Fort Washington Avenue view of Sacred Heart Villa, c. 1910

Garden with Sacred Heart statue at Sacred Heart Villa

Before the Shrine: 1899-1928

In September of 1899, Mother Cabrini purchased property at 701 Fort Washington Avenue. The land overlooked the majestic Hudson River and offered serenity, good air, and proximity to the city. She immediately re-named the estate Sacred Heart Villa.

Bustling with life, Sacred Heart Villa served many purposes. It was a private boarding school for upper class girls (the tuition was used to subsidize the free schools for the poor). It was also a reception house for orphans, the Provincial house, and for a time the novitiate.

A multitude of activities on site provided the Sisters with the opportunity to practice what Mother Cabrini called disponibilità. Disponibilità is the willingness to do whatever is needed for the common good, and it’s a key aspect of the Cabrinian charism. The saint herself set the example; it didn’t matter if the task was sweeping or teaching or negotiating mortgages, because, she said, “a true missionary must be able to do any kind of work.”

Thus when school was finished for the day, the Sisters supervised students in the evening, handled all the custodial work, did laundry (both for the boarding students and themselves), and maintained their own community life. Those who weren’t teachers fanned out during the day to visit inmates at Sing Sing or Blackwell Island. Others headed downtown to Our Lady of Pompeii or St. Joachim’s to teach the faith. Some paid sick calls to patients in the Cabrini-founded hospitals of New York.

A vibrant spirit of service pervaded Sacred Heart Villa, and Mother Cabrini visited as frequently as she could. She often made her personal retreats here, and also wrote a great deal of correspondence from this site.

In the decade after her death in 1917, many of the activities at Sacred Heart Villa were shifted to other locations. Then in 1928 two of the three building at 701 Fort Washington Avenue were razed to make way for the next phase of the property: the building of Mother Cabrini High School.

Sources: “A History of 701 Fort Washington Avenue” by Sr. Barbara Staley, MSC (unpublished) and Mother Cabrini: Italian Immigrant of the Century by Mary Louise Sullivan, MSC

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