Religious History Women's History

In honor of Mother Cabrini: Places to pay tribute to the American saint

Out in movie theaters this week: The new film Cabrini celebrating the life, of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, the pioneering nun (now a saint) who became a pillar of compassion and grace for thousands of Italian immigrations in the late 19th century.

She was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1946. And her legacy continues to be celebrated in several places throughout New York City.

The Cabrini Shrine is located in Washington Heights.

Cabrini was born in 1850 in today’s Italian region of Lombardy. She entered the sisterhood at a young age, and by 1880 had formed her own order with seven other women — the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. 

The good works performed by the order soon got the attention of Bishop Giovanni Scalabrini — and Pope Leo XIII. The church had a very specific mission for Cabrini.

Thousands of Italian immigrants already lived in New York by the late 1880s. Word got back to the Vatican of the horrible living conditions in the city — not only the squalor of the city’s tenement districts, but the difficulties for Italian-speaking immigrants to continue practicing their faith. Most Catholic churches in New York at this time were for Irish or German congregations only.

In 1889, Mother Cabrini and the sisters sailed to America with a mission to tend to New York’s new Italian immigrant population. While the recently installed Statue of Liberty, still golden copper, greeted them in New York harbor, it seemed no others did.

Items from the Cabrini Museum inside the Cabrini Shrine, photo by Greg Young, taken 2019

“No one met them at the dock. No one was there to meet them because they came way faster than anyone expected,” said Cherie Sprosty, director of liturgy at the Cabrini Shrine, who Greg spoke to for his 2019 podcast. “And the next day they made their way to Archbishop Corrigan’s residence to let him know that they were ready to get started. And he said, “What are you doing here? Didn’t you get my letter? Go back. We don’t have anywhere for you to live.”

Unwavering in their mission, Cabrini and the other sisters did eventually get settled in a parish on the Lower East Side. They found a room at St. Joachim’s Church (at 26 Roosevelt Street, now demolished) where they begin holding catechism class in Italian.

Italian immigration would greatly increase within the next couple decades here — not just in New York but across the country — and the sisters’ mission would expand into education and healthcare. Their work would create a sound, religious bedrock for Italian Americans, ensuring a smooth transition into American life without losing their Catholic faith.  

Cabrini Shrine, photo taken 2019 by Greg Young

Today you can find the Cabrini Shrine in upper Manhattan on Cabrini Boulevard — named, of course, in her honor in 1938 on the occasion of her beatification.

New York Daily News, May 27, 1938

From the Cabrini Shrine website: “Mother Cabrini discovered this property in 1899 as she drove her horse and buggy to the remote northwest edge of New York City. She purchased land at what is now 190th St. and Fort Washington Avenue to build a school for middle-class girls, the tuition from which was used to fund orphanages and free schools for the poor. Mother Cabrini always found great peace of mind and personal tranquility whenever she visited this site. A bench upon which she liked to meditate remains for visitors to sit upon.

Cabrini died at Columbus Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, in 1917. On July 7, 1946 she was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. New York’s Cabrini Shrine opened in 1959.

Inside the Cabrini Shrine, photo by Greg Young, taken 2019

From the website:

“Mother Cabrini’s remains were then transferred to the Shrine, where she now rests. A pictorial mosaic composed of Carrera marble, Botticino marble, and gilded Venetian glass surrounds the altar, depicting significant scenes from Mother Cabrini’s life. A towering three-story stained-glass image of St. Cabrini at the back of the chapel overlooks the Hudson River. It features an unusual mid-century composition of pieced stained glass with painted details. The carefully restored carriage Mother Cabrini drove when she visited West Park sits beneath it.

You could find Cabrini’s influence all over the place today, far and wide, 67 institutions throughout the United States, hospitals, orphanages, Catholic schools.

The National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini is located in Chicago on the spot of Columbus Hospital (which she had founded in 1905). According to the Shrine’s website: “The room where Mother Cabrini died has been preserved and is currently on exhibit inside the National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini.”

In 2020 a statue devoted to the life and work of Mother Cabrini was placed in New York’s Battery Park:

And there’s also a statue of Cabrini standing at the Church of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary & St. Stephen in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. This likeness, installed in 2021, specifically celebrates her connection to Brooklyn. In the 1890s she founded a school for Italian immigrants in the neighborhood of Red Hook. Today Mother Cabrini Park at President and Van Brunt Streets marks the spot where that school once stood.

Photo by Greg Young

For more information on Mother Cabrini listen to the Bowery Boys 2019 podcast Saving the City: Women Of The Progressive Era.

3 replies on “In honor of Mother Cabrini: Places to pay tribute to the American saint”

Her head is in Italy and an arm bone in Chicago, but the rest of her remains are in the shrine in New York.

I thought her incorrupt heart was in Italy, not her head?

If anyone is interested in learning more about her, and by “more” I mean “more than just a biography”, I think the best way is to read her letters. There’s a book out that has 17 of her letters, written to the missionary sisters, and they’re really, REALLY great. You can find it on Amazon. It’s called “Letters From the Voyages of St. Frances Cabrini”.

I saw the movie yesterday 3/9/24 the movie was great. I was born on President between Columbia St and Van Brunt, so as a child we all had an epiphany for Mother Cabrini, but I was told the school was a house on Van Brunt and the church was always St, Charles Chapel…All I can say is Red Hook especially President St, was a great place to grow up !!!

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