Image credit: Angel Studios

On March 8, International Women’s Day, the film Cabrini opened with fanfare in theaters across the United States. Directed by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Monteverde, Cabrini dramatizes the remarkable life of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, the Italian foundress of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

The film focuses on Mother Cabrini’s efforts to serve impoverished Italian immigrants in New York City starting in 1889. Much of the drama centers on the saint’s early and ultimately successful battles with all-male ecclesiastical and municipal officials to thwart her heroic, charitable endeavors. The film clarifies, though, that the Missionary Sisters went on to expand into other parts of the United States and various European and Latin American countries during Cabrini’s lifetime.  

As Cabrini rightly insists, this was a tremendous achievement for an organization dedicated to social services in the age of the robber barons, especially one led by a woman who faced anti-female, anti-Italian, and anti-Catholic prejudice. At the same time, it was not the unprecedented achievement for a woman which the film portrays it to have been. While doing numerous viewers the service of informing them about Cabrini’s legacy, the film presents its protagonist as “the first woman ever to lead an overseas mission.” This betrays a lack of awareness of Catholicism’s already rich history by Cabrini’s time of female-led overseas missions and service to the downtrodden. 

Indeed, women had been serving in missions, some of them leading their own communities, for three centuries by the time Mother Cabrini was laboring in New York. Among the earliest were Jerónima de la Asuncíon, who led a group of Poor Clares to the Philippines from Spain in 1621, and the Canonesses of Saint Augustine of the Mercy of Jesus, who traveled from France to Quebec in 1639 and established the first charitable hospital in the Americas specifically for Native Americans. The latter were joined in Canada by Ursuline nuns, led by Saint Marie of the Incarnation, who opened a school for indigenous and French girls, and by Jeanne Mance, a laywoman skilled in nursing who established and administered a charitable hospital near what became Montreal.  

Furthermore, a number of Native American women, including Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, together with French-colonial laywomen, collaborated with Jesuits and other clergymen in spreading Christian doctrines and practices. Many of these women engaged in innovative forms of charitable service throughout the vast territories penetrated by French Catholic missionaries in the 1600s and 1700s.

Ursulines from France were active in the Caribbean as early as 1682, working among indigenous and enslaved African-born girls alike. Women of the same order, led by Marie Saint-Augustin Tranchepain, were at work in French New Orleans beginning in 1728. Catholic religious women also ministered in French Pondicherry in southeastern India by 1738. And Catholic missions in East Asia, dating back to the mid-1500s, were aided by Chinese, Japanese, and other indigenous women who were drawn to the new Christian teachings and wished to share them with others. Some of these women died as martyrs.  

Such early modern Catholic women involved in the Church’s missionary expansion are featured in the work of historians such as Haruko Nawata Ward, Nadine Amsler, Mary Dunn, Emily Clark, Heidi Keller-Lapp, and the present author, among others.  Contemporary historians, such as Sarah Curtis in her book Civilizing Habits (2010), also have much to tell us about nineteenth-century Catholic women who led all-female missionary congregations and started hospitals, schools, and other ministries in challenging contexts well before Cabrini did the same.  

Blessed Anne-Marie Javouhey, for example, founded the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Cluny in 1807 and traveled to Madagascar in 1817. She and sisters of her congregation did missionary work, too, in French Sénégal and British Gambia and Sierra Leone. Javouhey furthermore crossed the Atlantic to Guiana where she and more than thirty sisters founded the Mana settlement in which Black people freed from slavery were assisted in their transitions into new lives. Javouhey was almost killed by pro-slavery enemies for her commitment to this work.

Javouhey’s contemporary, Saint Émilie de Vialar, founded the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Apparition as a missionary order in the 1830s. Using her own fortune, Vialar opened charitable hospitals and schools in Algeria and Tunisia. Within her lifetime, her congregation established similar ministries in Libya, Cyprus, Lebanon, and Malta.

Other female Catholic missionaries active before Cabrini’s time include her fellow Italians, Blessed Maria Caterina Troiani and Maria Scandola. Troiani and the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Egypt were educating poor girls in-country by 1859. Scandola joined the new Missionary Sisters of Verona who were active in Sudan by 1877. Scandola labored for almost three decades among diverse communities in the region before giving her life in exchange for that of an imprisoned priest. 

Saint Émilie de Vialar, c. 1850 (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Given these and numerous other historical Catholic women similar to them—many still awaiting sound scholarly treatments and broader Catholic veneration—it becomes clear that Cabrini, by presenting its heroine as so unprecedented a figure, unintentionally erases a lot of history even while putting an overdue spotlight on the Italian saint.

The filmmakers can hardly be blamed for this, however, because a lack of awareness of the tremendous range and complexity of the Church’s history is endemic in Catholicism today, even among very educated and intellectually engaged Catholics. Wide-ranging, rigorous teaching and research on the history of the Church and of Catholicism broadly in relation to diverse societies and epochs is underprioritized in many Catholic institutions of higher learning. Facile caricatures of the Church’s past—romanticizing and demonizing portrayals alike—often stand in for mature instruction and scholarship. This of course affects the content of what is communicated to Catholics about our own history at all educational levels and in popular media.

Contemporary Catholicism’s history problem is in evidence across the ideological spectrum. Sometimes, the Church’s progressive voices unintentionally erase vast amounts of past Catholic endeavor and experience precisely when trying to give marginalized groups recognition.  On March 7, for example, Pope Francis spoke at the conference “Women in the Church: Builders of Humanity” and praised ten saintly women of the past few centuries by saying they witnessed to God’s holiness “at times in history when women were largely excluded from social and ecclesial life.”  

Pope Francis and Alejandro Monteverde both can stand to learn that women were not always as excluded from social and ecclesial life as certain reified historical narratives—rooted in scholarly conventions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—have many still believing. The fact is, not a few Catholic women of the past were centrally involved in shaping the Church’s institutions, traditions, and social and cultural impact. Some even had resounding voices respected by many male authorities while opposed by others. They just were not given the same press that ranking churchmen and male civil authorities received when the initial histories of their times were written.  

Many historians—male, female, Catholic, and simply fascinated by Catholicism—have been working hard to update the older historical narratives for decades now. The popular interest in the Cabrini film should be a wake-up call to Catholic cultural, intellectual, and ecclesial leaders to start paying more attention to the fuller, richer history of the Church as it is still being written, and to help uncover more of it and communicate it with maturity and integrity to the public and our young.

Bronwen McShea, Ph.D., is an author and historian. Her latest book is Women of the Church: What Every Catholic Should Know.