Monday is Colorado's first Mother Cabrini Day, setting aside Columbus

Monday marks Colorado's first Mother Cabrini Day, the first American saint with strong ties to the history of Denver.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Denver marked the occasion with a statement Sunday:

"We are excited for more people to learn about the amazing life of St. Frances Cabrini. We commend the state legislature for creating the first state holiday honoring a woman, and for choosing an incredible Catholic Saint.

"Guided by her own love for Jesus, Mother Cabrini had an incredible love for the poor, sick, immigrants and less fortunate, and helped establish 67 schools, hospitals and orphanages across the country. In Colorado she ministered to Denver’s poor Italian immigrants, and established a school, convent and orphanage, and also a summer camp for the orphan girls.

The diocese added, "Mother Cabrini’s Christ-like love for others is an inspiring example for all of us to this day!"

Mother Cabrini also served to delivered a certain but uneasy peace over Columbus Day with indigenous people who see the Italian explorer as a murderous invader — and one who never actually stepped foot in what would become America. (Looking for a trade route to Asia on behalf of Spain, Columbus landed in the Bahamas in October 1492, and it was declared the new world.)

With a large Italian immigrant population at the time, Colorado became the first state to adopt Columbus Day as a holiday in 1907, well ahead of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declaring it a national holiday in 1934.

The acrimony in Denver has escalated to protests and implied or outright violence over the last two decades. After years of American Indian groups and legislators trying, fruitlessly, to change the state holiday, in March Gov. Jared Polis signed into law House Bill 1031 renaming the paid holiday for the patron saint of immigrants.

The Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado celebrated the decision, though they had tried for a decade to rename it Indigenous Peoples Day statewide, as Denver and other local governments across the country have done.

"State holidays should reflect positive values and admirable qualities that accurately promote the history and the future aspirations of the state," AIM spokesman Glenn Morris said. "Columbus Day failed to meet this standard because it sends perverse, inaccurate and fallacious historical and moral messages to students, other young people, and the general public."

The legislation this year was carried by Reps. Adrienne Benavidez of northeast Denver and Kyle Mullica of Thornton, with Sens. Angela Williams and Chris Hansen, both of Denver.

Benavidez told a House committee in February the new holiday would "honor someone we all can be proud of."

The bill passed on the seventh legislative try, starting in 2007, when a bill sought to make it a floating state holiday, followed by several failed efforts to rename it Indigenous Peoples Day. In 2018 some legislators tried in vain to make election day a paid state holiday.

Italian heritage groups have defended Columbus each time.

Rich SaBell, who has led Denver's Columbus Day Parade Planning Committee, took it personally.

"The truth is taking away Columbus Day completely and unequivocally takes away all recognition of the Italian-American community in Colorado," said SaBell, a fixture at legislative hearings on near-annual attempts to change the holiday. "The truth is this is a yearly ongoing assault on everything it means to be an Italian-American."

He said the national holiday binds Italians together as Americans, he said, "passed on to us with pride from our parents and grandparents," akin to Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick's Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Sal Siraguse of the Denver Lodge of the Sons of Italy said he was happy about honoring Mother Cabrini but not in a bargain for Columbus Day. The organization also welcomed Indigenous Peoples Day, too, but not as a trade, he said.

Born in Italy, Mother Cabrini was naturalized as U.S. citizen in Denver in 1909.

In 2017, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper declared a one-time St. Frances Cabrini Day in Colorado to recognize the 100th anniversary of the death of the saint.

Hickenlooper, Golden Mayor Marjorie Sloan, U.S. Rep Ed Perlmutter of Arvada and the Jefferson County Commission issued proclamations memorializing the day.

The Mother Cabrini Shrine off Interstate 70 in the foothills west of Denver was originally created by her as a summer camp for orphan girls. It continues to be a destination for Catholics and others today.

Content originally published by Colorado Politics on October 4, 2020.

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