UPPER MANHATTAN — This past year has certainly been one that has revolved around St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.
Following the unveilings of two larger-than-life statues of Mother Cabrini in Manhattan and Brooklyn (in October 2020 and June 2021 respectively), the St. Frances Cabrini Shrine decided to commemorate two other significant moments in the saint’s life.
On July 17, the community celebrated Mother Cabrini’s belated 171st birthday (July 15) and the 75th anniversary of her canonization. Mother Cabrini was the first U.S. citizen to be canonized a saint, by Pope Pius XII, on July 7, 1946.
An exhibit dedicated to the canonization anniversary is on display at the shrine, located just a short distance away from where Mother Cabrini’s remains are housed.
Walking into the small room is like walking into a time machine, as information about the canonization — as well as images from the 1946 canonization Mass and newsreel footage from 1938 and 1946 — flash across a monitor. Visitors can view souvenir silk handkerchiefs, wood from Mother Cabrini’s original coffin, and the handwritten affidavit certifying Mother Cabrini’s death, among other notable artifacts.
“Mother Cabrini can help us grow in faith,” said Julia Attaway, executive director of the St. Frances Cabrini Shrine, who noted the exhibit will remain open until the end of 2021. “I would hope that people walk away knowing Jesus better and having a conversion experience to another level.”
Outside the exhibit, at least 40 laypeople and members of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus from across New York City and the world (including Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua) came to celebrate the special occasions.
Architect Robert Zaccone returned to the shrine in honor of his Italian-immigrant father Fabian, who created the shrine’s glass windows and the wall mosaic (which surrounds the altar) during the early 1960s. The pictorial mosaic — composed of Carrera marble, Botticino marble, and gilded Venetian glass — depicts significant scenes from Mother Cabrini’s life, including meeting Pope Leo XIII for her assignment and spending time with children upon her arrival in America.
“I remember all of my dad’s cartoons when they were being made and I remember when he was doing them while this shrine was being built,” Zaccone said of his father’s masterpieces. “I was a youngster and it was a great experience.”
“It’s certainly a special place in our hearts for the whole family,” he added.
Bishop Gerald Walsh, who celebrated the July 17 Mass, said he has always enjoyed coming to the shrine to celebrate and honor Mother Cabrini. “Really, she is a saint for our times and for all times,” Bishop Walsh said during his homily. “Sit where you are and look at the mural behind me. It’s the life of a believer, the life of a true Christian.”
Marion Higgins, 85, who traveled from Queen, was also in attendance.
Higgins said her Irish-immigrant mother had a devotion to the Italian saint and that she herself has a special connection to Mother Cabrini. She explained that, as a child, she had warts on her face and hands, which sometimes bled when accidentally touched.
“When I was a little girl, you had to walk side by side, two by two, holding hands when going to school,” Higgins said with tears welling up in her eyes. “Nobody would hold my hand, except for one — Madeline Teresa Nugent, my best friend.”
One day, without her mother’s knowledge, Higgins’ father brought their seven-year-old daughter to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital to burn off two warts. Higgins recalled how upset her mother was when she came home from work and saw her hands wrapped in gauze.
“I don’t remember her coming in that night, but she said she had a holy card with a third-class relic, knelt down on my bedside, prayed to Saint Cabrini, and put holy water on me,” said Higgins, explaining that the remaining warts were apparently gone from her hands the next day.
Though her family soon moved to Elmhurst and later Bayside in Queens, Higgins said she tries to visit her old neighborhood and the shrine whenever she can.
“Even though I don’t know anybody, I just feel comfortable here,” Higgins said while sitting outside the shrine. “St. Cabrini is around and she’s still alive [in spirit].”