“I myself more than once had to witness at the station in Piacenza the departure of emigrants, and I confess that, on seeing their misery and pain, at the thought of the very serious evils without number which they were going to meet, at the idea of the abandonment in which they would be left without any spiritual help, I felt my heart clench, and wept over their fate, and made a firm decision in my mind to try something.”
From 1875 to 1915 nearly 9 million Italians emigrated, heading first to Brazil and Argentina, then to the United States. Scalabrini, who had always been attentive to the needs of his faithful, studied the phenomenon and discovered that 12 percent of his parishioners were abroad. But he was not concerned only with their material needs: in fact, uprooted from their cultural context, many Italian migrants lost their faith:
“A few days ago a young traveler brought me the greetings of several families from the mountains of Piacenza camping on the banks of the Orinoco River: Tell our bishop that we always remember his advice, that he should pray for us and send us a priest, because here we live and die like beasts… that greeting from the distant children sounded to me like a reproach.”
The step from compassion to action in Scalabrini’s soul is a short one: “I took up the cry of pain of our poor expatriates, and called the public’s attention to the nefarious work of human flesh traffickers.”
He thus began to think of an institutional way to help migrants. In 1887 he presented to the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide the project of an association for the spiritual and material assistance of Italians abroad. Leo XIII approved the establishment of missionaries for immigrants, and on Nov. 28, 1887, the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo was born in Piacenza. Scalabrini decided to entrust the mission to the protection of St. Charles, the bishop of Milan who took to the streets in 1576 to comfort the plague-stricken sick, risking his own life.
On July 12, 1888, the first ten missionaries left for Brazil and the United States. In addition to the congregation, Scalabrini founded in 1889 the St. Raphael Patronage Association for Emigrants, a lay institution with the task of being present at ports of embarkation and disembarkation. In fact, Scalabrini organized all-around assistance to migrants so that his missionaries and lay collaborators could be of help and support at every stage of the migration process: at ports, on the ship, upon arrival in new countries and in the months to follow, during the acclimatization period. To help emigrants before departure, he established Emigration Committees or Patronages in 19 Italian cities.
Scalabrini often repeated “The work of the Missionaries would be incomplete, especially in South America, without the help of the Sisters,” . In 1889 he had encouraged St. Frances Xavier Cabrini to go to the Americas and gave her the crucifix in Codogno. Finally, on Oct. 25, 1895, he also founded the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo.
Scalabrini visited missionaries and migrants in the United States in 1901 and in Brazil in 1904. He suggested to St. Pius X the establishment of a body, at the Holy See, for the care of all migrants in the world, a suggestion that the Holy Pontiff put into action with the establishment of the Special Office for Emigration, the forerunner of today’s Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.
As Blessed Giuseppe Toniolo said of him, Scalabrini had “the intuition of events to come.” Throughout his life, he walked humbly, with a far-sighted gaze, allowing himself to be questioned by migrant humanity, convinced that God acts in history with them and through them with infinite fatherly love.