A Pentecost wind—that’s what it felt like the afternoon I took a subway uptown to visit the Mother Cabrini shrine. It was her feast day, Nov. 13, and never having been there, it therefore seemed the right moment to do something I had thought about since my days as a seminarian. Back then, I read a long poem by the contemporary American poet John Logan, “Cycle for Mother Cabrini.” Himself an admirer of this saint, the first American citizen to be canonized, he begins his poem with an account of his own first visit to the shrine which holds her relic.
I generally think of relics as small particles of a saint’s body—a shard of bone, for instance. In this case, though, the relic is her entire body minus the head, which was returned to her native land. But the rest of her tiny form lies in a glass case beneath the chapel’s altar, dressed in the simple black habit she wore in her lifetime. “Her habit/ Given form by bones/ which carried about her flesh/ Gone now,” the poem says, and the author adds: “The bones will rise/ To carry changed flesh.” So the cycle in this first section focuses on the theme of resurrection—hers and, the writer hopes, his own.
The chapel is at one end of a large high school named after Mother Cabrini. Sitting in a pew facing the altar, I could hear the school band practicing with gusto in the gym below. Drums predominated, demanding attention, and to some their insistent beat might have seemed inappropriate in that holy place.
But in fact the drums served as a reminder that during her life, Frances Xavier Cabrini did not hesitate to clamor for attention at the doors of any who might assist in her mission of helping poor Italian immigrants who had come in waves to New York City prior to her own arrival, in 1889, with six nuns of her new congregation, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. They found the immigrants overwhelmed by poverty, disease and discrimination. Among them were many orphans. Her first goal, in fact, was to establish an orphanage.
Originally she had hoped to go as a missionary to China, but the pope himself, Leo XIII—knowing of the desperate situation of Italian immigrants in American cities—had told her in effect: “Not to the East, but to the West.” These words are stenciled in large letters on the wall of the chapel’s sanctuary, along with the title by which she is known: “Mother of Immigrants.” Her travels took her not only across the United States, but also to South America, where she established other helping institutions.
In one section of Logan’s poem, we see her crossing mountaintops on a mule: “the tiny saint...had never ridden and was jittery,” but ride she did, advancing with the other travelers “over the high Andes.” Coming to a crevice, she declined the offer of the guide (whose white beard reminded her of pictures of St. Joseph) to lift her over. Instead, she jumped unaided but missed her footing, so the guide had to catch her anyway.
Mother Cabrini died in the Chicago hospital she founded, stricken with malaria contracted during a visit to Brazil. She was seated in a little rocking chair that remains there as another kind of relic, a homelier one suggestive of her always-evident humanity.
An enclosed terrace at the rear of the shrine’s chapel overlooks the Hudson River, visible far below. I sat awhile watching the bare tree limbs tossed to and fro by the wind that drove gray clouds scudding across the sky. The day after my visit, local papers commented on these strong winds, but for me they were appropriate reminders of the Spirit-driven impulse that sent Mother Cabrini across continents to spend herself in serving those in need. The same wind continues to drive missionaries, both lay and religious, to parts of the world where poor and marginalized peoples wait for help that can be long in coming.