Local Leaders Respond to Mother Cabrini Controversy

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CARROLL GARDENS — The outrage over the snubbing of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini by New York City first lady Chirlane McCray’s She Built NYC commission culminated in a march and Mass on Oct. 6 that was led by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and Msgr. David Cassato, director of the Diocese of Brooklyn’s Italian Apostolate, to support a public statue of Mother Cabrini.

More than 1,000, including many Italian-Americans, joined the march in Carroll Gardens that was followed by a Mass at Sacred Hearts – St. Stephen Church. Bishop DiMarzio celebrated the Mass.

The march showed support for Mother Cabrini after she wasn’t selected as one of first seven women to have a statue built in their honor by the She Built NYC project, an initiative that aims to increase the number of statues of women in New York City.

Mother Cabrini received the most nominations of any of the 320 women nominated, and yet she was passed over.

Jane Meyer, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said She Built NYC didn’t rely just on the number of public nominations. Instead, it took a “holistic” approach, she said, taking into consideration the advice of a 19-person committee that represented a diverse group of people with a broad range of expertise and backgrounds.

“There wasn’t one particular lever that was pulled more than another,” Meyer said.

“Maybe it wasn’t clear along the way that it wasn’t the most vote gets it.”

Bishop DiMarzio said Mother Cabrini wouldn’t have asked for a statue herself, but noted a statue would honor the memory of immigrants and remind us of our reponsibility to each other.

For Msgr. Cassato, the cause of Mother Cabrini’s  statue is personal. One night in 1953, David Cassato, then 5 years old, was headed home from his grandparents’ house. He asked his father about a photo he had seen. That night, he first heard about Mother Cabrini, who had helped Msgr. Cassato’s grandparents when they came to America.

“This is a very emotional day for me because of that picture in my grandmother’s kitchen,” Msgr. Cassato said at the march. “I’ll never forget it.”

Similarly, Jennifer Deluna grew up hearing about Mother Cabrini. She brought her daughter to the march, so she would understand the importance of Mother Cabrini and the importance of service to others.

“(Mother Cabrini) committed her whole life to helping others, especially Italian-Americans, and that’s something we need to remember and memorialize in a structure,” Deluna said.

Fourteen sisters from Mother Cabrini’s order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, were also in attendance. Sister Maria Loretta Caeti, M.S.C. held a relic of Mother Cabrini throughout the procession. She said she felt Mother Carbini’s presence very clearly.

“I am so proud to be a daughter of Mother Cabrini,” Sister Caeti said. “I really am, especially of the way Mother Cabrini is honored today.”

John Heyer, pastoral associate at Sacred Hearts – St. Stephen, organized the event. He said many have told the She Built NYC panel to include Mother Cabrini.

According to organizers, the march and Mass drew the biggest crowd ever for an Italian Apostotlate celebration.

Meanwhile, after the Mass, Msgr. Cassato announced that the Catholic Foundation for Brooklyn and Queens has started the Mother Cabrini Statue Fund. He said that has already raised $8,000 from four donors.

Heyer said the turnout for the march and Mass was a testimony to Mother Cabrini’s work in New York City, noting that her service occurred more than 100 years ago and yet people are rallying for her today.

In September, Philip Foglia from the Italian American Legal Defense & Higher Education Fund wrote to First Lady McCray about the organization’s frustration with She Built NYC’s decision. He called it an “insult” to Italian Americans.

“Our organization is dismayed by the decision by ‘She Built NYC’ to preempt their own selection process and ignore Mother Cabrini, the clear choice of the public and most deserving person for such an honor,” his letter said.

First Lady McCray responded saying in part, “With seven monuments planned so far, I am proud of the progress we are making; however, it will take many more years to correct centuries of neglect and the glaring gender and ethnic imbalance in our public space…”

Politicians have spoken out since the march to support Mother Cabrini. Like Foglia, they also called for an explanation for snubbing the saint, and ask decision makers to reconsider.

Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R-Brooklyn/Staten Island) wrote to the first lady on Oct. 7. 

“This decision is truly an affront to Catholics, Italian-Americans and to the voice of the people,” her letter said.

“The people of New York City, who voted to honor Mother Cabrini, deserve an explanation for this arbitrary decision that defies the entirety of the nominating process.”

Republican Congressman Peter King from Long Island took to Facebook that same day.

“The decision by the First Lady of New York City to disallow a statue of St. Mother Cabrini to be erected honoring her as an outstanding New York Woman is absolutely indefensible,” his post said. “Even in this time of heightened sensitivity and so much concern about hurt feelings and injured pride it still appears to be open season on Italian-Americans.”

He went on to say,” “Mother Cabrini deserves to be honored by the City for which she did so much not discarded to satisfy some fashionable demographic. Good people like Mother Cabrini should not be excluded to honor others.”