It is sad but true to note that the name Cabrini is associated, at least in most Chicagoans' minds, primarily with the infamous housing project on Chicago's North Side, Cabrini Green. Only secondarily do they realize that the project is named for a person, indeed for the only woman religious on Chicago Magazine's “Top 100 Movers and Shakers of the 20th Century” list, namely St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. Her national shrine happens to be only two miles or so from her namesake green.

The National Shrine of Mother Cabrini is attached to Columbus Hospital, which she founded in 1902 to serve the immigrants and poor of Chicago. Today it stands in the most densely populated ZIP code in the country, in the fashionable Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago's North Side. The shrine functions today as the regular hospital chapel, pilgrim destination, and oasis of spiritual calmness among the bustle of tens of thousands of Gen-Xers, yuppies and assorted student types.

Before entering the chapel, the visitor immediately notices three things. First, a beautiful life-size statue depicts Mother Cabrini with an angel by her side. Second, the far-right etched-bronze door is sealed for the jubilee year. And third, a plaque commemorating the rededication of the shrine by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1993 reads in part: “Here the faithful of America and all over the world can come to be inspired by the first U.S. citizen to be canonized a saint.”

A Study in Marble

The chapel provides plenty of inspiration itself. It is the size of a small parish church, laid out in the shape of a Latin cross, with a beautifully frescoed dome high above the altar and baldachino.

The space is a study in travertine marble — midnight blue contrasted with antique white. Dozens of stained glass windows illuminate the interior in a riot of almost Tiffany-style color. The main windows on either side of the nave and in either transept depict the mysteries of the rosary.

There are four side altars in the walls surrounding the sanctuary, dedicated to the Blessed Mother, the Holy Spirit, the Sacred Heart and St. Joseph.

In the south transept is the Shrine of St. Anthony, in the north that of the Poor Souls. Each of these shrines contains many relics of patron saints, including St. Luke for doctors, St. Catherine of Siena for nurses, St. Camillus de Lellis for the sick, and St. Matthew for accountants and security guards.

The main altar, standing in the center of the chapel, is a massive construction of black and gold Italian marble, with a solemn red, blue and gold canopy suspended about 20 feet above it. The most striking detail about the altar, however, is the bronze-framed, glass display case housing the main relic of the shrine — Mother Cabrini's right humerus (upper arm bone).

As awesome as the chapel itself might be, however, the heart and soul of the shrine is Mother Cabrini's room. It is reached via a short passageway out of the north transept. Although the old hospital building was torn down years ago and modernized, workers painstakingly dismantled and rebuilt the saint's bedroom to appear exactly as it did the morning of Dec. 22, 1917, when she died. As the curator, the gracious Frances Komorowski, said, “Everything you see is original except for the plaster on the walls.”

‘Holy Warmth’

The room is austere, containing merely a bed, desk, prie-dieu and the wicker rocking chair in which the saint died. However, as one begins to take in the other details — the crucifix, the picture of our Lady keeping watch over the bed, the picture of the Sacred Heart — an atmosphere of what can only be described as “holy warmth” seems to pervade the room. Indeed, the curator said that “many pilgrims feel a deep presence here.”

It is amazing to conceive how that little Italian woman in a black habit ran a virtual empire of good works from this simple room — amazing till one remembers that the saint's Master declared that, with God, all things are possible.

In the hallways between the chapel and the bedroom are various photographs and paintings of Mother Cabrini, as well as two large display cases. These cases contain many objects of interest to the pilgrim and even the casual visitor, such as the saint's baptismal certificate from Sant' Angelo, Italy, her 1909 American naturalization papers from Seattle, and her last will and testament. Also on display are the habit and shoes the saint was wearing when she died.

Just in front of the entrance to the room itself, perched on a shelf about waist high, is Mother Cabrini's own statue of the Sacred Heart. The curator says that it is venerated by many pilgrims, since the saint often received spiritual wisdom and favors of divine love when praying before this image.

The Gardens

Also in this hallway is a door leading to the shrine's gardens, which wind between the chapel walls and a wing of the hospital.

Here, beds of soothing pink impatiens and tropically colored zinnias, as well a fountain and the de rigueur statue of St. Francis of Assisi, provide the perfect atmosphere for quiet meditation for hospital staff, visitors and pilgrims who want a breath of fresh air without having to venture out into the bustling world outside.

St. Frances Cabrini established 67 charitable institutions during her career as a religious — one for each year of her life. She founded the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who minister in hospitals and schools to this very day.

She had a reputation as a consummate fund-raiser — that is, she had no qualms about badgering the wealthy into donating to whatever charitable concern she had going at the time.

In Chicago, the two hospitals she founded thrive, and her shrine's chapel is full of holy grandeur and beauty. Yet, the one thing that the pilgrim invariably takes away from this shrine is a deep, abiding presence, of our Lord and of his first American saint.

Robert Horwath writes from Chicago.