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Backlash: Brooklyn clergy, pols and community unite in fight to have Mother Cabrini recognized with statue in New York City

BOROUGHWIDE — Mother Frances Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants, has apparently succeeded in uniting an entire community after a city initiative snubbed the saint, leaving her off a list of women getting statues erected in their honor despite her having received the most votes from city residents in the recent She Built NYC competition.

And, while there’s no guarantee that a statue of Mother Cabrini will be put up, the city appears to be backtracking after the angry backlash that has been virtually continuous since the announcement that the public arts campaign headed by New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray and operating under the auspices of the city’s Economic Development Corporation wasn’t going to honor the beloved saint.

Following an open call for nominations that, the She Built NYC website said, “drew over 2,000 nominations from the public,” the saint received 219 votes, considerably more than the second vote-getter, urban advocate Jane Jacobs, who received 93 votes, and also was passed over.

NYPD band with flags

Since then, the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, along with elected officials from both sides of the political aisle, civic leaders and entire communities have voiced their displeasure with the decision to bypass Mother Cabrini in favor of other nominees.

That displeasure appears to have made a dent. After weeks and weeks of controversy, on Friday, Oct. 11, Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis said she had received a call from the Mayor’s Office addressing the issue. “The good news is, I was told the mayor would be announcing another round of statues honoring women who built New York City, and that Mother Cabrini is still being considered,” said Malliotakis.

The Mayor’s Office sent this paper a statement saying that it was not a reversal but always an ongoing process. This morning on “The Brian Lehrer Show,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told Lehrer, “Mother Cabrini is an outstanding figure and absolutely worthy of being honored and another round of the statue process is about to begin and her name is clearly at the top of the list because she is an outstanding figure in New York history and obviously it would mean a lot to a lot of people.”

The mayor’s remarks came just days after Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and the Italian Apostolate of the Diocese of Brooklyn hosted a procession and Mass in support of the construction of a public statue recognizing Cabrini.

Mother Cabrini banner

“Mother Frances Cabrini was certainly one of the women who built New York City,” said DiMarzio. “Her work to establish orphanages, schools and a hospital, along with her commitment to immigrants, absolutely should be recognized. The failure to honor Mother Cabrini with a public statue would be an affront to many New Yorkers, especially Italian-Americans, who see her as most deserving.”

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants, arrived in New York in 1889 with the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Mother Cabrini Park is located at the former site of a church building where Mother Cabrini first ministered to the poor immigrants of the Italian community.

Msgr. David Cassato, pastor at Saint Athanasius Church in Bensonhurst, spoke to this paper about the effort. “I think a couple of things are happening,” he said, “One of the things is that all these people have come together for this. Last Sunday, in the procession, there had to be at least 1,000 people and it was across the board. There were Italian immigrants, Hispanic immigrants and Americans from all walks of life, all coming out together for this cause.”

Cassato continued. “And the media has picked up on it. CBS came and Fox 5 all picked up on the story because folks are interested in it. The governor is involved, the borough president is involved, as well as other politicians. And even some movie stars like Chazz Palminteri [who called McCray a “racist” for snubbing Cabrini] are speaking out about it.”

Malliotakis and City Councilmember Mark Treyger addressed the matter at last week’s Federation of Italian American Organizations event.

“The Italian-American community has contributed so much to our city and state, and in particular the contributions of Mother Cabrini should be recognized in the form of a statue and I’m an advocate of that,” Malliotakis told this paper, calling on the city to reconsider its decision.

“And just like we were successful in preserving and landmarking the Christopher Columbus statue in New York City, I’m hopeful that we will be successful in our battle to get Mother Cabrini a statue.”

Malliotakis explained that Cabrini “helped impoverished Italian immigrants in our city to have access to education, catechumenal training, and orphanages. The hospitals that she founded in the late 1800s that were later merged into the Cabrini Medical Center that served New Yorkers all the way until 2008. The piety and selflessness of Mother Cabrini deserve to be honored in our public spaces, and I hope this incredible injustice will be addressed.”

Mother Cabrini Mass

Assemblymember William Colton echoed Malliotakis’ sentiments. “Sister Frances Xavier Cabrini came to the United States in 1889. She founded 67 institutions within 35 years, including orphanages, schools and hospitals, dedicated to caring for the poor, uneducated, sick and abandoned,” said Colton.

“Her institutions were spread out in places all over the United States, including New York, Colorado and Illinois. The iconic sister Frances Cabrini monument is well deserved to be built in our city,” added Colton.

U.S. Rep. Max Rose addressed the issue on a recent visit to the St. Frances Cabrini Senior Club in Bensonhurst. “It’s absurd for the Mayor’s Office to solicit public input and then completely ignore the community,” Rose told this paper.

Rose continued, “I fully support the Diocese and Councilmember Justin Brannan who have been raising the alarm and pushing back on this snub for months now. Mother Cabrini was a pioneer and hero to so many — a statue in her honor would only be fitting, and I look forward to honoring her legacy at the Columbus Day Parade.”

Brannan was one of the first elected officials to speak out about Cabrini. “People voted and the winner was Mother Cabrini but that has been completely ignored,” Brannan told this paper.

Brannan continued, “I support the mission behind the She Built NYC campaign because I agree our city needs more monuments dedicated to trailblazing women but now it appears this meaningful campaign has been undermined by a process that tries to appear to value public opinion without ever actually doing so. What’s right is right and what’s fair is fair. The city should make this right and erect a statue honoring Mother Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants.”

The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn will have a statue of honoring Cabrini on their float in this year’s Columbus Day Parade in Manhattan.

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