Controversial new state holiday shines spotlight on Mother Cabrini

Colorado state legislature voted to replace Columbus Day with holiday for Cabrini last March


Since 1938, visitors have flocked to the mountains just west of Golden to learn about and pay tribute to Frances Xavier Cabrini, the Catholic saint who established 67 schools, hospitals and orphanages around the U.S., including in Colorado.

Now, the rest of the state is about to become more familiar with Cabrini as well, as a result of the Colorado state legislature’s decision to establish Cabrini Day, a state holiday that will take the place of Columbus Day as a state holiday on the first Monday in October.

Colorado House Bill 20-1031, signed into law by the governor in March, declares the new holiday is “a recognition of Cabrini’s contributions to the state of Colorado and creates an opportunity to promote an appreciation, tolerance and understanding of the different cultures that make up our state.”

In 1909, Colorado became the first state in the nation to observe Columbus Day as an official state holiday at the urging of Angelo Noce, a prominent figure in Denver’s Italian immigrant community.

The bill also states that Columbus never traveled to the territory that became the United States and had no contact with the state of Colorado, “providing no rationale for a Colorado state holiday bearing his name.” It also states that Columbus participated in the extermination of the Taino people who initially welcomed him to the island of Quisqueya, which he renamed Hispanola.

While many Italian Americans continue to regard it as an important celebration of their heritage and its contributions to America (Columbus was Italian), the holiday had become mired in controversy in recent decades by Native Americans who say it is culturally insensitive to continue to celebrate a figure who led the extermination of native peoples and can only be said to have discovered the Americas if their presence here is disregarded.

The Denver Post reported the move to replace Columbus Day represented an attempt to reach a compromise with Colorado’s Italian American community after previous bills that would’ve replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day or made Election Day into a state holiday were defeated.

However, some members of Denver Italian heritage groups say their community did not respect the change and that the legislature did not reach out to them as they have claimed.

“Mother Cabrini has a feast day and it’s not in October,” said Pam Wright, a former president of the Order Sons of Italy Grand Lodge of Colorado. “A lot of us feel that we have celebrated Columbus Day for years and years and it’s not so much the man we celebrate but his journey and that journey is what brought a lot of our ancestors here along with Christianity and that kind of thing so that disappointed us.”

Anna Vann, a first generation Italian immigrant, also questioned the choice to replace the celebration of Columbus with one for Cabrini.

“Mother Cabrini was an actual friend of people in my family in the past here,” said Vann. “She was a very honorable woman but to make a state holiday for her and take away Columbus Day was very wrong.”

Jeff Lewis, the Executive Director of the Mother Cabrini Shrine, said that while the Shrine’s staff are happy Mother Cabrini “will continue to be celebrated in Colorado” they did not have anything to do with the effort to make a Cabrini Day holiday.

“I don’t really know what to say,” Lewis said when contacted by CCM about his reaction to the new holiday. “That’s more of a political thing and we really have nothing to do with that.”

Who was Mother Cabrini?

So who exactly was the subject of Colorado’s newest holiday?

Sr. Roselle Santivasi, who works at the shrine, said Cabrini was ultimately a humanitarian who dedicated herself to those who had very little help.

“She just had a sensitivity for the needs of people and had a talent for making their needs met whether it was housing or education,” said Santivasi. “Just simple things like her and the sisters reading their mail because they were illiterate or writing letters back to their home countries or just being with people.”

Cabrini is also someone who has much to teach America today, Santivasi said.

“She would certainly see that every person is entitled to all the privileges of whatever country they live in and so she would work toward that for whomever,” she said. “She would not limit herself to immigrants, she would definitely open herself to the needs of anyone who had needs that were not being met by the government of whatever country they came from.”

Santivasi said an estimated 100,000 people visit the shrine each year and the staff now thinks it might see more with the new holiday.

“We weren’t part of the development of the holiday but if they want to celebrate Mother Cabrini because she’s a woman that’s wonderful,” she said. “And if it’s someone else for the same reason that’s wonderful too. The more we celebrate people who have done humanitarian things and done good, social justice things for other people that’s good, let’s celebrate them.”


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