Cardinal hosts screening of new film 'Cabrini'

BRAINTREE -- In 1976, actress Loretta Young approached director Martin Scorsese with a proposition. Young wanted to star in a movie about the life of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first U.S. citizen to be canonized, and she wanted Scorsese to direct her. For decades, actresses such as Sophia Loren had expressed interest in playing the role. A cast was assembled, and a script was even written, but the movie never materialized.

Decades later, Philadelphia-based businessman J. Eustace Wolfington wrote a letter to Scorsese, hoping to purchase his script for use in a Cabrini biopic he was producing.

"I don't have it," Scorsese told him. "But I'll give you a tip: Get an Italian actress."

Wolfington took Scorsese's advice. Several years and $50 million later, Wolfington hosted a preview screening of "Cabrini," the film he executive produced, for guests from the Archdiocese of Boston at the AMC 10 movie theater in Braintree on Feb. 27. So many people from the archdiocese came, including Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley and many religious sisters, that the movie had to be shown on two screens to accommodate everybody.

"It's been so long since I've been in a movie theater," Cardinal O'Malley said in his remarks before the movie started. "They didn't use to have these nice seats."

Cardinal O'Malley described Wolfington as "a great Catholic" and "a man who has done so much for the church." The cardinal first saw clips from "Cabrini" at a meeting of Catholic bishops in Dallas, when the movie was still in production. Cardinal O'Malley said he was "moved" by what he saw, and when Wolfington offered to hold a preview screening of the finished film in Boston, the cardinal happily accepted.

At the screening, the cardinal said that he usually tells people not to go to the movies during Lent, but in the case of "Cabrini," he'll make an exception.

"The main reason I wanted to show it to Boston was the cardinal," said Wolfington, in a March 1 phone interview.

After seeing clips of the movie, Cardinal O'Malley praised the movie in his blog, which left Wolfington feeling "deeply indebted" to him. Wolfington was happy to see the number of religious sisters in the audience who came to a movie about one of their own.

"I think they were really the same as every audience we showed this to around the world," he told The Pilot. "The movie leaves people deeply moved. Some people walk out and say 'I'm speechless,' some people walk out thumping their hearts."

"Cabrini," scheduled for wide release on March 8, stars Italian actress Cristiana Dell'Anna as St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Mother Cabrini, as she became known, moved to New York City in 1889 to minister to the poor Italian immigrants who were coming to the U.S. in droves. She built schools, orphanages, and a hospital for them, and ultimately founded 67 missionary institutions throughout the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. She became a U.S. citizen in 1909, died in 1917, and was canonized in 1946.

"We live in a society that is so addicted to celebrities," Cardinal O'Malley said, "but in the church, we have our saints, and Mother Carbini is, for us, an ideal of what it means to live a life of discipleship."

Cardinal O'Malley added that the film's story of a woman who cared for immigrants is relevant to the church's current need to reach out to migrants and "build up Christ's body with them."

"We are a church of immigrants," he said, "and we know that, in today's world, millions of people are displaced because of war, famine, and violence, and the church always needs to be there for those people."

Wolfington first learned about Mother Cabrini when he saw a statue of her in a church when he was 23 years old. Despite spending 12 years in Catholic school, he had never heard of her, nor had the Catholic college students who attended marketing focus groups for the film.

"I would travel around the world, and I would talk about her, and I realized no one knew who she was," Wolfington said in his remarks prior to the start of the film.

Sixty years after encountering that statue, a religious sister walked into his office in hopes that he would finance a film about Mother Cabrini. He had only produced one movie at that time and didn't want to make another one. For the next six years, she would ask him regularly, and the answer was always no. Then, she took him to a shrine dedicated to Cabrini and introduced him to an Italian film company that wanted to make a movie about the saint.

"I saw what they were going to do, and I said 'No, sister,'" he recalled. "They were going to make a fairy-tale movie about a saint."

He knew that the movie had to feel like a legitimate epic.

"There can be no preaching, no agenda," he said. "Her life will be the sermon. And everyone -- Muslims, Hindus, everyone, atheists -- must come and see this movie and fall in love with it. And that has happened."

Wolfington raised $50 million to produce "Cabrini," half from donors and half from pandemic-era lines of credit. The film is being distributed by Angel Studios, the same company that distributes "The Chosen." Before the Braintree screening, Wolfington described the atmosphere during production as being "like a Notre Dame football rally" with its excitement and enthusiasm.

"Everyone was on fire for Cabrini," he said.

Speaking to The Pilot, he said that the most important screen test was showing the film to the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the order that Cabrini founded. He said that when the sisters saw the film, they cried and said "That's Cabrini."

"All sisters who see the movie realize that Mother Cabrini is a voice for what they're doing," he said.

Despite the film's Catholic subject matter, Wolfington feels the movie has a universal appeal.

"When you go to the Cabrini movie," he said, "you're seeing a sermon of a great, great humanitarian."