Originally Published in The New York Times
Zachary Small - October 12, 2020
When the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last year that a new project, She Built NYC, would commission monuments and memorials for undersung female leaders, the Roman Catholic nun who is considered the patron saint of immigrants was not on the shortlist, upsetting her many Italian-American and Catholic fans, especially because in a public poll, she received the most votes.
But after a bureaucratic tussle between the city and state about the issue, on Monday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unveiled a monument to Francesca Xavier Cabrini in Battery Park City during the state’s Columbus Day celebrations on Monday.
While the pandemic prevented the traditional parade, there was plenty of fanfare in Battery Park City, where a red cloak was removed to reveal the bronze statue after the governor spoke.
“May this statue serve to remind us of the principles that made us great,” the governor said. “Today, the lesson of Mother Cabrini is even more vital because of the difficulties we are facing.”
Quoting Mother Cabrini, he said, “The world is poisoned with erroneous theories and needs to be taught sane doctrines. But it is difficult to strengthen what has become crooked.”
Earlier this year, a commission that included public officials and Italian-Americans selected the artist couple Jill and Giancarlo Biagi to design the sculpture, budgeted at $750,000.
The monument stands against a backdrop of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, depicting Mother Cabrini on a paper boat. The artists said the two children aboard are sailing to the New World from Europe. The girl holds onto the boat, symbolizing her steadfastness while the boy grips his luggage, ready to face the future. A mosaic beneath the sculpture was created, with help from the Cabrini Museum in Italy, with riverbed stones from Mother Cabrini’s birthplace.
When she was a little girl in the Lombardy region of Europe, which would later become part of Italy, Francesca would fill paper boats with violets, calling them her missionaries, and send them down a stream, Jill Biagi explained.
“By putting her in the boat, it symbolizes her ability to withstand all the adversities of life in search of realizing her dream,” she said. “Her dream was to help the needy.”
And Cabrini did become a missionary. Born in 1850, she emigrated to the United States and settled in New York by 1889. She went on to found more than 60 schools, hospitals, and orphanages. And 30 years after her death in 1917, Mother Cabrini became the first American to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.
Last year, the list the city initiated for She Built NYC, a program led by Chirlane McCray, the first lady, was criticized over the exclusion of Mother Cabrini. The disagreement culminated in the actor Chazz Palminteri’s calling Ms. McCray a “racist” during a WNYC radio show. (He later apologized.)
At the time, Mayor de Blasio described the uproar as “a manufactured controversy,” promising that Mother Cabrini would eventually get her due.
But the mayor never got his chance; days later, the governor announced the state commission to join the Diocese of Brooklyn and other supporters to find financing and a spot for the monument.
With the advent of the pandemic, the de Blasio administration indefinitely delayed its own program to honor women.
The sculptor Vinnie Bagwell said the state had been much more efficient than the city with its administration of public art projects in recent months. Her work on a state project, a Sojourner Truth monument in Highland, N.Y., to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, got the necessary approvals to be completed on time. On the other hand, nearly a year after winning a city commission to design an artwork to replace a controversial Central Park statue, Ms. Bagwell said she hasn’t received a contract to begin her work.
“We are all sitting here, studying the horizon,” Ms. Bagwell said. “I’m disappointed in New York City. I expected more expedience, more professionalism and more communication.”
She’s not alone in her frustration. Four years after winning a city competition to memorialize the musician Tito Puente in East Harlem, the artist Ogundipe Fayomi withdrew from the project this summer, citing “the overly long process” as the main reason for his departure.
In response to the criticism, Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said, “This work takes time.” He added, “We’re going to do it thoughtfully and with robust community and artistic engagement. New York City is absolutely committed to seeing these projects through and giving our heroes the beautiful, meaningful and appropriate monuments they deserve.”
The mayor did not attend Mother Cabrini’s unveiling.