LOS ANGELES, Calif. (The Tidings) - In the summer of 1905, 25 years after founding the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Italy, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini - at the invitation of Bishop Thomas J. Conaty - came to Los Angeles to serve a burgeoning Italian immigrant population. "I feel that a great deal of good could be done by [your Sisters] in this city in our work among the Italians," the bishop wrote in a letter.
A few months later, the industrious nun found and bought an ideal place for an orphanage, the old J.W. Robinson home at 610 North Hill Street. The merchant and future department store magnate's estate became known as the Regina Coeli Orphanage. Soon she opened a school nearby at Alpine and Hill streets.
The orphanage and parochial school thrived, serving more than 1,000 boys and girls. A larger school was built in Burbank along with a "preventorium" for children at risk of coming down with tuberculosis. Mother Cabrini returned to Southern California in 1908, 1912 and 1916, shortly before she died the following year in Chicago.
In July 1946, on the same day she was canonized in Rome, a Mass was celebrated by Archbishop John J. Cantwell in St. Vibiana's Cathedral to honor the first United States citizen to become a saint. In his sermon, Msgr. Patrick Roche said the nation's naturalized citizen had founded 67 U.S. houses and institutions and, as a result, her legacy here would never be forgotten.
But for the most part, that's what has happened in Southern California to St. Frances X. Cabrini, who was declared the patroness of immigrants in 1950.
The last of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus left the Los Angeles Archdiocese in the early 1970s. The Regina Coeli Orphanage, which became the Cabrini Day Home for children of working women after Mother Cabrini's death in 1917, was sold to a development corporation and razed.
The saint's only shrine, a one-room Marian chapel she helped build in 1917, sits far back in the parking lot of St. Francis Xavier Church in Burbank,Calif., and is only open a few hours a month. The last remnant of her orphanage, a stone grotto, was moved in 1997 to the Villa Scalabrini Retirement Home in Sun Valley, Calif.
Patron of immigrants
None of this sits well with Sister Regina Palamara, a Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for 51 years, who returned to Southern California a few years ago to take care of her elderly sick mother.
"I wish I knew the answer why she's been so forgotten," the Hollywood native says with a sigh. "She's walked our streets. She rode around in her carriage. This is the biggest shock in my life because immigration is such a hot topic here.
"What saint in the Catholic Church can be identified with immigration?" she asks. "I mean, she's the universal patron of immigrants. It's just an indifference. So I'm just saddened."
At 74, Sister Palamara should be contemplating retirement after a half-century of teaching and doing parish ministry, mostly in New York. But instead she teaches second-, third- and fourth-graders religion at St. Finbar School in Burbank and also volunteers in the parish's senior outreach program. In addition, she's active in the Cabrini Literary Guild and as a member of the Taize Prayer Group.
Plus, there's her ministry of presence. Once or twice a day, she usually can be found at a Starbuck's in Burbank listening to people who have sought her counsel.
She's actually been doing a "listening ministry" since she became a Cabrini sister, following the path of her twin sister, Patty. Both, along with younger sister Mikie, attended Villa Cabrini Academy, a Burbank boarding school that closed in 1971 and is now Woodbury University.
"We were the three Palamaras," Sister Regina, who wears a silver cross around her neck and sports a page boy hairstyle with bangs, notes. "I had so much fun there. I was into every little thing."
But her main mission now is getting the word out any way she can about the foundress of her religious community.
"My 'gig' right now is just teaching about Mother Cabrini," she reports with a half-grin. "I go to lunches with the ACCW [Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women] as me and talk to everybody. Then I find a telephone booth, and like Superman, switch into an old habit. When I come out, I'm Mother Cabrini! I tell them where I was born, about my family and childhood and teenage years. The whole thing lasts about 55 minutes.'"
Sister Palamara has performed the amazing transformation for groups in Long Beach, Oxnard and Pico Rivera, Calif., among others places, but wants to take her act on the road to more parishes. She has high hopes about working with Villa Cabrini Alumnae and Friends to reach even more local Catholics about the saint's legacy in the Southland.
"It's hard to do with children," she admits. "Why? Because that habit would scare any child. I did it at St. Finbar School, and they were so transfixed you wouldn't believe it. The kids just had their eyes bulging out: 'Who is this? We know it's Sister Regina, but why does she look like that?'"
The Cabrini nuns who taught her at Villa Cabrini Academy back in the 1940s and early '50s were indeed "tough cookies," recalls the only Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in California today. But that was only on the outside; inside they were real marshmallows. And they were caring. At her high school graduation, one speaker described them at "valiant" women, who had left their homes in Italy to serve others.
Still, the last thing in the world Rose Marie Palamara wanted to be was a Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. For nearly four years, she was employed by the Prudential Insurance Company, starting out in the mailroom. But her job and lifestyle never really satisfied her. Somehow, it just wasn't enough.
It was the word "valiant," used to describe the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that kept bugging her. And then her twin, Patty, entered, becoming Sister Loretta. She followed, not feeling so much called as wanting to prove that religious life wasn't for her. At first, she was going to run away every day. Back in the novitiate in West Park, New York, every time she heard a train, she was going to be on it.
"But after a few months, I just felt too exhausted to fight it, and I put my other hand on the plow," she remembers. "And I've never turned back. Today I wouldn't trade one day. My biggest joy is that there is the presence of God in what I see."
Mother Cabrini has always been her bedrock inspiration.
"As the patron saint of immigration, we should be interceding and imploring her -especially at this time - but instead I often find Catholics the most against immigration today," she says. "If Mother Cabrini was alive today, she'd be opening immigration services and trying to get people legalized. And she'd be marching.
"I'm not the last Cabrini Sister to serve in California," she points out. "I'm the returned presence. And that's humbling, humbling."
Editor's note: Sister Regina Palamara can be reached about doing a Mother Cabrini presentation at (818) 653-5233 or RPALAMARA@AOL.COM.
This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Tidings (www.the-tidings.com), official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.