Fr Peter Smith from Castletara who was healed as a baby.

The miracle of St Frances Cabrini: A baby’s sight healed

Jonathan Smyth's Times Past column recalls a baby who was accidentally blinded at birth, but was then healed. His father was from Castletara and his mother from Carrickallen, Laragh. They were related to Bridie M. Smith-Brady, former Anglo-Celt history columnist.

The story of an American Catholic Saint and the baby of a family from Castletara whose eyesight was restored is virtually unknown in Ireland. The miracle centred around a baby who received horrific damage, albeit accidental, to his eyes. The child would live and one day enter religious life himself.

Peter Smith Jnr was born on March 14, 1921, at a New York medical centre, which became known as the Mother Cabrini Hospital. The child’s parents were both from County Cavan; the baby’s father was Peter J. Smith from Hanies, Castletara, and belonged to a branch of the Smiths from Lavey. The last of this Smith to live at Hanies was James Smith who was succeeded by his son in-law, Francis Cahill.

The Anglo-Celt’s celebrated history columnist, Bridie M. Smith-Brady was a relative of the Smiths of Hanies and wrote at various times about the miracle that healed Peter Smith as a baby, including a report on the occasion that Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was beatified. Peter’s mother was Mrs Margaret Smith, formerly O’Reilly, from Carrickallen, Laragh.


An hour after Peter’s birth, he was attended to by an extremely tired nurse who washed the baby’s eyes in a 50% solution of silver nitrate, instead of the usual one percent solution, with the effect that ‘the membranes and cornea of the eyes were destroyed’. Both eyes became black, deep furrows ‘burnt by the acid’, which ran down onto the baby’s chest leaving him with third degree burns. The acid’s powerful fumes brought on double pneumonia in the baby when he inhaled them. The terrified nurse screamed for help, and a Sister came running. Having obtained permission, the Sister attached a medal of Mother Cabrini on the baby’s clothes. An article in this paper stated that the nuns ‘stormed Heaven’ with prayers, ‘invoking the intercession’ of the ‘venerable foundress’.

Twenty-four hours later, to the astonishment of the doctors, the burns had disappeared, and the little one’s eyes were fully restored. The doctors checked by shining a light into them, and one of the doctors asked, ‘am I seeing things?’ To which the second doctor replied, ‘no, you’re not seeing things, but he is, those eyes are perfectly normal.’ They realised something truly supernatural had taken place.

However, the doctors feared that Peter was not out of the woods, for pneumonia still affected him and so they asked the sisters to keep praying. To which one of the nuns replied, that the child had not been healed by Mother Cabrini’s intercession, for him to die. They prayed some more and, within a short time, his pneumonia was gone.

‘Saint of immigrants’

In 1938, when Peter was aged 17 years, he went with his mother to Vatican City for Mother Cabrini’s beatification; Peter’s father had died around 1936. For beatification, a second miracle was required, and this came in the form of the healing of a nun named Sr Delfino Graziola of Seattle who was ‘cured of cancer’. Mother Cabrini’s beatification took place on Sunday, November 13, 1938.

Born Maria Francesca Cabrini, in Sant’Angelo, Lodigiano, Italy, on July 15, 1850, she was the youngest of 15 children, four of whom lived to adulthood. Cabrini was born two months prematurely and suffered delicate health all her life. She joined the ‘Daughters of the Sacred Heart’ at Arluno, and took religious vows in 1877, adopting the name ‘Xavier’.

Sister Cabrini and her friends founded the ‘Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus’ who soon came to Pope Leo’s notice. Sister Cabrini asked the Pope’s permission to go to China, but he sent her to the United States, in 1889. While in America, Frances set up 67 missionary organisations to assist the needy in New York, Illinois, Chicago, Seattle, Denver, New Orleans, Colorado, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and ventured into Latin America and Europe. She died on December 22, 1917.

In 1933, Mother Cabrini’s body was exhumed as part of the inquiry leading to beatification. Her well-preserved remains were divided, the head was placed in the ‘Chapel of Congregations International Motherhouse’, in Rome. The heart was preserved in Codongo, Italy, and her arm bone went to her national shrine, in Chicago. The remaining body parts went to het shrine in New York.

Pope Pius XI performed Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini’s beatification in 1938, and then on July 7, 1946, Pius XII canonised her. In 1950, Pope Pius XII called St Cabrini, the ‘Saint of immigrants’.

On a lighter note, according to the people of New York, Frances Cabrini is considered an effective intercessor for folk looking for parking spaces. In 2020, a statue of St Cabrini was unveiled in Battery Park, overlooking New York harbour, in recognition of her service to immigrants. She also has a statue standing at 18 feet in St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, and her name adorns many parishes across America.

Father Peter Smith

On June 2, 1951, Peter Smith was ordained a priest at St Cabrini’s shrine in New York. His mother was described as the happiest woman in the United States that day. Also, in attendance at the ordination, was the nurse who accidentally blinded him in 1921. According to records held at the Genealogy Centre in Cavan, Smith’s relations at Hanies in Castletara, Co Cavan, at that time, were the Cahills. When James Smith died, his son-in-law, Francis Cahill, inherited the old Smith homestead.

Fr John F.X. Smith

Fr Peter had a younger brother, 14 years his junior, John Francis Xavier Smith, named after Mother Cabrini as a ‘mark of thanksgiving’ for the miracle bestowed on his brother. He too became a priest and in an article for the Catholic World Report on November 12, 2019, Fr Sean Connolly interviewed Monsignor John F.X. Smith. He recalled Peter going to the Vatican with their mother in 1938, and how he could not go, aged three years, he was too young to attend.

He said his father died when he was just one, and his brothers Peter and Ray helped to raise him. The interview reported that Fr Peter had died in 2002. Monsignor John emphasised the need for people to hear and believe, in this current age of scepticism, and he quoted his late brother’s words on Vatican radio in 1938: ‘I, for one, know for certain that the age of miracles has not passed.’