United States that the pope told her to go, “Not to the East, but to the West!” 

The movie concentrates on the saint’s fight against both the Church and the state in trying to better the lives of the poor and outcast Italians. Although the movie centers on her work in New York, she came to Chicago in 1899, where she then lived and died in 1946.  

The movie does not portray Mother Cabrini’s attempts to open Columbus Hospital in Lincoln Park, Chicago in 1905. She was having an impossible time opening her hospital. She needed a doctor in Chicago to sign the needed papers, and no doctor would do so. Enter Dr. John Pellitteri who signed the needed papers for her to begin work on building Columbus Hospital. 

Dr. Pellitteri is most special to me. On November 28, 1943 he was the doctor who brought me into this world from my mother’s womb. His hands were the first hands that held me as I was being born. He was our family doctor. Dr. Pellitteri had a small office above a drug store in Cicero, Illinois. His patients were all poor people. While I was growing up his fee for an office visit was a dollar. If the patient could not afford the dollar, he would wave his fee. The thing that I remember most about him was that he was always smiling, and always soft-spoken. 

In 1950, when I was six years old, I needed to see Dr. Pellitteri for a check-up so I could start first grade at St. Peter Canisius School. As I sat on the chair in his office as he examined me, I remember that my legs were so short that my feet did not even touch the ground. The good doctor was pleased with everything he checked out and he had a very pleasant smile. But his face then turned to a dark frown. “Can I ask you something that has been troubling me night and day?” he said to me. As I sat there a bit confused, I nodded. 

“As a young doctor,” he said, “I often had to work for 48 hours straight in the emergency room at Columbus Hospital on weekends. One weekend it was sheer madness. When my 48 hours ended at 7:00 am on Sunday morning I could barely stand up. But the Sunday morning mass did not begin until 9:00 am. Mother Cabrini decreed that everyone who was not on duty or could take a break, had to attend that 9:00 am mass. She actually counted heads every Sunday. 

“I saw a couch and figured that I could take a quick nap before I went to mass. But I went into such a deep sleep that when I woke up it was 10:30 in the morning. I had missed mass. I knew there would be hell to pay with Mother Cabrini. 

“Still wearing my white doctors’ scrubs, I thought I could dash down the hall and make it out the door before she saw me. But as I darted down the hall she turned the corner and confronted me, all five-feet of her. 

“With the raspy voice of a drill sergeant and a scowl on her face, she looked up at me, pointing her finger as she shouted, ‘Pellittieri, on the outside you may be all white, but on the inside, your soul is as black as coal. You’re going to hell!’ She stormed off as she left me standing there.” 

With a humble, pained look on his face and with tears forming in his eyes, Dr. Pellitteri then asked me, a six-year old whose feet did not yet touch the ground, “So how am I supposed to feel for the rest of my life, Medard? The Catholic Church canonized her and made her a saint four years ago. There is a saint in heaven who has told me that my soul is as black as coal and I am going to hell!”

Even though I was only six years old, my head was filled with images of all those poor people without a dollar sitting in the waiting room to see him. His goodness, his kindness and his compassion seeped through the pores of his skin. 

As best as I can remember, I said to him: “Dr. Pellitteri, saints can be wrong. You didn’t mean to miss mass. You were just so tired. You are always so good to people who come to see you. You might not be canonized, but you will make it to heaven for sure.” He still had a quizzical look on his face. I could tell how much it bothered him. 

An interesting footnote: Since 2020 the State of Colorado observes the first Monday of October as Frances Xavier Cabrini Day, a paid state holiday. This is the first such holiday in the nation that recognizes a woman. She is the Patron Saint of Immigrants. She and you and I still have a lot of work to do for all the immigrants who are coming into our country in 2024!!

Thanks to Unsplash for the picture. 
If YOU were six years old, what would YOU have said in answer to Dr. Pellitteri’s question? 


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