St. Frances Cabrini Planted Roots in This Once-Remote Corner of Manhattan

New York City shrine reflects property’s holy mission and saint’s Eucharistic and Marian devotion.

Stained glass and a life-timeline mosaic adorn the New York City shrine dedicated to the ‘Patroness of Immigrants.’ Pilgrims can pray before the Blessed Sacrament and before the glass-encased body of the saint, at rest in the reliquary beneath the main altar. Also shown: In an undated photo, Mother Frances Cabrini is seen standing in the back row, beneath the sunflower-shaped ornament on the wall.
Stained glass and a life-timeline mosaic adorn the New York City shrine dedicated to the ‘Patroness of Immigrants.’ Pilgrims can pray before the Blessed Sacrament and before the glass-encased body of the saint, at rest in the reliquary beneath the main altar. Also shown: In an undated photo, Mother Frances Cabrini is seen standing in the back row, beneath the sunflower-shaped ornament on the wall. (photo: Courtesy of St. Frances Cabrini Shrine NYC)

In 1899, when Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini discovered the New York City property on which the St. Frances Cabrini Shrine now stands, she never dreamed that one day visitors from many lands would be coming to this chapel to pray before her earthly remains.

Many of today’s visitors are immigrants, just like she was. In fact, four years after Venerable Pope Pius XII canonized Mother Cabrini in 1946, he named her “Patroness of Immigrants.”

It is easy to think of this as an “Ellis Island” of a shrine since people come from around the world. Despite cold weather, the visitors on a recent Sunday included people from Brazil, Hong Kong, China, Colombia, other South American countries, Washington, D.C., and nearby states. Residents of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York City’s boroughs like Queens are regular pilgrims here. Catechists bring youth from Brooklyn to learn about Mother Cabrini.

“Her story is uplifting to immigrants and established Americans alike, for it is a tale of deep faith, perseverance, bold action, and grace-filled resilience,” says Julia Attaway, the shrine’s executive director.

Mother Cabrini purchased this land and the mansion that sat on it after seeing it while on a horse-and-buggy ride through what was then a remote area of northern Manhattan.

“The reason she bought it was because she had two schools and two orphanages that she had to support,” explains Attaway. Mother Cabrini opened a boarding school here that she called Sacred Heart Villa, using the tuition from the middle- and upper-class families to subsidize the free schools she had already founded for hundreds of poor children.

After Mother Cabrini’s death, the mansion was replaced by a new building in 1930 and renamed Mother Cabrini High School. In 1933, the remains of Mother Cabrini, who was soon to be beatified in 1939, were moved to the school's chapel. Then, in a relatively quick 29 years after her death, Frances Xavier Cabrini was canonized on July 7, 1946. It was a blessed day when she became the first U.S. citizen to be named a saint (she had become a naturalized citizen in 1909). On that day, 45,000 people passed through the school’s chapel to venerate her relics. And it is always a great day when her feast is celebrated every Nov. 13.

When a separate shrine was completed on the grounds and opened in 1959, Mother Cabrini’s body made one more journey from the school’s chapel to the shrine, where she is entombed within a glass reliquary beneath the main altar. Her remains are covered with her habit and a wax mask so that people can see her as she looked when she died. There is quite a reverential feeling being so visibly close to a saint.

Up-Close to a Saint

The sanctuary itself floats like an island in the open chapel. Visitors kneel along the marble Communion rail that encircles the altar to pray near this great saint and ask for her intercession. Directly behind her reliquary is a tall statue of the Sacred Heart, reflecting how she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Directly above the Sacred Heart, on the wall displaying a panorama of scenes from her life, is a mosaic of a chalice and host. “In a glance, we see the motivation and fulfillment in her life,” says Attaway.

The panoramic mosaics are placed in chronological sequence against a glittering golden background. In the first scene, the young Francesca is being taught by her sister Rosa, who helped raise her. Next, Francesca Cabrini is pictured praying and wearing her confirmation dress. She also appears in a scene with Pope Leo XIII, who instructed her, “Not to the East, but to the West” — as, at first, she wanted to be a missionary to China.

In another scene, she is depicted standing with a boy in a wheelchair and another with a crutch, representing people the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart served in hospitals that Mother Cabrini opened. The renditions of a ship are reminders of Mother Cabrini’s immigration to America and the 23 oceanic voyages she made to three continents. These were often thought of as a test of her faith — she was terribly afraid of water after suffering a near-drowning in childhood.

Certainly, Providence had a hand in her travels, including during one particular return trip she was making to the United States. Mother Cabrini had tickets to sail on the Titanic. But for some divinely inspired reason, plans changed and she did not take that voyage.

A scene with the Statue of Liberty and an immigrant family reflects those she first served in America, primarily the impoverished, by teaching catechism, opening orphanages and then schools.

A final mosaic scene portrays angels escorting Mother Cabrini to heaven; she died in 1917. For a closer look at this expansive mosaic wall, visitors can circle the ambulatory between the “floating” sanctuary and altar and the wall itself. There, they can also stop for prayer before the beautiful statue of the Sacred Heart in the shrine midway along the wall and in line with the altar. This white marble statue stands above an altar on which it rests. Near it is a life-size crucifix with a kneeler for people to stop and pray.

On either side of the sanctuary, matching marble statues of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph holding the Child Jesus stand above altars. Quotes and stories from Mother Cabrini’s life appear in English and Spanish in front of each panel so visitors can get to know her better. Attaway shared that “Mother Cabrini’s relationship with the Blessed Mother was so strong that she believed Mary was the co-foundress of the Missionary Sisters.”

Her Marian devotion continues to be reflected in the beautiful stained-glass windows that line the nave. Crafted in the late 1950s in Florence, Italy, they include scenes from the Mysteries of the Rosary, from the Nativity to the Coronation of Mary.

Personal Touch

At the back of the chapel, overlooking the Hudson River, there is a beautiful three-story stained-glass portrait of Mother Cabrini. Beneath it is an unusual second-class relic — the surrey (carriage) Mother Cabrini drove. Photos and narratives about her work at the orphanage at West Park, New York, provide a fascinating glimpse of the saint in action.

St. Frances Cabrini Shrine NYC window
Stained-glass window at the shrine(Photo: Courtesy of St. Frances Cabrini Shrine NYC)

Adjacent to the chapel and extending down a nearby hallway is a small museum of items belonging to Mother Cabrini. These include her habit, scraps of paper on which she wrote housekeeping notes, a pair of well-worn shoes, and even a denture spring. These simple items reflect this saint’s humility. A video about the miracles that led to her beatification and canonization plays in the museum. There is also a collection of first-class relics of more than 30 other saints available for veneration.

Blessed Sacrament on Hudson’s Banks

In the hallway, exhibits about Mother Cabrini’s life and faith deepen understanding of what made her a saint. The current exhibit, which will remain open through 2024, focuses on Mother Cabrini and the Holy Eucharist. Before or after the exhibit, visitors would do well to visit the intimate Blessed Sacrament chapel near the sanctuary, which is a peaceful and lovely oasis for prayer, with its deep-green marbles surrounding the golden tabernacle that is sculpted with wheat and grapes. A prie-dieu near the tabernacle helps pilgrims feel exceptionally close to the Lord. The stained-glass window directly behind the tabernacle was designed by one of the Missionary Sisters. This image of the order’s seal has as its center the Heart of Christ inflamed with love. A star represents Mary, the Star of the Sea. Missionary Sisters are pictured as the fragile vessels roaming the oceans seeking to be “Bearers of the Love of Christ in the World.”

Mother Cabrini’s mission continues. The original school closed in 2014, but the building is currently leased out to a charter school and, in classic Cabrini style, “the revenue is used to support the Missionary Sisters’ missions in other parts of the world,” Attaway noted. These include missions to support refugees in camps in Uganda, schools in Latin America, and health facilities in Guatemala, Eswatini (Swaziland) and Ethiopia. This legacy of mission is also evident down a side hallway, where the offices of Cabrini Immigrant Services of NYC offer low-cost legal and social-service consultations to migrants seeking to obtain official papers or reunite their families.

The immediate neighborhood has grown into a quiet residential area of well-kept apartment houses since Mother Cabrini planted roots in this once-remote corner. Next to the shrine, the street forms a big circle, usually populated by happy children and casual walkers. It leads directly into Fort Tryon Park, a retreat of lawn, flowerbeds and the views of the Hudson that Mother Cabrini enjoyed so much.


St. Frances Cabrini Shrine NYC

701 Fort Washington Avenue

New York, New York 10040