Only in New York, a fight over a statue of Mother Cabrini
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York would appear to be getting in the last word on an unexpected controversy that arose around the memory of Mother Cabrini in New York City. He announced on Oct. 14 during the city’s Columbus Day parade that the state would see to it that a statue of the beloved St. Francis Xavier Cabrini would indeed be erected in New York.
“We are…pleased to announce that we are going to build a statue to Mother Cabrini,” he said as New Yorkers gathered to join the parade. “Mother Cabrini was a great New Yorker, a great Italian-American immigrant,” the governor said, committing the state to work jointly on the project with local Italian-American groups and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn. “She came to this city and she helped scores of immigrants who came to New York. She opened dozens of institutions, academic institutions, health care institutions.”
Noting that Mother Cabrini was the first U.S. citizen to be canonized by the Catholic Church, he added, in perhaps a dig at political rival New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, “She is certainly deserving of a statue.”
Mother Cabrini became the unlikely focus of tension at City Hall after her strong showing in a public survey in 2018 was disregarded. New York City first lady Chirlane McCray’s She Built NYC commission sponsored the survey, seeking to surface women candidates from among overlooked contributors to New York’s colorful history. Only five out of New York City’s 150 statues of historic figures depict women, and the program is intended to address that imbalance.
Noting that Mother Cabrini was the first U.S. citizen to be canonized by the Catholic Church, Gov. Cuomo added, in perhaps a dig at political rival New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, “She is certainly deserving of a statue.”
Mother Cabrini received the most support of any of the 320 women nominated but was passed over when final selections were made for the first round of seven statues. Jane Meyer, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said She Built NYC did not rely just on the number of public nominations. Instead, it took a “holistic” approach, she said, taking into consideration the advice of a 19-person committee that represented a diverse group of people with a broad range of expertise and backgrounds.
“There wasn’t one particular lever that was pulled more than another,” Ms. Meyer said. “Maybe it wasn’t clear along the way that it wasn’t ‘the most vote gets it.’”
The seven women ultimately selected were Brooklyn’s Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress; jazz great and Queens native Billie Holiday; Manhattan civil rights pioneer Elizabeth Jennings Graham; public health leader Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trías of the Bronx; Staten Island life saver and lighthouse keeper Katherine Walker; and gay and transgender rights activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera of Manhattan.
The decision to ignore the survey’s clear public favorite was quickly deplored as an affront to the city’s Italian-American and Catholic community, and the consternation continued for months. In September, Philip Foglia from the Italian American Legal Defense and Higher Education Fund wrote to Ms. McCray about the organization’s frustration with She Built NYC’s decision. He called it an “insult” to Italian-Americans.
“Our organization is dismayed by the decision by ‘She Built NYC’ to preempt their own selection process and ignore Mother Cabrini, the clear choice of the public and most deserving person for such an honor,” his letter said.
Ms. McCray responded by saying, in part: “With seven monuments planned so far, I am proud of the progress we are making; however, it will take many more years to correct centuries of neglect and the glaring gender and ethnic imbalance in our public space.”
In honoring “this great saint today we recognize our responsibility to follow in her footsteps, so that the new immigrants in our midst, be they Italian or anyone who has left their homeland to find a home in the United States.”
A march in Brooklyn on Oct. 6 demanded a public statue of Mother Cabrini, as the patron saint of immigrants is best known.
More than 1,000 joined the march in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood led by Bishop DiMarzio and Monsignor David Cassato, the director of the Brooklyn diocese’s Italian apostolate. Afterward, Bishop DiMarzio celebrated Mass at Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen Church. During his homily, Bishop DiMarzio said Mother Cabrini would not have asked for a statue herself but noted a statue would honor the memory of immigrants and remind New Yorkers of their responsibility to each other.
In his homily, delivered in English and Italian, the bishop said the saint has been his inspiration for more than 50 years—he keeps a small statue of her on his desk.
The image “reminds me every day of the missionary spirit with which she approached her work with migrants,” Bishop DiMarzio said, adding that he hopes “the same spirit continues to inspire me not only with my work with migrants but also with the Diocese of Brooklyn entrusted to my care.”
In honoring “this great saint today,” he continued, “we recognize our responsibility to follow in her footsteps, so that the new immigrants in our midst—be they Italian and today most frequently they are not—but anyone who has left their homeland to find a home in the United States of America should find among we who are Catholics and honor Mother Cabrini willing hands of assistance and welcome, so that they too may breathe the air of freedom and practice their faith in God without hindrance.”
Born in Italy, St. Frances Cabrini was the foundress of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Her dream was to go to China, but at the insistence of Pope Leo XIII, who asked her to work among Italian immigrants in the United States, she left Italy for New York in 1889, accompanied by six sisters.
She established orphanages, schools and Columbus Hospital and held adult classes in Christian doctrine. She received requests to open schools all over the world. She traveled to Europe, Central and South America and throughout the United States. She made 23 trans-Atlantic crossings and within 35 years established 67 houses with more than 1,500 sisters.
She became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1909 and died at age 67 in Chicago in 1917. Beatified in 1938 by Pope Pius XI, she was canonized in 1946 by Pope Pius XII and named patroness of immigrants in 1950.
Two days after the March in Brooklyn, the actor Chazz Palminteri continued a verbal scuffle over live radio at WNYC, New York’s public radio station, with Mr. de Blasio, calling in to confront the mayor over the statue selections. The two prominent Italian-Americans sparred over whether the first lady’s decision to overlook Mother Cabrini could be viewed as racist, as Mr. Palimteri had suggested in a previous radio interview.
“I know you’re a good person, but you just don’t call someone a racist because they tried to address a historic wrong,” the mayor told Mr. Palminteri. “The effort she was a part of created statues for white people, black people, Latino people, straight people, gay people, all five boroughs. That’s not racist, so get it together.”
After some prodding from host Brian Lehrer the two men buried the hatchet somewhat. “I would like you to tell your wife I apologize for saying—using the word racism again, I did not call her a racist, but they asked me, ‘Does this sound like racism to you?’ and I did say, ‘Yes.’ As a man, I would not lie to you, absolutely,” Mr. Palminteri told the mayor.
“Thank you for the apology, and I’ll relay it to Chirlane,” the mayor replied. Mr. De Blasio used the opportunity to express his admiration for Mother Cabrini and her good works, noting that he would personally support her candidacy in the next round of She Built NYC statuary, calling the patron saint of immigrants a “stunning figure in history.” The mayor’s new-found enthusiasm raises the possibility of dueling Cabrini statues as the state’s most prominent Italian-American politicians continue their high-elbow relationship.
During his announcement at the parade, Mr. Cuomo said the statue that he plans should satisfy the Italian-American and Catholic communities in New York “that feels strongly about Mother Cabrini and what she represents...that she is being represented.”
“You know [in] this city, this state, our asset is our diversity,” the governor said. “But to keep the diversity positive, everyone has to feel included.... Whether it’s the Jewish community or the Irish community or the African-American community or the Latino community, every community has to feel included.”
With reporting from Catholic News Service.