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‘Cabrini’ film strikes chord with producer

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The seed for “Cabrini” formed in 1955, when J. Eustace Wolfington saw a statue of Mother Cabrini at St. Donato Parish in Philadelphia and joined a nine-week novena on the first American saint.

“I’m going to make her my patron saint,” he told La Voce di New York. “Because I realized what a great leader and what a great entrepreneur she was.”

Wolfington is a businessman and entrepreneur headquartered in King of Prussia, Pa. 

The seed wasn’t planted until the 2010s, when Sister Mary Louise Sullivan, former president of Cabrini University and a biographer of the saint, asked him to make a movie about her. Not a stretch: Wolfington and his family had produced “Bella,” a 2006 “love story that goes beyond romance.” She bugged him for years, and he relented when he learned of plans for a low-budget “fairy-tale” film, and he wanted to create an epic, like “Gandhi.” Because that’s what her story deserved.

“She went anywhere and everywhere there was a need from the Italian immigrant,” he told the Delaware Valley Italian-American Herald. “And her philosophy was very simple. She said, ‘You’re in a new country and you’re going to be great American citizens, and you’re going to do it through education, and you’re going to do it on your own.’ And she also built up their dignity. She said ‘You know you come from a great country, and now you’re in another great country. And you’re going to become great citizens.’ ”

Italian actress Christiana Dell’Anna stars as Francesca Cabrini, patron saint of immigrants, in the feature film “Cabrini.” | ANGEL STUDIOS

That’s why Francesca Cabrini is now the patron saint of immigrants. And the film, Wolfington hopes, will speak to today’s society, torn by immigration issues worldwide, in the same way that the 1942 film “Mrs. Minniver” was “more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions,” according to the British prime minister Winston Churchill. In every age, a film comes along that catches the spirit of the time, he believes.

Wolfington set two conditions on his involvement: it “has to be a story about a great woman who just happens to be a nun” and “all the net revenues earned from the film go to charity.”

The seed grew when he reconnected with Alejandro Monteverde, who directed “Bella” and Eduardo Verástegui, who played the lead in “Bella.” Monteverde is back as director, with Verástegui, Wolfington and the saint herself credited as executive producers of the $50 million production.

“Cabrini” follows Francesca Cabrini as she and her Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus journey from Rome to New York City to take up the cause of immigrants. | ANGEL STUDIOS

He and the writer, Rod Barr, went on a three-year pilgrimage for research and scriptwriting, including trips to Sant’ Angelo Lodigiano (her Lombard hometown), the Vatican (for her beatification and canonization records) and places where she had founded some of her 67 hospitals, orphanages and schools. He read 21 books and spoke to Sister Ursula Infante, founder of Cabrini College and the last nun to get her veil from Cabrini herself. “We probably knew more about Mother Cabrini than any else,” he said.

Wolfington was also hands-on while the film was made, for example, making the final decision just before shooting began to shoot it in full color. He also ventured to Buffalo, New York (37 locations, with more architecture preserved from the period, with filming running nine weeks) and Rome (with filming running 10 days). A third of the movie is in Italian, with subtitles.

The result is compelling and inspiring, but definitely not preachy: a 2-hour 25-minute film that earned a 96% rating on RottenTomatoes.com before its release on March 8, International Women’s Day. It stars Cristiana Dell’Anna as Cabrini and co-stars American TV and movie actors John Lithgow and David Morse (the latter a Philadelphia resident) and Oscar nominee Giancarlo Giannini as Pope Leo XXIII. “Dare to Be,” the song written for the closing credits, is a duet by tenor Andrea Bocelli and his daughter Virginia Bocelli, who is also making her acting debut in the film.

Wolfington also likes to quote an Edgar Guest poem about the style of the film: “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.”

When interviewing Wolfington for La Voce two years ago, Stefano Vaccaro predicted the film would be “a masterpiece for hope in the world.” Wolfington told Guadalupe Radio Network’s Keith Downey this year that theatergoers come in saying they are upset about today’s “broken world” and “walk out on fire again about life. They just can’t wait to go out and do something and make this a better place.”

It also echoes what Wolfington’s brother Alex told Main Line News when “Bella” was made: the family wanted to make “quality films that not only entertain, but inspire people to live better lives, to love more and to be light in an often dark world.” And judging from the early reaction, “Cabrini” is.

His deep emotional connection to Cabrini has come out in interviews. When talking to Downey, for instance, he teared up when he told how Mother Teresa, just days after Cabrini’s canonization, decided to model her life on Mother Cabrini.

“We want to make Mother Cabrini known and understood,” he told La Voce. “She was probably one of the greatest Italian women of all times. She had the skills of a John D. Rockefeller, a J.P. Morgan, a Winston Churchill with her never-quit attitude. … We think Mother Cabrini is a walking sermon, without words. No one taught more about the pride of being an Italian than Mother Cabrini.

Wolfington likes to quote an Edgar Guest poem about the style of the film: “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.”

“She was an organizational genius,” She invented ‘just do it.’ Opening schools quickly. She knew the power of education. Education was the backbone of everything she did. And love.”

As the movie poster says: “The world is too small for what I intend to do.”

“Cabrini” transforms many people who have seen it – and sent letters telling the producers just that. 

That’s why he doesn’t just say “come see it.” He says “Come experience it.”

Synopsis of ‘Cabrini’ and early reaction from viewers
“From Alejandro Monteverde, award-winning director of ‘Sound of Freedom,’ comes the powerful epic of Francesca Cabrini, an Italian immigrant who arrives in New York City in 1889 and is greeted by disease, crime, and impoverished children. Cabrini sets off on a daring mission to convince the hostile mayor to secure housing and healthcare for society’s most vulnerable. With broken English and poor health, Cabrini uses her entrepreneurial mind to build an empire of hope unlike anything the world had ever seen.” – Angel Studios

“It reminded us all of Mother Cabrini’s message. We all came here on different ships, but now we’re in the same boat.” – Richard A. DiLiberto Jr., chairman of the Delaware Commission on Italian Heritage and Culture

“I was in tears in the first 90 seconds. … It made me think of my grandparents and what they had to endure in this country. It made me appreciate who we became, who we are today.” – Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans

“I am Sicilian. My heart is throbbing. I’m in so much pain to see how much Italian Americans suffered when they came to America. Mother Cabrini reminded me of my mother – the strength, the leadership, the know-how.” – Josephine Maietta, president of the Association of Italian American Educators

“I knew about Mother Cabrini growing up because my parents were Italian immigrants … but I never realized how much she contributed and how wonderful and noble a person she was. … This is a wonderful film. It is a testament of the human spirit, the Italian spirit.” – Santi Buscemi, secretary-treasurer of the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations

“It is the most beautiful movie I have ever seen, visually, spiritually and emotionally. I would recommend this movie to everyone.” – Anne Newman, self-identified as an Irish-German New Yorker

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