Monday, February 9, 2015

Immigrants' Shrine

Yesterday's NY Times referenced the restoration of the 1959 mosaic at the shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917) on Fort Washington Avenue between Fort Tryon Park and West 190th Street in northern Manhattan. Italian-born Mother Cabrini, as she was known in life and is still referred to now as a saint, was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1946 - the first American citizen to be so recognized - and then declared the patron saint of immigrants by the same Pope in 1950. So her shrine had special significance for my grandmother, who made sure we went to visit it yearly to venerate her body (exposed under the altar). 

I am old enough to remember when Mother Cabrini's body was still enshrined in the old convent chapel, before being moved to the current shrine church around 1960. It was always a treat to visit the shrine, not least because of its magnificent location in Washington Heights, the highest part of Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River, a mile or so north of the George Washington Bridge. But, while we took in the sights and enjoyed being in the beautiful park (home also to the world-famous medieval art museum, The Cloisters, my grandmother made certain that we visited the chapel, honoring the great Italian patron of immigrants to the New World.

I was glad to hear about the restoration of the mosaic, though saddened last year by the closing of Mother Cabrini High School, which had long continued Mother Cabrini's commitment - and that of the community she founded, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus - to serve the immigrant population. For decades now, the Washington Heights neighborhood has been the New York home for many Latino immigrants, primarily from the Dominican Republic.

The article also highlights the hope that, during his forthcoming visit to New York, perhaps Pope Francis might include Mother Cabrini's shrine on his itinerary. Surely that would be an appropriate stop for him. One of the Cabrini sisters quoted in the article recalled how Pope Francis has credited Mother Cabrini's works in his native Argentina as contributing to his vocation. Obviously there are many competing claims for the Pope's limited schedule in New York, but such a stop would certainly serve to combine his own personal story - as a child of Italian immigrants in the New World - with that of contemporary immigrants in the neighborhood. 

When the Pope's visit to the U.S. was first being talked about, I and many others hoped that he might celebrate Mass on the US-Mexican border to highlight the plight of today's immigrants and the Church's solidarity with them. Unfortunately such an event could not be incorporated into the papal itinerary. Visiting Mother Cabrini's shrine would certainly give Pope Francis an opportunity to address a constituency that seems especially dear to his heart and visibly put the power of his papal prestige and present popularity in service of the Church's mission to advance the cause of immigrants' rights.

To read the NY Times article in full, go to (

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