As an Italian-American, you might think I already knew a lot about Mother Cabrini, being that my family immigrated to the United States only a few generations ago, and because my grandparents were devout Catholics. However, that’s just wasn’t the case, and so when I learned the Governor Cuomo created a commission for a new statue of this person, I had to find out who she was. The name wasn’t even the slightest bit familiar; Mother Cabrini was a complete unknown to me. That is, until I looked her up and found out why Governor Cuomo had this to say:
“Mother Cabrini was a great New Yorker and a great Italian-American immigrant who did untold good for the people of this state, and there is no doubt she is deserving of a statue in her honor. With the help of this new commission, we are going to get this done to help ensure Mother Cabrini’s legacy of service to her community and those who are less fortunate is remembered for generations to come.”
In fact, while Mother Cabrini was the first American canonized (declared a saint, meaning she lived a holy life) by the Catholic Church in Rome in 1946, her life stretched far beyond the walls of a church or cloister. Perhaps it’s because Mother Cabrini was born in 1850 and only arrived in the united states in 1889 that I was unaware of the life of this incredible woman. However, Mother Cabrini’s canonization happened in 1946, which was within the lifetime of many of my family elders, so it’s a curiosity that I never heard any tales of her greatness.
The newly appointed commission will advise Governor Cuomo on the memorial’s design, location, and installation. New York State is ideas for the design, as well as proposals for the most fitting location for the statue. The commission will ask artists to submit designs. From there, the finalists will be brought before Governor Cuomo, who alone will be tasked with deciding which design will ultimately be created.
Controversy Over Erecting The Statue
The She Built NYC project, an effort led by Mayor DeBlasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, decided against honoring the Italian-American patron saint of immigrants, instead choosing other significant women in New York City history. When seeking ideas from New Yorkers for ideas about which women should be honored with memorials, Mother Cabrini garnered the most nominations.
The poll did not serve as the final word, and it was decided to select Billie Holiday, the seminal jazz musician; Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a significant activist pushing for desegregation; Shirley Chisolm, the first Black congresswoman elected to office in the United States; Katherine Walker, the former keeper of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse; Marsha P. JHohnson, remembered for her role in the Stonewall Uprising, a transgender woman standing up for rights before it became quite so popular; as well as Sylvia Rivera, an LGTBQAI activist and noted drag queen founding the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and some claim also created the Gay Liberation Front; and Latinx doctor Helen Rodriguez Trias.
Mayor deBlasio did not debate She Built NYC’s decision; instead, the Mayor had this to say, “…I want us all to start thinking about how people talk about things in this city and how much time is wasted on the wrong things…” in response to the clamor that erupted at passing over Mother Cabrini. He further stated, “…there was never a vote, there was never a public process where we said, ‘We’re going to have a vote and whoever gets the most vote wins,’ it was never anything like that.”
While this sounds like a final statement on the matter, our NYC Mayor also made this puzzling statement, in light of his other comments, “It’s just not pertinent. What’s pertinent is we are trying to honor the majority of New Yorkers who are women and actually bring their history to life in this city and we’re going to keep doing that and there’s going to be more ahead and I think Mother Cabrini is someone who should be honored and we’re going to make sure it happens.” Clearly, Mayor deBlasio is trying to please all his constituents, however, it seems that in this fray, there’s no way to go about doing just that.
Why Should Mother Cabrini Be Immortalized With A Statue?
A good question might be why a religious figure is due to be remembered with a statue by a secular government. The answer is, Mother Cabrini, Frances Xavier Cabrini by name, has already been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, back in 1996. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini is considered by Roman Catholics, a major branch of Christianity, to be the patron saint of immigrants. Mother Cabrini helped those in need by forming scores of institutions to serve underprivileged populations, especially immigrants.
Mother Cabrini founded the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (MSC). She taught at various Catholic schools throughout her life. “Not to the East, but to the West,” was Pope Leo XIII’s advice to her, when she went to seek his approval to do missionary work in China. The then-Pope felt that the United States was where she should focus her life’s efforts, a nation where many Italian-American immigrants were settling in record numbers.
One of her first great undertakings was the founding of the Sacred Heart Orphan Asylum or the Sacred Heart Orphanage, now called the Saint Cabrini Home in her honor, a non-profit orphanage for Italian immigrant girls, still in existence, now primarily serving NYS children and adolescents with social or emotional issues. Trained as an educator, Mother Cabrini also set up and led classes for Italian immigrants, teaching both Catechism and general education.
As her order of nuns was called a “begging order,” the Church did not fund any of her undertakings. Instead, everything was graciously funded by donation, whether monetary or in the form of labor or other assistance. Both Columbus Hospital and Italian Hospital were both founded by Mother Cabrini. At one point, these medical institutions merged to form Cabrini Medical Center, however, it’s since been shuttered.
Mother Cabrini Created 67 Schools, Hospitals, and Social Services, To Help Immigrants, Children, and the Larger Community
Her efforts did not stop with education, clearly. Nor was NYC her only focus. In Chicago, her order opened yet another hospital, called Columbus Extension Hospital, later re-dedicated as the Saint Cabrini Hospital to serve the then-burgeoning Italian-American immigrant population. This hospital endured for quite a while, but was also closed in recent times.
In all, Mother Cabrini founded 67 institutions, schools, hospitals, and social service organizations including orphanages, spanning both the United States and the globe. Mother Cabrini High School (MCHS) in Washington Heights, Manhattan, was also founded by this tireless sister. Unfortunately, this school, like the hospitals, has also closed in recent times, citing increasing costs as the main reason for its closure.
Francesca Saverio Cabrini was canonized (declared a saint) on July 7, 1946. Pope Pius XII made the following statement in Latin, “…we inscribe in the Catalogue of the Saints, the blessed Francesca Xavier Cabrini, ordaining that her memory be celebrated in the universal church on the Day of December 22, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost…Although her constitution was very frail, her spirit was endowed with such singular strength that, knowing the will of God in her regard, she permitted nothing to impede her from accomplishing what seemed to be beyond the strength of a woman.”
In Sister Mary Louise Sullivan, MSC, Ph.D’s word entitled Mother Cabrini, “Italian Immigrant of the Century,” she had this to say, “…Religious leader, business administrator and spokesperson for the downtrodden, Mother Cabrini was always a woman of compassion. Despite hardship, poor health and disappointment, Mother Cabrini’s peace of soul enabled her to radiate a joy born of unfaltering trust in divine providence. This total and unabashed trust in God was her outstanding personality characteristic and was the source of an inner strength, which propelled her to remarkable accomplishments in a relatively short amount of time. Some saw in Cabrini the embodiment of immigrant aspirations: to get ahead, to excel, to prove one’s self. Others, instead, attributed her achievements to the zeal of a saint.”
The President of the Columbus Heritage Coalition, Angelo Vivola, ha this to say, “Mother Cabrini’s selfless work changed the lives of children, immigrants and countless others. Governor Cuomo’s support will help us memorialize her generous legacy, and I am eager to work with the Governor and the rest of the commission to bring together a statue that will honor a true public servant.”