Sneak peek of ‘Cabrini’ movie hits home with Nebraskans of Italian heritage, other immigrants

Even those who grew up in and around St. Frances Cabrini parish learned how little they knew about the patron saint of immigrants

By: - February 12, 2024 5:00 am

About 130 people attend a private preview of the movie “Cabrini,” which resonates with different faiths and populations but holds special meaning to Omaha’s Italian-American community. (Courtesy of Cathy Beeler)

OMAHA — Sarita Ruma has spent decades in and around the historic brick church named after St. Frances Cabrini in the Little Italy enclave south of downtown Omaha.

Sarita “Sarah” Ruma found the Cabrini movie themes to especially hit home with the local Italian-American community. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

She’s attended weddings, festivals and worship services there. She’s heard the neighborhood lore — that the parish namesake herself, Frances Cabrini, walked up the hill from the train stop to pray in the Spanish Mission style building that later would be rededicated in her honor. 

But until a recent local sneak peek of the movie “Cabrini,” Ruma said, she hadn’t grasped how little she really knew about the tenacious Italian missionary who stood up to power, elected officials, even the Pope to improve circumstances for poor U.S. immigrants.

“I didn’t know the extent of her strength and dedication — it just never stopped,” said Ruma, a pacesetter in her own right, being the first woman president of the local Sons and Daughters of Italy lodge. 

Ties to Little Italy

Ruma joined about 130 area residents who were invited Jan. 25 to a private pre-screening of the Cabrini movie at the Marcus Twin Creek Theater in Bellevue. Many there had ties to the local Cabrini parish or the Italian-American community yet, like Ruma, learned new aspects of the immigrant patroness and businesswoman who was canonized in 1946 as the first U.S. citizen saint. 

Zachary DeCarlo, a producer of the film, answers questions after a local private screening. The event was sponsored by the Order of Sons and Daughters of Italy, Omaha, Nebraska, and Ron Hug, who is an Omaha City Council member and trustee with the Sons and Daughters of Italy. (Courtesy of Cathy Beeler)

Set to open March 8 on International Women’s Day, the movie follows the journey of Francesca Xavier Cabrini who, with six of her missionary sisters, traveled west into the slums of late 19th-century New York City. 

As their leader, Mother Cabrini (played by Italian actress Cristiana Dell’Anna) overcame sexism, discrimination and violence to establish an orphanage and hospital for the newcomers to America.

St. Frances Cabrini statue in the Omaha church named after her at 10th and William Streets. (Courtesy of St. Frances Cabrini Church)

The movie scenes don’t capture all the years of her life, and focuses on New York City, but she went on to establish a charitable empire of 67 schools and other institutions across the globe.

Much of Cabrini’s work was done in Chicago and Denver, which likely is why, according to local church historical reports, that her diaries had her stopping in between at the Omaha train station and apparently strolling the few blocks to what now is the church that bears her name.

Omaha historical landmark bears her name

St. Frances Cabrini Church, at 10th and William Streets since 1908, was renamed in 1961 to honor the immigrant patroness and first American citizen to be canonized a saint.

Originally called St. Philomena, the name change came after the Catholic Church removed St. Philomena from the calendar of saints. 

Church history says the parish neighborhood early on was populated by Irish immigrants, who later moved west, giving way to waves of Czech and Italian families. Many of Omaha’s Italians came from Carlentini and Lentini, Sicily, and they  brought with them a devotion to St. Lucy (Santa Lucia).

Today, the annual Santa Lucia Festival is held in and around St. Frances Cabrini Church.

St. Frances Cabrini parish (both a local landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places) has seen a resurgence in recent years, boosted by housing and commercial redevelopment that has occurred around the area and in the downtown urban core to the north.

Local organizers of the film preview said they appreciated the advance look. Moreover, they expect hoopla surrounding the based-on-a-true-story movie to shine light on a local Italian-American community that is already working on other projects to stir cultural pride. 

“It all helps promote the Italian heritage that is so rich in Omaha and that we’re trying to hang on to,” said Sheri Kanger, area coordinator of the National Italian American Foundation. Kanger also co-founded a local group pursuing a formal Italian sister city connection with Carlentini, which is expected to bring bicultural trade and educational partnerships. 

Rekindles memories

For Omahan Marie Losole, watching the movie rekindled her own childhood memories of running the streets and stealing food in Calabria, Italy, before she was placed in an orphanage in Rome in 1952.

The former Fiorella Maria Rotella, of the now-closed Lo Sole Mio restaurant, said she’ll be taking her children and grandchildren to see the film.

“This movie was inspiring, moving and a powerful example of what one person can do,” Losole said.

For Carmelita de la Guardia, born in Italy and now an Omaha entertainer and entrepreneur, the discussion sparked personal memories of what she considers a “Cabrini miracle.”

Her toddler daughter was struck by disease and in 1979 fell into a coma. De la Guardia said doctors told her nothing more could be done.

A nurse gave her a photo and relic of Cabrini, which she laid next to her daughter and prayed for an intercession, de la Guardia said during a post-movie Q and A session. Her daughter Daniela soon opened her eyes and lives a healthy life today.

Few know her name

Joann Crinklaw, who helped coordinate the preview, was among those who see the Cabrini storyline extending beyond Catholics or a single heritage. She sees it tapping into the interest of a variety of faiths and immigrant backgrounds.

“Movies like this make people more hungry for knowledge of their stories, what their ancestors went through to get here,” Crinklaw said.

Church-goers enter St. Frances Cabrini in Omaha’s Little Italy neighborhood. (Courtesy of St. Frances Cabrini)

The Rev. Damian Zuerlein, pastor of Omaha’s St. Frances Cabrini parish and school, agrees with the film’s executive producer, Eustace Wolfington — that despite the saint’s wide and profound impact, few know her name. 

“The vast majority of people don’t know her story at all, and even parishioners here don’t know it well,” Zuerlein said.

The Rev. Damian Zuerlein, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Church south of downtown Omaha. (Courtesy of St. Frances Cabrini)

Even Zuerlein was unaware that Cabrini at one point broke into the all-male Italian Senate, shaming aldermen into helping their country’s suffering immigrants. The scene was depicted in the movie, based upon an old newspaper article a nun revealed to the production team during research for the movie.

Zuerlein said the historical drama contains messages relevant today. He noted, for example, Cabrini’s battle against the treatment of immigrants as discardable.

One line in the movie has the nun telling the Italian Senate: “At the hour of our death, we will all be asked one question: What did we do for the sick, for the homeless, for those stripped of dignity? What did we do?”

During a different point in the movie, she says: “We are all human beings. We are all the same.” 

Frances Cabrini (played by Italian actress Cristiana Dell’Anna) breaks in to the Italian Senate to seek funding to help immigrants in New York City. (Courtesy of Angel Studios)

‘Go for it’

Ruma, 68 and an Omaha mental health therapist, was impressed at the movie’s focus on an immigrant woman who led fiercely yet compassionately while building a multinational charity. She believes that the spotlight on Cabrini will spill into the local community and inspire young women.

Elizabeth Troia, 2023 Santa Lucia festival queen. (Courtesy of Troia family)

Elizabeth Troia, 16, is the reigning queen of the Santa Lucia Festival, which is celebrated at St. Frances Cabrini Church. During the preview, she sat in the front row with her sister Gina, soaking up the determination theme.

The Mercy High student said she was struck at how Cabrini confronted “all levels of discrimination.” She was fascinated with the protagonist’s entrepreneurial efforts to raise funds by organizing an Italian festival. 

Troia left the theater brimming with thoughts about how the movie and its messages might be spread to other teens and classmates. 

Ruma recalled getting a “chill” from a Cabrini line in the movie — I am a woman and I am Italian — and thinks it will embolden others.

“It doesn’t come any stronger as a message to young women to ‘Go for it,’ ” Ruma said.

People register for the private prescreening of the “Cabrini” movie at Marcus Twin Theater in Bellevue. (Courtesy of Cathy Beeler)

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.

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