Canonization of Blessed Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini
Mary Brown, Ph.D.
October 6, 2022
FROM THE ARCHIVE
Soon to Be Saint: Blessed Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini
Mary Brown, Ph.D.
The Vatican has announced that Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini on October 9, 2022. The Center for Migration Studies (CMS) has an extra reason to rejoice, as it is part of Scalabrini’s ongoing mission.
Scalabrini was born in the small town of Fino Mornasco, Italy on July 8, 1839, the son of wine merchant Luigi and his wife Colomba Trombetta. An early vocation to the priesthood, he received his seminary education in the city of Como, a little less than five miles from his hometown, and was ordained on May 30, 1863. In 1876, when he was still only 36 years old, Pope Pius IX appointed him Bishop of Piacenza, in the province of Emilia-Romagna, less than 60 miles south of his birthplace. There he remained until his death on June 1, 1905.
Although he never strayed far from his birthplace, Scalabrini is most remembered today for his work in immigration. For him, this work started when he was passing through the railway station in Milan, the largest city near Piacenza:
“I saw the vast waiting room, the porticoes at the side and the adjacent piazza filled with three or four hundred people, poorly dressed and separated into various groups. Their faces, bronzed by the sun and marked by premature wrinkles drawn by privation, reflected the turmoil agitating their hearts at that moment. There were old men bent with age and labor, young men in the flower of manhood, women leading or carrying their littles, boys and girls – all united by a single thought, all heading to a common goal.” 
Concerned about where these people were heading to and what became of them when they got there, Scalabrini became an advocate for Italy’s emigrants. He studied their material conditions and invested his resources into improving those conditions. In 1887, he organized a congregation of priests and brothers to be, as he put it, “migrants with the migrants.” He also worked with three institutes of women religious orders: Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini’s Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Mother Clelia Merloni’s Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Maria Assunta Marchetti’s Sisters of Saint Charles Borromeo. Following a model established by a German layman, Peter Paul Cahensly, Scalabrini worked with a Piacenzan layman, Giovanni Battista Volpe-Landi, to organize the Saint Raphael Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants, which looked after the interests of immigrants departing from the port of Genova, and arriving in ports of New York and Boston in the United States. These activities indicated certain innovative patterns of thought, two of which are important here.
Bl. Scalabrini’s priests trained at their “mother house” in Piacenza, seen in this 1901 watercolor.
Scalabrini was part of a first generation to show interest in immigrants, and he differed from Cahensley and Charlotte Grace O’Brien, who championed the care of Irish immigrant women traveling to the United States, often as single women seeking domestic service positions. Although, like them, Scalabrini was interested in immigrants’ material welfare and providing them with accurate information to help them plan their journeys, protecting them from exploitation as travelers and as laborers, and supporting them as they set down roots in their new homes.
Scalabrini saw migration as part of a grand plan which, being a devout bishop, he described as providential. He rejected the imperialism of his day, and thought it was just as well that in his time Italy was not a colonial power, because colonialism meant forcing less powerful people into conformity with more powerful conquerors. Migration was more of a coming together, with people moving from different places over time to settle together in one place and, even while maintaining some of their distinctive cultural traits, becoming one people. He described his vision to listeners at the Catholic Club of New York during a 1901 pastoral visit to his missionaries in the United States:
“From this land of blessing, inspirations arise, principles are diffused, new and mysterious forces are harnessed, which will be generated to renew the old world with its grasp of the true economy of liberty, of brotherhood, of equality, teaching it that peoples of different origin can very well conserve their language, their proper national existence, and at the same time be politically and religiously united without barriers created by jealousy and division and with[out] the arms to impoverish and destroy one another.” 
First annual report of the Saint Raphael Society’s New York branch.
Being a bishop, Scalabrini saw a great role for the papacy in this future united human family. He predicted to the same Catholic Club audience that “in America and through America, the great promise of the Gospel will be fulfilled. One fold only and one shepherd only.” However, his devotion to the papacy was more complex, and he was hardly following the leader. In fact, he was advising the leader, and trying to set a good example.
In 1870, Italian military forces claimed territories that had for centuries been under papal control, and the next year, made Rome the capital of the modern, secular Italian nation-state. To preserve his independence from earthly power, Pope Pius IX retreated to the one piece of Roman property he still owned, and became, in the phrase of the day, “the prisoner of the Vatican.” Around this one issue of papal status clustered other issues related to acceptance of other aspects of the modern world. And around those issues arose the intransigenti, who argued that any concession to the Italian government, and perhaps any concession to modern thought, set society down the slippery slope to religious indifference and secularism. Scalabrini’s contribution to this controversy is summarized in his 1885 pamphlet Intransigenti e transigenti: Osservazione di un vesco italiano [Intransigents and Transigents: Observations of an Italian Bishop]. In it, he advised accepting the loss of territory and, while maintaining the pope’s position as head of the Church, he called for forging a new relationship with the Italian government. After all, the church and the state had a common interest in establishing the pope’s status. It would allow both to move on to address their other common interests. In other writings, Scalabrini further detailed possibilities for church-state collaboration on issues of immigration, with the church identifying the moral issues involved, and the state creating and enforcing legislation that would protect the migrants.
In his day, Scalabrini’s advocacy of working with the state on any issue isolated him more than his position as bishop of a small rural diocese ever could. On paper, he seemed to have an impressive influence. He wrote to Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII, and Pope Pius X with his ideas for immigrant care, culminating in the proposal that the Vatican establish an office to oversee the pastoral care of migrants in transit and in their new homes. He corresponded with the American prelates who oversaw his missionaries’ clergy work in providing culturally competent pastoral care to migrants. He carried on a lively correspondence with Bishop Geremia Bonomelli of the Diocese of Cremona, who was interested in issues plaguing Italian migratory labor in Europe. It is fortunate that Scalabrini wrote so much, because few people were listening to him during his time. Colleagues in the episcopacy and leadership in the Vatican considered him too “liberal” in his willingness to work with facts on the ground, when the welfare of people was concerned. When he died in 1905, the congregation of clergy he founded was known as the Pious Society of Saint Charles, as Bishop Scalabrini had made Saint Charles Borromeo, the 17th-century reforming Archbishop of Milan, their patron saint. It was not until 1973 that the community added “Scalabrinians” to their name.
Now, the Church takes many of Bishop Scalabrini’s suggestions more seriously, such as with the existence of a Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. As theologian Luigi Guglielmoni has noted in his recent book, Pope Francis not only speaks often on the Church’s response to migrants and refugees using concepts similar to Scalabrini’s, he speaks to secular agencies about the immorality of marginalizing migrant and refugee members of the human family. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has a Committee on Migration and an office of Migration and Refugees Services. Across the United States, Catholic Charities offices in many dioceses have programs dedicated to assisting refugees. While not every diocese and parish is as welcoming as one would hope, the teaching of the importance of welcoming those who are, for the moment, strangers, is well established.
CMS continues Bl. Scalabrini’s work in ways most closely resembling what the bishop himself did. As aforementioned, Scalabrini rarely strayed far from Italy. Other than visiting his US missionaries in 1901 and his Brazilian missionaries in 1904, he remained in Italy. There, though, he gave numerous speeches and published pamphlets, providing information on migration and identifying potential points of collaboration with key stakeholders. CMS publishes scholarly journals devoted to research in migration. It conducts studies, holds conferences, and maintains a website full of reports through which it brings together researchers, policymakers, and migrants and refugees worldwide.
Scalabrini had his own way of making connections. When he visited the United States, he brought a gift for the parish of Saint Joachim in New York City, the first American mission. The gift was a monstrance, used for displaying the Eucharist on Holy Thursday and at services called expositions. This monstrance was about thirty inches high, solid gold, lavishly decorated with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires.
Monstrance Bl. Scalabrini received from Pope Leo XIII and gave to Saint Joachim’s.
The monstrance had quite a pedigree: Bishop Scalabrini received it from Pope Leo XIII in recognition of his immigrant work, and Pope Leo had been given it by Emperor Franz Joseph of the Hapsburg dynasty’s Austro-Hungarian Empire—the Hapsburg’s double eagle is worked into the design—as a gift upon his installation as pope. It seemed an incongruous gift for Saint Joachim’s parish. The parish occupied an early 19th-century former Presbyterian church in the middle of the block, a short distance from New York’s notorious Five Points. (The site is now an apartment complex called Chatham Gardens.) Most of the parishioners were from the mountains of southern Italy and quite ill-prepared for an urban, industrial economy, that even New York’s insatiable labor market marginalized them. They created their own economic niche, scavenging rags on city streets and dumping grounds, and sorting them in the church’s large, empty basement where they washed and sold them to paper manufacturers. And yet for Bl. Scalabrini, this gift from an emperor and a pope was an entirely appropriate gift for this community. It was a beautiful object for them to have, and a tangible reminder of their worthiness and belonging in the Church.
 Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, Italian Emigration to America: Observations, translated in Silvano M. Tomasi, c.s., ed., For the Love of Immigrants: Migration Writings and Letters of Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini, 1837-1905 (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 2000), p. 2.
 “Words of the Bishop of Piacenza, Bishop Scalabrini,” L’Araldo Italiano, October 24, 1901, translated in Andrew Brizzolara, c.s., 100 Days: The Visit of Bishop Scalabrini to the United States and Its Effects on the Image of Italian Immigrants at Reflected in the American Press of 1901 (New York: Missionaries of Saint Charles, Saint Charles Province and Saint John the Baptist Province, 1996), 89.
October 6, 2022