Mother Cabrini – She Built NYC

Photo of Saint Francis Cabrini, a.k.a. Mother Cabrini

Mother Cabrini did not make the cut. In 2019, it was decided that the Italian born saint who dedicated her life to that famous compassion for immigrants that everybody’s talking about would not be commemorated with a statue as part of the She Built New York City series, sponsored by the wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio, Chirlane McCray.

The project to erect six statues began, according to the website, because “Currently, only five out of New York City’s 150 statues of historic figures depict women.” One of them is Alice in Wonderland, “not even a real woman” complained the organizers, who then chose two drag queens “to rectify that imbalance and ensure that New York’s full story is told for generations to come.”

The reason St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was not deemed the right sort of woman to tell the full story is that she was a foreigner. By that I don’t mean that she was Italian.

Cabrini was a citizen of the City of God. New York City is the City of Man. The two cities have nothing in common.

One bit of good news though was that it was not the will of the people to reject Mother Cabrini, as she is still fondly known.

When New Yorkers were polled, and over two thousand names were submitted, she not only made their list, she was number one.

Well, we weren’t really collecting votes, said the organizers, just good ideas – like a pediatrician turned abortion activist. That’s the sort they wanted.

Italian Americans took the slight personally. They rose to defend the legacy of Mother Cabrini, without whom they might not be where they are today. They confronted the Mayor; they demonstrated in the streets. Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and liberal Governor Andrew Cuomo even got together and vowed to put their own statue up in Battery Park.

Other honorable women who were knocked off their pedestals did not provoke the same outcry. One was Emily Warren Roebling, who learned engineering to supervise the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband, the chief engineer, became disabled. Another was Janet Schenck, a professional musician who taught music to the immigrant poor in what would eventually become the Manhattan Music School. Their nominations were passed over with nothing more than a disgusted head shake from the public. This tells me that to the people of New York City, Mother Cabrini was more than a brilliant, accomplished woman; she was more than a great humanitarian. She was a saint.

Five foot nothing and sick all her life, she was one of those “weak things of the world” that God chooses to give Him glory.

She could not have crossed the Atlantic one time, much less twenty-three times, if God had not sent her. Her work began and ended with God. It was He who called her to the life of a missionary when, as a child, Maria Francesca would sit by the water and fill her paper boats with violets, dreaming of sailing away to China to save souls. Later, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart to care for orphans and poor children in her native Italy but she always believed she was meant to take her missionary work on the road.

After praying at the tomb of St. Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries, she humbly asked Pope Leo XIII to send her in his footsteps. It was men’s work, she acknowledged to His Holiness, but didn’t Our Lord choose St. Mary Magdalen to announce the news of His Resurrection? The Pope’s answer surprised her. He told her to go “Not to the East, but to the West.” She obeyed, arriving in New York in 1889 with a cadre of six sisters.

Italian immigrants were then regarded as the dirty uneducated poor, working menial jobs and being called Whops (without papers). Then one of their own came and lifted them up. But not only them, she served anyone and everyone equally. She met the poor where they lived and built hospitals for the sick, homes for the orphans, and schools for the children. Her dedication to them came from the Source of love, which is the only way it could have lasted.

The poor and needy are not easy to love. You have to love like God to keep it up.

Love went straight from the core of her holy heart through her hands which touched the poor, though her feet which walked up the gangplank, through her lips which taught school children, through her eyes which recognized a need, through her ears which heard people’s cries, and through her mind which thought and planned and supervised without giving up. In just thirty-five years she had traveled all over the Americas and Europe, opening sixty-seven houses – one to represent each year of her life. By the time she died in 1917, there were over 1500 sisters in her order doing exactly as she did.

Even more remarkable, is that this is the way of all great founders and foundresses. They do not just represent one person working alone for one lifetime. They represent hundreds, thousands of followers who live just like them for generations after. I once visited a home run by the Missionaries of Charity, a few years after Mother Teresa had died. In the waiting room was a map of the world covered in thumb tacks. Each one represented a house she had founded, in which dwelt sisters just like her. I met some sisters that day and saw Mother’s stamp in them all.

So it was with Mother Cabrini, whose Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus continue to this day.

But, as nothing she did was for her own glory, or for human pride, the City of Man passed her over. Frankly, it only makes sense. Why would the City of Man, which glories in itself even unto its own destruction, commemorate a saint, who only glories in God?

Keep your statue. The Church has our own and has had them for decades. They tell the story of Mother Cabrini within the context of the God of miracles, whom she worshiped. The statues of She Built NYC tell a different story. Despite the name, it is not really the story of New York’s past. It is, by the organizer’s own admission, the narrative of its future, to influence “generations to come.”

This is not news. But let it serve as a witness for the news that is happening now and is to come. In whom do we place our trust? The idols of this world or the God of miracles?

This article was originally published in 2020 in The Latin Mass Magazine.

Read about another heroic Catholic woman: Nobel Prize winning author Sigrid Undset.

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