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Notes From the Field: The Shrine of an American Saint

The Shrine of Mother Cabrini in ManhattanThe holy remains of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (photograph by the author)

Overlooking the banks of the Hudson River in Manhattan and few minutes away from the medieval relics showcased in the Cloisters is another religious entity that you might find intriguing, both by its story and for sure for its theatricality: the holy remains of Saint Frances Cabrini

The Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in ManhattanFrances Xavier Cabrini (via Wikimedia )

Born in 1850 in the Italian village of Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, Cabrini took the holy order around the age of 27, adding to her name the one of Saint Francis Xavier, founder of the Jesuit order and patron saint of Jesuit missionary service. After founding the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Cabrini got the Pope’s approval to found missions in China, but Leo XIII had another duty for her: becoming a sort of Catholic ambassador for the Italian immigrants who fled Europe with the hope of a new life in the United States. ”Not to the East, but to the West,” was the mission given to her by the pope. 

After a lifetime of service in which she opened myriads of missions from Chicago to New Orleans, Cabrini, who eventually took American citizenship, died in 1907. A few decades after her death, just following World War II, Cabrini was canonized. Thus, she became the first American saint, as well as the patron saint of immigrants. 

The Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in ManhattanThe Cabrini Shrine (photograph by Jim Henderson, via Wikimedia)

I went to visit the Cabrini shrine in New York City last week for several reasons: first, because I do have a personal obsession for the vernacular function of Catholic sainthood. Like a Swiss army knife of religion, it seems that the Catholic faith has a saint for nearly every issue or ailment: Saint Barbara takes care of miners and anyone who works with explosives, Saint Francis Borgia protects earthquake victims, and Saint Denise prevents headaches and bike accidents. In that sense, Saint Cabrini offers solace to green card seekers and people tormented by their immigration process. 

The Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in Manhattan(photograph by the author)

The second reason that made me pay a visit to her shrine is the ambiguous status of her remains: as I was researching her history, I found her sometimes described as “incorruptible,” sometimes as a mummy. But what was really in her shrine? After an interminable ride on the A train, I eventually found out the answer, plus a handful of other fascinating things. 

The Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in ManhattanCabrini Shrine (photograph by the author)

The Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in Manhattan
“Not the East, But the West”, the mosaic mural of Cabrini Shrine (photograph by the author)

The Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in Manhattan(photograph by the author)

The shrine itself was built in 1957 in a modernist — not to say retro-futuristic — style, which to be honest, gave me the feeling of being in front of a disguised spacecraft. I often heard in architectural classes the metaphor of churches being a ship in a spiritual sense, but this one oddly reminded me a bit of Star Trek’s Enterprise.

Through the corridor, you enter the shrine by a door on the right side which dramatically opens on Saint Cabrini herself. In a crystal coffin, itself enclosed in the marble altar, her body, dressed in religious garb, quietly rests in a Snow White allure, hands on chest. Her face looks perfectly preserved, of course, because it has nothing organic. After interrogating the very helpful staff of the church, I finally got my answers: only Cabrini’s skeleton is present, although covered by the black satin of her dress.

The Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in Manhattan
Cabrini’s beatification in a 1938 newspaper. (photograph by the author)

Her face and hands are made of wax. While digging her remains up in 1938 to proceed to the canonization process, the Apostolic delegate found her almost turned into dust. Apart from a bit of skin on her face and arms, the rest of Mother Cabrini was “subject to the laws of decay”. But the supernatural incorruptibility factor was not a criteria of sainthood any longer and the church allowed her canonization for her “Holy Behavior.”

Moreover, the United States, a still young country, suffered a lack of relics for Catholics to worship and Mother Cabrini was the dream candidate for this type of spectacular display. Like her European counterparts, her phantom presence needed to be embodied to keep her message alive. Her heart was then sent to the Istituto Suore Missionarie del Sacro Cuore di Gesu in Rome, along with her skull.  

The Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in Manhattan
(photograph by the author)

Surrounding the tabernacle is a huge mosaic mural which dispenses details of her life and work. It includes the Statue of Liberty, a boat, and a modern wheelchair, motifs that at first sound anachronistic in a church, but made me realize that Mother Cabrini was a saint of the Industrial Revolution. While her display as a recumbent effigy refers to a sacred tradition from the Old Continent, she’d been photographed, was alive for the 1894 Chicago World’s Fair and, why not, maybe even saw films.

We often consider saints to belong to a far distant past, but Mother Cabrini is one of the many examples of modern sainthood, and the museum in the back of the shrine is also there to confirm an up-to-date lifestyle: in addition to her traditional garb and her personal collection of relics, there is odd memorabilia like her citizenship certificate, paperwork, and even a bank check signed by the “citizen saint.” It’s an unusual collection of objects that help us reconnect with the fact she had, indeed, a lifestyle close to ours.

The Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in Manhattan
 Personal relics of Saint Cabrini (photograph by the author)

The Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in Manhattan
Saint Cabrini’s belongings in the museum. (photograph by the author)

The Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in Manhattan
A check signed by Saint Cabrini. (photograph by the author) 

The Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini in ManhattanEx-Voto offerings (photograph by the author)