Today, the Church calendar commemorates Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, who lived from 1850 to 1917. Born in Italy, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1880, of which she remained Superior General until her death. When she asked Pope Leo XIII’s approval to establish a mission in China, the Pope advised her to go « not to the east, but to the west » – to the United States to serve the immense needs of the hordes of poor Italian immigrants who were then flooding the cities of the United States. So, she and six other sisters came to New York, where, like so many other Italian immigrants, she was less than enthusiastically received by the Irish Catholic establishment – in her case, New York’s Archbishop Michael Corrigan. But she persisted in her mission, and over time she founded some 67 institutions in major cities both in the United States and in South America. In their day, those institutions served Italian and other immigrants and made a notable impact in their communities. Having become a naturalized American citizen in 1909 (thus, in effect, experiencing herself the fullness of the American immigrant experience), she became the first American citizen to be canonized in 1946.
Mother Cabrini died in Chicago on December 22, 1917, and is buried where her American mission began, here in New York, in a shrine on Fort Washington Avenue near Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan. Mother Cabrini had special significance for my grandmother, who, as long as she lived, made sure that we went to visit her shrine yearly to honor the great Italian patron of immigrants to the New World.
More recently, in 2019 Mother Cabrini became embroiled in an unexpected – but very New York – controversy. Something called the She Built NYC commission conducted a survey to identify female figures to honor with statues for their contributions to New York City’s history. Of the 320 women who were nominated, Mother Cabrini received the most support of all, but when final selections were announced for the first set of seven statues she was not included. Accordingly, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo defiantly announced, « we are going to build a statue to Mother Cabrini,” whom he called « a great New Yorker,” who “came to this city and … helped scores of immigrants who came to New York.”
That new Mother Cabrini Memorial (photo) now stands in lower Manhattan with a direct view of both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, a fitting location to honor the patroness of immigrants. The Memorial includes interpretive panels highlighting Mother Cabrini’s service to immigrants and the poor in New York and a mosaic created from stones from Mother Cabrini’s birthplace in Italy.
Mother Cabrini is a reminder to the rest of us, who are all immigrants and descendants of immigrants, of our duty to honor the memory of past immigrants and to support contemporary refugees and immigrants everywhere, especially in this politically polarized and humanly challenging time.
Homily for the Memorial of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, November 13, 2023.