There are evidently 150 statues in New York City, but only five of them are of women. So Chirlane McCray, Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s wife, set out to increase them by 50 percent. For direction about whom to honor, She Built NYC — the public-arts program dedicated to such projects — ran a poll to see what women people wanted to see honored. Coming in first place among 300 proposed women was Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, with 219 nominations. (Jane Jacobs came in second place with 93 votes.)
But there will be no Cabrini statue, She Built NYC decided.
Meanwhile, Cabrini, Italian immigrant and religious sister, is everything you would ever want in a role model. She was courageous — even fearless. She was a global community organizer. One of the most memorable excerpts from her diary involves her being both deeply saddened and righteously furious when she would encounter priests on the transatlantic journeys she would take with sisters to help the Italian immigrants in the U.S. who would not be prepared to celebrate Mass on the long, somewhat excruciating journey. So while a She Built NYC board, which includes Mayor DeBlasio’s wife, may see “Catholic nun” and turn away for fear of awkward encounters on the neuralgic issues of the day, they could also find some feminist and anti-clerical common ground! Instead, those who will be honored include an abortion-rights advocate (who mercifully was against forced sterilization) and cofounders of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
Whenever an out-of-towner anyone asks me what they should do when visiting New York City, I always recommend Mother Cabrini’s shrine in upper Manhattan. (And the Cloisters museum is right down the block.) Her remains are there in wax, built into the altar of the church. She’s an untapped resource for those of us who believe in intercessory prayer. But you don’t have to have religious faith to be grateful she is a part of our history. New Yorkers should want to show her off!
And given she’s the patron saint of immigrants, Cabrini wouldn’t be a bad one to try to be learning from right about now about how to care for the stranger who winds up here. While building schools and orphanages, she saw people made by the same Creator who needed help to survive and flourish — and make a mark on a city. You can see the culture of those Italian immigrants in city churches still, even if we are not always the best stewards of that legacy of faith.
She is one of the women celebrated on the bronze doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown. And reading some of the letters she would write back to the sisters back in Italy in the religious institute she founded (The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus), she sounds as if she is giving a talk to us about faith and gratitude and perseverance to us today. Here’s a taste:
What shall we not do for the love of a God so amiable and generous towards us, that He has called us to follow Him closely and to continue His mission on this earth? Let us correspond to his love. Let us be generous, remembering always that the salvation of many souls is entrusted to our charity. We can do nothing of ourselves, for we are poor and miserable, but if we have faith and trust in Him who comforts us, then we can do all things. Let us open wide our hearts, let us help those souls lying under the yoke of the king of darkness. Let us break, by the fire of ardent charity, the heavy chains that bind these poor souls to the terrible slavery of the devil, and we shall see that our efforts are not in vain. Let us fall at the feet of Jesus, and, sorrowing over the iniquity of the world, supplicate the Divine Heart to open the treasures of its infinite mercy. Then let us begin anew, never allowing ourselves to be overcome by fatigue. Difficulties should never frighten us but render us stronger and more steadfast. Do not be discouraged by repulses and contradictions, but always go forward with the serenity and strength of the angels, keeping to your path despite every contrary influence. When things are easy, everything appears to smile, but difficulties prove where there is fidelity and constancy.
While obviously Christian, there’s something there for the spiritual but not religious crowd. Not to mention, she opens a door in her writings still to those who are seeking and curious about the Catholic Church. If women like Cabrini are part of the mix, there might be something to it. It might just be a place to be for living the good life and for Someone more.
Ignoring the Cabrini nominations is such a missed opportunity for New York and the nation. Here’s someone who speaks to the good that is religion truly lived out. She could be a unifying figure. (As Dorothy Day could be, too, who got 61 votes.) But while the New York City government may not want to celebrate the rich history we have in Cabrini, their snub is an opportunity to get to know her better. The rest of us can still choose to take some of her advice and follow her lead in helping one another and sharing the hope that we have in a God who does not leave us alone.