She was born Francesca Cabrini. By the end of her life, people called her the “Mother of Immigrants.”
Hers was a typical immigrant story. When she arrived in New York City 130 years ago on March 31, 1889, nobody was there to welcome her. She came with six sisters from the order she had founded in Italy. Their first night in the New World was spent in a hotel so filthy that the women didn’t dare lay in the beds, and so they spent the night praying.
A few days later, they were advised to go back to Italy by Archbishop Corrigan of New York. He thought the immigrants’ problems were too complicated for seven women religious with little money and little knowledge of English. Four months later, Mother Cabrini founded an orphanage and a school for poor Italian immigrants of the city.
It took her 20 years to become a citizen. Like many immigrants, she never really mastered the English language and spoke it with a heavy Italian accent.
As a young woman, Francesca Cabrini was rejected by the Daughters of the Sacred Heart when she asked to become a nun. They considered her too frail for the demands of religious life. Later in life, in spite of her weak constitution and her fear of the sea, she crossed the Atlantic Ocean 30 times and traveled throughout the United States to establish new foundations, schools and hospitals.
By the time she died in Chicago on Dec. 22, 1917 at the age of 67, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini had founded 67 schools, hospitals and orphanages, which were staffed by 1,500 women religious. Those nuns served tens of thousands of poor immigrants.
In 1946, Mother Cabrini was canonized by Pope Pius XII, becoming the first “American” saint. Four years later, the same pope proclaimed her “the patron saint to immigrants.”
Recently, though, St. Frances Cabrini was rejected again.
“She Built NYC,” a program started last year under New York City’s first lady Chirlane McCray, asked the public to nominate women to be honored with statues in New York City. The goal was to create more statues of women around a city where only five of the 150 statues in public spaces honor women.
Mother Cabrini received the most votes online to determine which women would be honored during the first phase of the program. She got 219 votes — more than double the number received by the second-place nominee. But the selection committee, led by McCray, didn’t choose Mother Cabrini as one of the seven women who will be initially honored with statues.
It feels like the Mother of Immigrants has been told again to go back to her country. And that’s not right.
It isn’t right to ask the public to vote and then ignore the results. It’s not right when a program led by the first lady of the city gives the impression that it held a “fake” vote and did what it wanted to do anyway to fulfill a certain political agenda.
Many people — especially Catholics and Italian-Americans— have decried the obvious farce. But it should concern any fair-minded New Yorker.
The naysayers of the 19th century couldn’t stop Mother Cabrini from helping the poorest of the poor — the immigrants, the forgotten, the illiterate. Her supposed frailty and her broken English couldn’t stop her. The anti-Catholic sentiments of many a powerful contemporary couldn’t stop her. She indeed built New York City — and helped make it a better, kinder, more human city.
Are we going to allow her to be denied now by the ignorance or the prejudices of our own times?