Apparently there are 150 outdoor civic statues in New York City and only five of them are of women. So Chirlane McCray, the mayor’s wife, through a public-arts program called She Built NYC, ran an online poll for nominations for women who should be honored throughout the city. Some 300 women were proposed, but the Italian missionary Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, who is buried in a shrine up by the George Washington Bridge, came in first, with 219. (Jane Jacobs came in second, with 93 — it wasn’t so close.) So you build a Cabrini statue, right? Of course not. That would have been too easy. She’s the patron saint of immigrants, after all, just about the hottest topic there is right now in terms of concern and contention and real lives affected by an unconscionable mess of politics! She’s a woman who led boldly with courage to care for struggling people. It would seem to be a no-brainer. But the rest of the story is like much news today — that is, better than fiction.
So Cabrini does not make the list. It turns out to be more than a mere missed opportunity that gets lost in the headlines. Cabrini (1850–1917), the foundress of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, has been the source of possibly the biggest little political controversy in the State of New York this summer, bleeding now into the fall. That she is beloved of Italian Americans certainly gave this all a little added attention for Columbus Day. And the controversy may have reached some kind of breaking point when Chazz Palminteri, the Bronx-born actor and star of A Bronx Tale, called into a weekly public-radio feature with New York City mayor Bill de Blasio to call him out, during the run-up to Columbus Day, for not getting behind a Mother Cabrini statue.
“Here’s a woman who started 67 charities, Mr. Mayor,” Palminteri said. “Sixty-seven! Here’s a woman who is the patron saint of immigrants, who has done so much for New York and the world.”
The need for us to pay attention to this woman cannot be underestimated. And not in a tabloid-headlines kind of way. De Blasio and Palminteri went at it a bit because the actor had been in the news for suggesting that racism may be behind McCray’s reasoning to cast Cabrini aside. And now, just about everyone seems to have come out for a Cabrini statue. But the statue isn’t the most important thing. Our time and attention to what made this woman tick is.
Consider this, from one of her many letters, many of them written to her sisters back home in Italy:
I know that this is a time of much anxiety. But, away with anxiety; take courage! Place your trust in God and His Holy Mother. . . . Prayer is that powerful weapon that must defend and help you, not only now, but throughout your lives. Pray for yourselves, for the persons entrusted to your care, for those dear to you, for society, for the Church. Make prayer a habit, because if you succeed in experiencing the sweetness found in this intimate conversation of the soul with God, there will never be hours of discouragement and despair, nor will clouds long disturb the calm horizon of our souls. Obey Christ’s precept: pray and pray always.
Whatever your religious beliefs, it doesn’t take much looking around to see that there is a harsh anxiety in the culture, in our politics, in many, if not all, of our lives. The need for peace is great, and yet to many it seems unattainable. Maybe especially to those of us who spend too much time on screens. Just the other day I noticed I was resembling the end scene in that 2010 film The Social Network, where he just keeps hitting refresh. These days it’s about checking updates or hitting another app. What are we doing to ourselves? As I could hear my colleague next door say some months ago just as I was about to hit the Twitter button: “Stay off the Twitter!” Or Instagram, or wherever it is you find yourself losing minutes and hours of your time. Maybe it’s Netflix. Maybe it something even more serious and poisonous. The dark pit of pornography destroys hearts and minds and souls and families. And that’s not even getting into the most evil of its content and the trails of misery and pain and crime in which it enmeshes people, even children.
I don’t expect people to jump from porn to Mother Cabrini, but her heart for the orphan and the widow and the lost one relevant in so many ways today. They called her “Mother” because that’s the honorific for a superior of a community of women religious (“nuns”). But Catholics believe in a communion of saints, a cloud of witnesses who are not just nice stories from the past but people who lived on earth and who in eternal life can take up our cause. You want to get out of the abyss of anxiety you’re in? Pray to Mother Cabrini to pray for you to God. Or for your son or daughter or whoever it is who could use some supernatural help. She’s closer to Him than we are here, and that kind of extra boost could push us further along quicker. Contrary to the misunderstanding that saints take one’s attention off God, they help us dive into His love and wisdom, and into providential care for us, with more confidence and even boldness. Of the kind that a Mother Cabrini lived.
So don’t dismiss this extenuated Cabrini news story as just another passing controversy. The ridiculousness of it all is one of those reminders that God works in mysterious ways. Clearly, he wants us to pay a little more attention to Mother Cabrini so that we, brothers and sisters (nuns or not!) might live more as she did.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.