The statue, draped with a purple ribbon, money pinned along its edges, made its way down Fort Washington Avenue in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Its faceted crown caught the glint of the clear, early November sun, the air cool and crisp as leaves fell from the surrounding elms and maples, the entrance to Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters Museum in the distance behind the marching worshipers.
Music boomed from the instruments of the band Red Mike, as locals stopped and pulled out smartphones, photographing the almost anachronistic procession as the image of Mother Cabrini, patron saint of immigrants, and America’s first saint, passed them by.
November 13 is the Feast Day for Mother Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, which was celebrated this year during the weekend at her Fort Washington shrine. The brick mid-century structure, its interior embellished with stained-glass windows and gilded mosaics telling the story of her life, was opened in 1959 over what had been a villa where the nun lived and worked starting in 1899, opening a school for girls and providing services to poor immigrants in a city full of them.
With the recent midterm elections giving the Republican Party full control of Congress, immigration has remained in the news, more than one hundred years after Mother Cabrini, hailing from Italy, made it the centerpiece of her own work.
The topic was never far from the minds of the hundreds of worshippers and staff at the shrine, the vast majority of whom were themselves immigrants.
Father Julian Jagudilla presided over Sunday’s Filipino ceremony, presented in both English and Tagalog. It was one of five separate Masses, including in Spanish, English, Haitian-Creole, and Italian.
Dressed in the brown robe of a Franciscan monk after his sermon, Rev. Jagudilla, who is from Manila, said, “How I wish the politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, would stop making immigration a pawn. They are toying with this for their political fights and political gain, when they should just give people what they need.”
His home base is Saint Francis of Assisi Church in Midtown Manhattan. “We continue to help the poor immigrants,” Rev. Jagudilla said, indicating about 200 cases came to his church in the past year with needs that were “across the board, everything from parents petitioning for children, and even people without status who come to us with questions.”
Describing a recent visit to the immigration detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Jagudilla said he believed even from a purely economic standpoint, current immigration policy does not make sense. “People aren’t aware of the connection between public dollars and detention, with the privatization of the prisons and profi- seeking companies,” he said. “In the long run, the government will earn money by granting work permits,” and collecting taxes from undocumented workers.
Kristine Reed, director of the Mother Cabrini Shrine, called the nuns of the Cabrini Order “a force of nature as a community. For the last 130 years, the mission has been about justice and fair wages, and fair wages are directly formed from education, and the idea you provide an education for immigrants coming and working here,” along with “a need to have training and address spiritual life.”
She spoke of Mother Cabrini being progressive and ahead of her time, a feisty, outspoken woman who created a “very responsible organization that was aware of all the effects of being an immigrant, and wanted to do something to help them.”
Cabrini was born in 1850 in Italy, and died in 1917 in Chicago. Her canonization was finalized in 1946, with the Vatican declaring her Patroness of Immigrants in 1950.
Mother Cabrini, who had originally arrived in New York from Italy in 1889 with a mission to aid Italian immigrants, created orphanages, schools, pharmacies, and other programs. Today, Cabrini Immigrant Services has a full spectrum of services, from English as a Second Language classes, to legal support, to helping with citizenship applications.
Javier Ramirez, director of Cabrini Immigration Services for New York City, said the organization helps about 700 families, or 2,000 people a year, and annually performs about 500 legal consultations.
Yet the need is even greater. “Every Monday, I have 12 initial consultations, and we always have waiting lists at least as long,” Ramirez said. Adding to the problems for many who seek legal aid are false advisers who “not only take the money, but they mess up the cases,” for immigrants seeking legal status.
Many clients come from the neighborhood surrounding the shrine. Most of those who need legal services are Latin American, from South America, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, he said, adding that the food pantry is utilized mostly by Asian clients, primarily Chinese immigrants, who also make up the bulk of ESL classes. Other clients include non-Spanish Caribbean peoples, especially Jamaicans and Haitians, along with a small number of Bangladeshis, Ukrainians, and Africans.
While it was presented in the news as a border issue affecting states like Texas, Ramirez said New York City is impacted by unaccompanied minors, calling their need for services “overwhelming.”
He added the religious nature of his organization means Cabrini Immigration Services “has a great reputation, because people trust in the church,” and even politicians pay attention to its opinion. Ramirez said immigration reform will “unify the families. We always hope the new Senate will give us a surprise for the coming years, but at least we know the Obama administration has been working for this. We know every day that the people are working. They are not asking for anything for free. They are only asking for opportunity.”
Immigrants, including the undocumented, aren’t simply an urban issue. Robin Larkins, director of Cabrini Immigrant Services for Westchester County, said, in 2013 more than 800 individuals had sought help from her office, many having moved from urban areas into Westchester “as the economy softened,” looking for work.
What has struck Larkins in her work is the lack of knowledge that immigrants exist in suburban settings, along with the attitude of those descended from poor immigrants who are now solidly middle class. “I hear on a frequent basis, ‘There’s immigrants in Dobbs Ferry?’” she said, adding that even within her own family she has argued that her underage Italian immigrant grandfather would have been considered an unaccompanied minor. “Naturalization is not allowed in the same way,” today she said, as it was back then.
Mother Cabrini’s continued importance to immigrant worshippers who came for the weekend was also in evidence. Hugues Saint Fleur, a 47-year-old immigrant originally from Cape Haitian in Haiti, drove five hours from Boston to attend Saturday’s Creole service with his two sisters. He left Haiti in 1986, soon after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, better known as Baby Doc, the dictator who died earlier this year.
For the past five years, Saint Fleur said, “I come every year. I love what she has done for the immigrant community,” referring to Mother Cabrini. He added, “She did a lot for immigrants. She was one herself. For this, she knows the problems of immigrants. She gave refuge to all immigrants.”
Saint Fleur originally came to the United States on a student visa and is now an American citizen. He is also a Eucharistic minister running a prayer group in Boston, and he said many non-immigrants he has met in the United States, “don’t understand our struggles. So you have to have immigration reform.”
The priest for the Creole ceremony was Father Marcel Saint Jean. His home church is St. Mary in Stamford, Connecticut, and he also runs a Haitian charity school, Heart of Mary, whose building was destroyed in the 2011 earthquake. Within his parish, he said, “it is hard to see those people who cannot come home when they are sick, or dying, graduated, or married. They can’t be part of the sadness or happiness of their loved ones, and that is what saddens me. You see how painful it is.”
He recounted his own prayers to Mother Cabrini in 1998, which he believes aided him in becoming a U.S. citizen. Denied in his green-card application, he said, “I came instantly that day,” to the shrine. “The next morning, I went back and I saw the same man,” who had denied him. Saint Jean said the man told him, “’Father, here’s your green card.’”
But Mother Cabrini’s alleged miracles would need to be amplified. Referring to the highest estimated number of undocumented immigrants in the United States, Saint Jean said, “We have to think about those 11 million. How we can help them to come to a type of green card, and eventually that they can participate officially in the economy of this country and pay their taxes and go back home when there is sadness or happiness?”
Later at the shrine, during Saturday’s Italian Mass, a group of well-coiffed ladies in tailored suits in the front row repeated to each other, “che bella voce”—“what a beautiful voice.” in Italian—as a young Asian woman in a wispy white dress led the congregation in “Ave Maria,” Mother Cabrini’s preserved body, bathed in light, inside a glass coffin at the altar.
“Singing for me, is a prayer,” Nozomi Kawaguchi, the Tokyo-born cantor of Mother Cabrini Shrine, said. A Catholic convert, she has lived in the United States for 10 years and is now a citizen, studying for a master's degree in religious education at Fordham University.
Kawaguchi added, “I am totally by myself here,” as an immigrant. “Mother Cabrini has been guarding me and it changed my life. She made me a better singer.”
Kawaguchi hoped America would remain open to immigrants in a way that her more hardline home country of Japan is not. “I want this country to give a chance to anyone who works hard and has an American dream. I want this to still be possible. This is the strength and beauty of the country,” she said.