New York City, New York
New York City was the primary destination for immigrants from Catholic countries to the United States for the better part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is therefore not surprising that the first American saint of the Roman Catholic Church was a New Yorker. Although Frances Xavier Cabrini was born in Italy, she had become an American citizen by the time of her death, and she was canonized just a few years before her fellow New Yorker Elizabeth Anne Seton. Her work within Catholic community, especially the establishment of schools and orphanages throughout the United States, made her a household name. Her shrine now stands on the grounds of a high school in Washington Heights, which she founded.
Francesca Cabrini was born in Lombardy in Italy in 1850 into a family of successful farmers. A devout Catholic, most of her early years were spent preparing for a life in the Church. She went on to become an educator and a nun, and at the relatively young age of 27 she became the mother superior of an orphanage in Northern Italy. A few years later she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with a focus on providing care to all and refuge in their convents to women in need.
Her efforts eventually came to the attention of the Pope. The Papacy at the time was concerned about the growing needs of Catholic immigrant communities that were then expanding rapidly in the United States. The Pope decided that the nascent Missionary Sisters under the direction of Cabrini would be ideally suited to provide services to Catholics in America, and in 1889 sent seven of the sisters to being their work in New York.
They began their work in Manhattan, where they provided care for young girls in an apartment on Fifth Avenue. Within a year the need for space was greatly increased, and they relocated to a new property and large property Upstate. This became the Sacred Heart Orphanage, which is still active to the present day as the St. Cabrini Home. In an interesting anecdote, in its earlier years the school’s well ran dry, and the property nearly had to be abandoned. However, following a vision by Cabrini, a new spring was discovered nearby, which provided water to the facility to the present day.
The work of Frances Cabrini and the Missionary Sisters was successful and prolific. During her lifetime she established over sixty schools, orphanages and other institutions across the United States. By the time of her death in 1917, she was famous among and beloved by Catholics throughout America. In 1946, she became the first American Citizen to be canonized. Her works are carried on by the sisterhood she founded and in many places that she established which are still in operation to the present day.
The Shrine of St. Frances Cabrini is located in an annex of the Mother Cabrini High School, the only high school in the world with a Catholic saint buried on its premises. The school itself is typical early 20th century American architecture. The shrine, which was added in the 1950s, is strictly modern and, except for the prominently displayed cross and statue of Jesus, is utterly unrecognizeable as a church from the outside. The strange yet peaceful building definitely stands out from the surrounding Washington Heights neighborhood.
The interior of the shrine is unusual, to say the least. The circular room is certainly atypical of Catholic Church architecture. The walls are covered in modern-day frescoes depicting scenes of Mother Cabrini’s life. The centerpiece of the shrine is undoubtedly the mummified corpse of Frances Cabrini in a glass coffin beneath the altar. This may be the best preserved corpse of any Roman Catholic saint, and may be disturbing to some visitors.
The Shrine of St. Frances Cabrini is located close to the northern tip of Manhattan, approximately seven miles north of Midtown. It is open daily; as of this writing visiting hours were not available. There is no charge for admission. Web: http://www.mothercabrini.org/ministries/shrine_ny.asp (official website)
New York City is home to the largest Catholic population in the United States, and it certainly does not lack for fantastic Catholic sites. First and foremost is the magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, among the world’s most visited churches. St. Peter’s Church in downtown Manhattan, one of the oldest Catholic churches in the city, is where Elizabeth Anne Seton converted to Catholicism. The Church of the Most Precious Blood in Little Italy hosts the world famous Feast of San Gennaro. On the extreme northern tip of Manhattan is The Cloisters, an abbey-museum constructed from medieval churches shipped over from Europe. Not too far north of New York City is the St. Cabrini Home, which is still in operation as a home for troubled youths.