Brother of ‘miracle baby’ continues devotion to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
From the Catholic Northwest Progress, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Seattle, Washington
By Terry McGuire
As the beneficiary of the first miracle attributed to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Father Peter Smith would have had a compelling story to share this month about his eyesight being restored and his life being saved following a horrific hospital accident just hours after his birth.
In a trip tentatively arranged several years ago, the priest was to visit St. Frances Cabrini School in Lakewood and Villa Academy in Seattle next week. But then God called him home at age 80, in February 2002.
Now his message of praying to the saints for intercession and for nourishing a devotion to the sacraments is being carried on by his younger brother, also a priest: Father John Francis Xavier Smith.
Father Smith will be the homilist Nov. 12 at a Mass at 1 p.m. at St. Bridget Church in Seattle. The liturgy will celebrate the centennial of Villa Academy, a private Catholic school that started as an orphanage founded by St. Cabrini on Oct. 17, 1903.
He will speak in Lakewood on Nov. 13, the saint’s feast day, at a Mass at 11 a.m. at St. Frances Cabrini Church.
Receptions will follow both liturgies. In addition, the archives and relics of St. Cabrini will be displayed in the Villa Academy chapel during school hours Nov. 12-20.
The miracle involving his brother was actually two miracles combined into one, the 68-year-old Father Smith said by phone last week from the New York City suburb of Tuxedo, where he is pastor of a small parish.
On March 14, 1921, Margaret Riley Smith had a normal delivery. Peter Joseph was not only her firstborn, he was the first baby born in New York City’s new Mother Cabrini Memorial Hospital, an extension of Cabrini of Columbus Hospital in Manhattan.
“My mother had told me she was conscious at the time of the birth, and she made the remark what beautiful eyes he had,” Father Smith recalled last week. Like Mother Cabrini, who had died four years earlier, young Peter’s eyes were blue.
But then, less than a few hours later, the attending nurse mistakenly poured a 51 percent solution of silver nitrate into those bright blue eyes, believing the bottle contained the standard one percent solution that was used to bathe the eyes of newborns. The deadly solution destroyed the infant’s corneas and then rolled down his cheek and into his mouth, where he swallowed it.
“The eyes were literally burned out of his head,” Father Smith said.
Specialists summoned to the scene soon determined it was hopeless: Young Peter had not only been blinded, he was dying of double pneumonia, the nitrate having seared his lungs. His body temperature surpassed the 108 degree maximum reading on the thermometer.
In an understatement, Father Smith said his mother later recalled how shocked she was when they returned her newborn to her. His face was covered in bandages, “and the pillow on which he was brought to her was very hot.”
Meanwhile, the sisters at the hospital took the only action they could: They pinned a piece of Mother Cabrini’s habit to the infant’s garment and prayed in the hospital’s chapel for God’s intercession through her.
Foundress of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Mother Cabrini (1850-1917) had established 67 institutions in her 67 years of life, operations ranging from hospitals to orphanages to schools and childcare centers. Though born in Italy, she had become an American citizen in 1909 in Seattle, and was to leave her charitable legacy in cities around the country, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, New Orleans, Philadelphia and New York City.
Following the accident with young Peter, her sisters at the hospital prayed before the Blessed Sacrament for two nights, “and within 48 after his birth, the eyes were perfect,” Father Smith said. “One doctor remarked to the other, ‘Am I seeing things?’ And the doctor replied, ‘No, he is.'”
Still, the sisters thought it strange that his eyesight would be restored yet he was still so close to death, so they prayed a third night, “and within 72 hours after his birth, the eyes were perfect and the temperature was gone,” Father Smith said.
Seventeen years later, as the first of two miracles attributed to the future saint, Peter was invited to Rome for Mother Cabrini’s beatification. While there, he spotted his name at the bottom of a huge banner honoring the nun. He was to note in sermons later that the people around him didn’t realize they were standing closer to the real thing than they were to the name on the banner.
Following the beatification ceremony, the miracle baby was asked to speak on Vatican Radio by Chicago’s Cardinal George Mundelein, who had presided at Mother Cabrini’s funeral. In a broadcast carried to America, the 17 year old noted: “I for one know that the age of miracles has not ended.”
The Smith family, of course, developed a great devotion to Mother Cabrini, Father John Smith said. But the miracle “was not a topic of conversation at home,” he said. “We never mentioned it.”
He said his brother’s vocation to the priesthood — and even his own — were not so much a result of the miracle as it was of being raised in a strong Irish Catholic family that nourished the faith daily.
He said Peter had considered the priesthood as a boy, but then entered Fordham University to study accounting. His entire class of young men was drafted into the Army, and Peter went on to serve in the closing days of World War II in the mop-up operations on Okinawa.
Following the war, he entered the seminary for the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Tex., and was ordained in Manhattan at the altar of the shrine that held Cabrini’s body. The ordaining bishop remarked in jest that the new priest “has Mother Cabrini’s eyes, and she was winking at him.” Proud onlookers that day included the nurse who had accidentally blinded him.
Father Peter, who later wore glasses for nearsightedness, went on to serve more than 40 years of active ministry as a pastor and parish priest in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, then returned to his native New York in retirement. He was serving as a nursing home chaplain operated by the Carmelite sisters when he died unexpectedly of an aneurysm on Feb. 12, 2002.
“On the last day of his life, he anointed 40 people in the nursing home,” his brother recalled, “so he literally died with his boots on.
“I anointed him and heard his confession…The next day he died on the operating table.”
Fourteen years older than he, Father Smith had looked upon Peter and his late brother, Ray, who was 12 years older, as father figures more than brothers. Their father had died when John was one, and the brothers had helped raise him.
Throughout his years of priestly ministry, Father Peter spoke about his role as the miracle baby at parishes, schools and other institutions around the country that owed their legacies to St. Cabrini.
“It was never on the point of he was boasting about himself — but of the power of intercession of Mother Cabrini,” Father Smith said. “He liked to quote the preface of the Mass of the saints, ‘On whose intercession we rely for help.'”
That is also Father John Smith’s message: That it’s important to pray for intercession through the saints, and to nourish a devotion to the sacraments.
“We have such a need for vocations, today,” he said, and they have to come from the home.
“If the parents are not going to church, it’s rather rare….later on that someone in the family would become a priest or religious.”
He notes that St. Cabrini — whose middle name he carries — is cause for celebration in the U.S. because she was the first American saint, who performed works of charity in many American cities. She was canonized in 1946.
A pretty woman, small in stature but very feminine and with an “enchanting voice,” she may have been very unlike the plain style of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Father Smith said, but both were hard workers who were totally reliant on God in their ministries.
“She accomplished so much,” he said. “And she did it with the motto of St. Paul: ‘I can do all things in him who strengthens me.'”
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