A section of the mosaic showing Mother Cabrini tending to a disabled child. Credit Emon Hassan for The New York Times

By Michael Luongo

Born in Italy in 1850, Mother Cabrini founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, often called the Cabrini order, to help the poor. At the request of Pope Leo XIII, she moved to the United States in 1889 to serve the influx of Italian immigrants. The shrine and the adjacent school were built on the site of a demolished villa where Mother Cabrini herself had lived and worked, providing services to the immigrant poor and education for girls. When she died in 1917, she left a legacy of 67 Cabrini schools, hospitals and orphanages in the United States, and dozens of others around the world. In 1946, Pope Pius XII canonized her, and in 1950 the Vatican declared her the patron saint of immigrants.

Mother Cabrini’s body was divided after her death. Her head is in Rome, her heart is in Codogno, Italy, where she established the order, an arm is in Chicago and most of the rest of her body is at the shrine, this partial relic modeled with wax into the image of Mother Cabrini in the glass coffin. Along with the mosaic, the reliquary makes the shrine a destination for thousands of Catholic pilgrims every year, many of them on the weekend that falls near her feast day in November. The shrine is planning a special immigrant Mass on Feb. 21.

Sister Mary Ann expressed the need for immigration services. “People come in all day to the shrine,” she said. “There are hundreds of them, men, who come in to pray to her in the hopes of a green card and reunification with their families.”

After the restoration, Ms. Reed saw details she had never seen before, including a glow around Mother Cabrini’s head. “It’s very subtle,” she said. “It starts out very faint when she is a child, and then by the time she is a saint, it is a golden halo.”

To the shrine’s immigrant congregants, the stories of the mosaic speak directly to their struggle.

Luciana Zornosa, who moved to New York from Bogotá, Colombia, said she felt a connection to Mother Cabrini. Gesturing to the mosaic, still covered in scaffolding at the time, Ms. Zornosa said: “The girl and the man, with the suitcases. The Statue of Liberty. I am an immigrant. And the disabled. I have a child with special needs. I showed him the wheelchair and the cane, and I used it to explain her to my child.”


Sister Mary Ann Hawes, Photo by Emon Hassan for The New York Times

Unlike other saints, she added, Mother Cabrini is tangible to her, primarily as an immigrant, but also as someone who lived close to her own lifetime, not during a distant historical period. “Saints,” she said, “are just regular people who did all these good things” — and performed the occasional miracle. (Mother Cabrini’s involved restoring a child’s sight and healing a terminally ill nun.)

Frank Bauer, a 66-year-old immigrant from Czechoslovakia, said he had experienced those miracles. “Because she hears me,” Mr. Bauer said, referring to Mother Cabrini, “I had no problems after an accident.” He waved his hands over his face, referring to an injury without elaborating. Mr. Bauer said he had escaped to Austria from Communist Czechoslovakia in 1967, arriving in the United States in 1972. He still maintains strong ties to his homeland, including at the shrine. He said he had used his iPhone to live-stream that day’s Mass via Skype to his nephew in the Czech Republic.

Now that the mosaic has been restored, the Cabrini sisters have turned their prayers to another dream: having Pope Francis visit the shrine when he comes to New York in September.

There is reason to hope. As she sat facing a portrait of the pope on the wall across from her, Sister John Gianni, 75, a native of Brazil, pointed out that Pope Francis has said that Mother Cabrini’s works in his native Argentina led him to his vocation to God. Mother Cabrini visited Argentina in 1896 and again several years later to serve the country’s large number of Italian immigrants. The order maintains several institutions in and around Buenos Aires.

Sister John has traced some of Mother Cabrini’s footsteps. “Boy, did I travel,” she said, listing missionary and nursing work throughout the United States and in Swaziland and Ethiopia, as well as trips to Italy. Sister John considers herself a double immigrant. “In Brazil, we were from an immigrant Italian family,” she said, adding, “And now I am here.”

As for a possible papal visit to the shrine, Sister John has it well planned. “We can have a thing in the round at Fort Tryon” for all the worshipers, she said, referring to the traffic circle at the nearby park’s entrance leading to the Cloisters, the shrine’s more famous neighbor full of religious art. “And then he can visit Mother Cabrini, just for himself.”


The refurbished mosaic in the shrine dedicated to Frances Xavier Cabrini, America’s first saint. Emon Hassan for The New York Times

In the apse of a midcentury chapel in Upper Manhattan, there is a sparkling mosaic mural that depicts the life of America’s first saint, Frances Xavier Cabrini. The mural was recently restored to its original luster using period tiles, or tesserae, made of various types of marble (Carrara, Botticino) as well as gilded Venetian glass tiles, made by fusing 22-karat gold leaf between layers of glass and crystal.

Built into the altar, which sits beneath the mosaic, is the reliquary of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, known as Mother Cabrini, patron saint of immigrants, whose body lies, like Sleeping Beauty, within a glass coffin.

Standing before the mosaic recently, Sister Mary Ann Hawes, 85, clasped her hands, setting in motion a silver cross that peeked in and out from under her simple gray wool blazer. “This is such a hidden gem,” the nun said, visibly excited that the 1959 mosaic had finally been restored.

Sister Mary Ann pointed to the scenes within the tiles that illustrate the history of Saint Frances:

“Her childhood, visiting with Pope Leo XIII, the boat she took, when she was made a saint,” she said, explaining the images. “You didn’t need to read. And many immigrants who came here could not.”


The St. Frances Cabrini Shrine, in Washington Heights. Emon Hassan for The New York Times

Sister Mary Ann is one of five nuns in the convent of the Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine, in Washington Heights. She recalled first seeing the mural in 1962, when she began teaching at the affiliated high school. “I was awe-struck,” she said. She continued her mission elsewhere, returning in 2009 to what was by then a deteriorating mosaic. “It was so heartbreaking to come back and see the cracks and the missing parts of the mosaic,” she said.

The mural restoration was undertaken by Stephen Miotto of Miotto Mosaic Art Studios, a family business that has been in the New York region for several generations. Mr. Miotto believes his godfather worked on the original mosaic, and Kris Reed, who manages the shrine, said she, too, was confident that the Miotto family was involved.

“He had all the stones that matched in his warehouse,” she said.

The total cost of the restoration, Ms. Reed said, was about $36,000 — an expenditure that might seem extravagant at a time of financial crisis for many of the city’s Roman Catholic churches. The Archdiocese of New York announced last year that 112 of the city’s parishes, currently totaling 368, would be consolidated to form 55 new parishes, effectively closing 31 churches. And the Cabrini order is not immune to fiscal pressures. Last year, Mother Cabrini High School, which served a neighborhood that is home to many immigrants from the Dominican Republic, was forced to close for financial reasons. The large Art Deco building that housed it, next to the shrine, is now rented by a Success Academy charter school.

But as a religious institution the shrine occupies an unusual place.

According to Ms. Reed, it is part of the archdiocese but does not receive financing from it. Though it is affiliated with the Church of St. Elizabeth on nearby Wadsworth Avenue, it is not officially part of the church’s parish.

Funding comes from benefactors, from small donations at the shrine, from a store on the premises and from the order itself, which has an investment fund. And it is worth noting that Mother Cabrini was not only a model of piety. “The foundress was an extremely savvy businesswoman and financially astute,” Ms. Reed said.

Originally publishing by The New York Times, Feb 6, 2015

© 2015 St. Frances Cabrini Shrine.
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