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New Jersey priest’s devotion to saint helps bring her life to the big screen

Msgr. Paul Bochicchio, a priest in residence at St. Francis Church in Hoboken, N.J., is pictured in an undated photo with Cristiana Dell'Anna who plays Mother Cabrini in the upcoming film "Cabrini," produced by Angel Studios about the life and ministry of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, set to debut in theaters in March 2024. Msgr. Bochicchio is a script adviser and spiritual consultant for the film. (OSV News photo/courtesy Msgr. Bochicchio)

By Joe Jordan
HOBOKEN, N.J. (OSV News) — For the last decade, Msgr. Paul Bochicchio of St. Francis Church in Hoboken has been advising as a spiritual consultant on the upcoming film “Cabrini,” produced by Angel Studios about the life and ministry of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, set to debut in theaters March 8.

The highly anticipated movie, from the studio that produced “The Chosen” and “Sound of Freedom,” gives a dramatic look into the life of Mother Cabrini, as she is best known, and the uphill battle she faced ministering to the immigrant poor of New York.

For Msgr. Bochicchio, a priest of 52 years, the film is the latest fruit of a lifelong devotion to the first American saint who has impacted his family for generations.

His account begins with a story passed down within his family. His great-grandmother knew Mother Cabrini personally, as they were both community leaders among New York Italian immigrants at the turn of the 20th century.

He recalls how, when Mother Cabrini, herself an immigrant from Italy, was just beginning her ministry and working to open a school in the city for Italians, his great-grandmother helped her develop religious education classes and sewing classes for young immigrant women.

So, when Msgr. Bochicchio thinks of Mother Cabrini, he thinks of his great-grandmother, and he also thinks of his grandmother, who had an enormous influence on his vocation to the priesthood.

“I always had a great devotion to (Mother Cabrini), because a very special church for me is Our Lady of Pompeii in Greenwich Village” in New York, he told Jersey Catholic, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Newark. “It was my grandmother’s parish, and she had a tremendous effect on my spirituality. After she died, I would go there. That was my way of keeping in touch with her. And they always had a shrine in the back of Mother Cabrini, because Mother Cabrini actually worked there.”

This personal connection to a saint and what she stood for has since had an influence on his priesthood. After the death of his grandmother, Msgr. Bochicchio began reading more about Mother Cabrini. He found that he had a calling to work with Italian immigrants due to his background and that he had the perfect model in the patron saint of immigrants.

As one of many technical advisers on the set of “Cabrini” but also as a Catholic priest, Msgr. Bochicchio accompanied the cast and crew on work retreats, where they would work on the film and he would celebrate Mass every day and give spiritual reflections on the saint. As a script adviser, he would receive every revision and be asked to comment on its accuracy.

He recalls one such retreat up to Buffalo where he was supposed to celebrate Mass with the cast and crew, but a scheduling conflict meant that most of the big-name actors couldn’t attend. Instead, some Italian American men from the Buffalo area who were on set as extras heard that there was Mass and soon the tiny hotel room was filled with Italians — some of whom might well have been descendants of those Mother Cabrini once helped.

“It was the highlight of the trip,” he said.

On that same trip, Msgr. Bochicchio was invited to play a role in the movie as a member of the Board of Directors of a hospital that Mother Cabrini opened.

“We went through the scene nine times,” he said. “I remember we had no speaking part. We came into the doors, and we were supposed to look around, confer with one another and then approve (the decision for the hospital).”

While the scene was ultimately cut, he did have an impact on the film as an adviser. One example was the inclusion of the Bible passage from Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” — which was a favorite of Mother Cabrini’s.

“On almost every statue of her, she’s holding the Scriptures and it’s open to that quote,” Msgr. Bochicchio said. After seeing a private screening of the movie at its 90% completion, he noticed it was excluded from the movie. “I brought it to his (the producer’s) his attention. He called me the next day and said it’s back in.”

Having seen the almost-finished product of the movie, Msgr. Bochicchio notes that while Angel Studios takes some liberties with Mother Cabrini’s story, the depiction is ultimately riveting and real. The movie highlights how she stood up to cardinals and politicians in advocacy of the poor, how she overcame a fear of drowning to bring her ministry to the world, and her great care to educate and uplift the vulnerable.

“She was not a strong woman physically, she was weak, but she was strong in spirit,” Msgr. Bochicchio said. “(The movie shows how she was) boldness in a good sense of the word, where she set her mind to something and she stood up respectfully but very clearly to those who opposed her.”

He points to one real-life scene, highlighted in the trailer, where in response to being dismissed by a powerful figure, she says, “I am a woman. And I am Italian. And we are all human beings. We are all the same.”

The story of Mother Cabrini is particularly meaningful for what the Catholic Church and the world is facing right now, Msgr. Bochicchio said.

“I think one of the things that makes her timely, and particularly in regard to the film, is that immigration is uppermost in people’s minds today. She’s the patron of the immigrants. She’s also a great woman leader. In an age when women are trying to find their place in the Church, she could be a great guide,” he said.

While the movie focuses on Mother Cabrini’s ministry in New York, an epilogue at the end of the film lists all the places that she impacted — including the Archdiocese of Newark.

There is a statue of Mother Cabrini at Independence Park, outside of Penn Station in Newark, which is the site of the old Mount Carmel Church where she founded a school for Italian immigrant children.

She also founded an orphanage in Kearny, St. Anthony’s Orphanage, which is now the site of the Redemptoris Mater Seminary. A painting of Mother Cabrini on the ceiling there was done by Italian artist Gonippo Raggi.

Almost every Italian parish in the Archdiocese of Newark bears her statue, and she is the patron saint of the archdiocese’s Italian Apostolate.

Joe Jordan is social media specialist at Jersey Catholic, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Newark.


More about “Cabrini” the movie can be found on the Angel Studios website. An official theatrical trailer of the movie can be viewed on Youtube here.

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