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Keeping Mother Cabrini's California legacy alive

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?'" 'Tough cookies' 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 (, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.



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1 - 10 of 12 Comments

  1. Nancy Marzo
    1 week ago

    RE: the grotto/shrine at Regina Coeli in Los angeles. When the property was bought and scheduled for development several of us Villa Girls, from Burbank, went down there and arranged for the stones that made up the grotto to be sent to Villa Scalabrini, in San Fernando, to be kept and used as a memorial to Mother Cabrini. As far as I know, nothing has been done with them, yet. We all took home several small stones - I have mine in my garden.

    I graduated in 1949. While there we all took turns helping with the "babies", 2-5 years old. We helped with their nighttime baths, got them readh for church and school, and helped in the dining room.

    I lived at Cabrini 7 years.. How I found this site is that I am looking for a good photo of Regina Coeli. I have one, but it is not a good one at all.

    At the Villa in Burbank, now Woodbuty University, we have a memorial to Mother Cabrini, a photo history of her time in California. If you are ever out that way, it is interesting.

  2. Maureen Freeman - Castillo
    1 week ago

    Cabrini became my only home. My family was deceased. I was a boarder between 7th and 12th grade. I remember many of the girls and the nuns such as mother Anna, and Mother Christine our high school principal. Mother Regina was our prefect for the dorm. I was blessed with an exceptional education and religious formation. God bless all of our devoted caregivers, because we were not all that easy to care for.

  3. Christine
    1 year ago

    My mother and her two sisters (twins) were at the Regina Coeli Orphanage starting in 1919. I don't know how long they stayed there. Are there any records available for this time period?

  4. Celia T. Garcia Ceniceros
    2 years ago

    After many years of working on my memori of my youth living next door at 646 North Hill Street next door to Mother Cabrini Convent on north Hill street in Los Angeles, the Convent has a special place and meaning in my heart of happier times while living there , I spent so much time visiting and playing at the convent with the orphan children when they would come from the Mother Cabrini home in Burbank during the summers. To my surprise I went on the interent in search of my Covent as I call it and and it was all there including a small photo of the covent on Hill Street , and information on my stone grotto that was such a special place for me . to read that it had been saved and remvoved to Sunland California.
    If you would be so kind as to inform me as to where I can locate and see additional photos of the convent on North Hill street and the stone grotto of the Virgin Mary , I would appreciate it. Thank you for the memories . Celia T. Garcia ceniceros

  5. deborah (berry) brinkerhoff
    2 years ago

    I attended 1,2,3 &4th grade there, right before they closed the school, ( I think they finally allowed boys!!!!) and havent looked into the subject unitl I suddenly thought about the school this morning. I loved school, and loved it there. Yes, it was hard, but I remember the uniforms, (especially the white ones) May day, and celebrations of Holy Days. I remember the best teachers! Sister Jovanina (spelling??) and Sister Regina!! I espeically remember the grotto up near the fancy entrance and the huge stone angel in the play ground. What ever happened to these wondrous aritfacts? Changing schools to Divine Saviour and the to St Dominics were just never the same.

  6. aldo mugno
    3 years ago

    sister regina was my teacher, in 60's and early 70's .she was the sweetest ,most gentle,loving person.never raised her voice,allways helped us bad kids when we were in trouble with principal.unlike other sisters who hit you with rulers, pointers. she was a true nun...... she should be made a saint..

  7. Joyce Merello
    4 years ago

    My mother and my aunt, who are both now deceased were placed at Mother Cabrini's Acadamey in Burbank after the respective deaths of their parents the early forties. Is it possible to obtain any records?

  8. Nicholas Medvid
    4 years ago

    Please list your official we can plan on visiting your facilites, of course by appointment.
    Nicholas Medvid 4334 Franklin Ave, L.A.,Ca 90027 tel"323-661-7341

  9. Gretchen Kat
    5 years ago

    I attended Villa Cabrini Academy in the 1950's and it was a life changing experience. The sisters were doing the Lord's work and it opened my teenage eyes to the work that needed to be done when I saw one of the "babies" who had been deposited there for the sisters to care for crying. The sisters were spread so thin trying to care for children that no one wanted. They were wonderful. I was a boarding student myself, and I learned a lot about the heart.

  10. Tecla Jung Legge
    5 years ago

    Villa Cabrini and the nuns were key to my family getting through our mother's tuberculosis. We were there just one year in the mid 1950's. The memories are huge.

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