By Victoria Merlino
Some New York City Catholics, including a few local lawmakers, are questioning why the first U.S. citizen ever canonized as a saint was not chosen for an initiative to honor female trailblazers with statues.
First Lady Chirlane McCray launched the “She Built NYC” initiative to correct the gender gap in the city’s monuments — currently only five of the city’s 150 statues of historical figures are women. The newly proposed statues would join the ranks of Joan of Arc, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein, Harriet Tubman and Golda Meir, which are all located in Manhattan.
The initiative prompted an open call for nominations, with the public submitting over 2,000 suggestions for statues.
Francesca Xavier Cabrini, an Italian missionary who came to the United States in 1889 to educate Italian immigrants was the top vote recipient. Cabrini opened orphanages and schools in the U.S. and abroad, venturing to Europe and Central and South America.
Cabrini was canonized in 1946, and was named the patron saint of immigrants in 1950. She received 219 votes to become a statue.
“I am not disputing the women chosen by the panel for this initiative, but I am questioning why ‘She Built NYC’ would hold a public poll and then decide to ignore the voice of the people by not including the woman who finished with the most votes by a large margin,” said State Sen. Joseph Addabbo in a statement.
Addabbo, president of the Conference of Italian American Legislators, wrote a letter to McCray asking for more information about the Cabrini snub.
“It makes little sense to hold a vote and then go against the overwhelming winner of that vote,” he said. “In my letter to the First Lady, not only did I asked for an explanation of the voting process and why Mother Cabrini wasn’t selected after being voted the clear winner, but also for the ‘She Built NYC’ panel to reconsider adding her for this honor.”
Jane Jacobs, a community activist who crusaded against Robert Moses, came in second in the public nominations with 93 votes, and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, came in third with 91 votes. Though Cabrini and Jacobs were passed over by the initiative, Chisholm was chosen to become a statue in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
Brooklyn Councilmember Justin Brannan also questioned the choice.
“Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, who received more nominations from New Yorkers than any other woman during the process, has been completely ignored,” Brannan said, according to the New York Post. A church named after Cabrini is located in his district in Bensonhurst.
Other women chosen to be immortalized with statues include anti-segregationist Elizabeth Jennings Graham, public health advocate and doctor Helen Rodriguez Trías, transgender activists and icons Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, and Katherine Walker, keeper of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse. The statues will be scattered throughout the five boroughs, and Mayor Bill de Blasio committed up to $10 million over the next four years for the project.
A statue of jazz legend Billie Holiday is planned for an undisclosed area near Queens Borough Hall, though that has caused some controversy of its own. Southeast Queens residents argue that the statue’s placement should be closer to Holiday’s historic home, as first reported by Patch.
A spokesperson from “She Built NYC” told the Eagle that the nomination process began with the public call, from which the choices for the statues were all reviewed by an advisory committee.
City government made the final choices for the statues’ subjects based on the committee and the public’s recommendations, along with other factors like location, existing publicly accessible monuments, site feasibility and commitment to diverse representation.
“She Built NYC” appreciated the enthusiasm for honoring Cabrini, according to the spokesperson, and said the group was proud that New York City has a shrine, street and parkland named in her honor. The spokesperson also said that Cabrini’s nomination would be considered by the advisory committee while pursuing future monuments.