Cabrini Boulevard runs parallel to the west of Fort Washington Avenue. Though sounding grand and wide, it is actually a smaller and much less active thoroughfare. Cabrini Boulevard actually functions as sort of a back road for Hudson Heights residents seeking to avoid the rush of Fort Washington Avenue or desperately (most often futilely) seeking parking in the neighborhood.
Cabrini Boulevard is named after St. Frances Xavier Cabrini founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Mother Cabrini’s first idea had been to go from her native Italy to Asia and convert the Chinese. But the Pope had other ideas and said: “Not to the East, but to the West.” Mother Cabrini’s mission was to cater to America’s Italian immigrants flooding Ellis Islands with dreams for a better life. Her work was tireless. Hospitals, orphanages and schools spread across the country and then beyond U.S. borders.
Mother Cabrini’s life was tied to America forever. She became an American citizen in 1909. In 1946, she became the first American citizen to be canonized. Today, she is known as the Mother of Immigrants.
Sister Adelina, a Cabrini nun I grew to know, had told me that during her early work in New York, Mother Cabrini used to stop her horse drawn buggy in Hudson Heights. Here, she would rest and enjoy the view of the Palisades across the Hudson River. In 1898, Mother Cabrini purchased a large parcel of land running several blocks north from 190 Street. Here, she built a complex with a church, a school and a hospital running from north to south.
Today, you encounter the walled complex directly across the street from the 190 Station of the A train. The complex is bordered by Fort Washington Avenue on the east, and on the west by Cabrini Boulevard.
Mother Cabrini Church is a fascinating moment of mid-twentieth century religious architecture. The church is designed with its main doors on the west side, off Cabrini Boulevard. But that entrance hasn’t been used in years. Church visitors enter through Fort Washington Avenue. This means that they approach the altar from the rear and back track into the main sanctuary.
Mother Cabrini herself presides over this space. Her relics are displayed, somewhat like Snow White, under a glass coffin beneath the altar. She is dressed in the black and white habit of her order. On my first visit, I was fascinated to see how well-preserved she appeared. She pretty much looked like the old Italian nun that she actually had been at her death, only with a fresher, more dewy complexion.
The secret to her youthful complexion is revealed by a small plaque on the wall of the church. The plaque informs visitors the saint’s “hands and head are venerated in Rome.” This means that what the visitor actually sees is the decapitated and handless body of Mother Cabrini. These body parts are covered by wax that has been cunningly modeled and painted a rosy pink with the slightest tinge of blue.
For weeks after I made this discovery, I indulged in ghoulish fascination over how these alterations had actually had been carried out. Finally, I decided that I really didn’t want to know too much. I was happy to know that Hudson Heights was under the protection of such a strong woman. But after this revelation, my children refused to set foot in the church for years.
Behind the altar are beautiful mosaics depicting the major events in the life of Mother Cabrini. These read like a scroll from left to right, beginning with her early education in Italy, and ending with her work in New York and her canonization. My favorite mosaics show her kneeling in front of Pope Leo III with the words: “Not to the East, but to West” above the scene. The settling of New York is defined by a mosaic depiction of the Statue of Liberty.
In addition to her missionary work, Mother Cabrini became known for miracles. These played a role in her beatification and later, her canonization. In her church today are hundreds of small tributes thanking her for working cures and solving problems. I find the most interesting of these are the handcrafted tokens with pictures of babies or young children who have been conceived or cured with Mother Cabrini’s help. In glass vitrines lining the walls are relics associated with Mother Cabrini. These range from wax seals to night gowns to the spring from her dentures.
Visitors to the shrine can also ask to be blessed by her relics, which are kept in a drawer in the gift shop. One of the lovely ladies working in the gift shop told me that many people come asking to be blessed. If you make such a request, you are asked if there is any particular part of your body that needs Mother Carbrini’s attentions. “One gentleman came in and said he had prostate cancer,” the lady informed me. “I told him not to worry. Mother can go anywhere.”
On her feast day in November, a procession marches down Fort Washington Avenue with various statues. The parade is accompanied by the Mother Cabrini High School band in their school uniforms and The Red Mike Festival Band from New Jersey in oversized red caps as they walk south from 190 Street to 181 Street.
As I have a terrace that looks out over Fort Washington Avenue, I participate by throwing rose petals off the balcony. I try my best to hit the statues as they pass beneath my apartment. But Fort Washington Avenue is wider than you would imagine. My efforts mostly result in flower petals hitting the sidewalk below.
From my balcony, I can see the complex hospital, St. Elizabeth, built by Mother Cabrini. The hospital shut its doors years ago, victim to real estate inflation and government health care directives in the 1980s. The building is now another Hudson Heights coop, though it still retains a small chapel on the side, and semi-circular drive under its entry canopy. Many residents of Hudson Heights were born in St. Elizabeth Hospital. Local lore holds that it was here that Maria Callas entered the world, not the swankier Flower Hospital on Fifth Avenue that is claimed in her biographies.
Located between the hospital and the church, Mother Cabrini had built a high school for girls. The students were a familiar sight in Hudson Heights in their maroon jackets and plaid skirts.
In January 2014, the neighborhood was stunned by the announcement that Mother Cabrini High School would be closing its doors at the end of the school year. The newspapers reported low enrollment figures and fiscal hardship. After one hundred and fifteen years, Mother Cabrini High School will cease to exist. It would be the second casualty in Mother Cabrini’s Hudson Heights complex.
Hearing the news, made me think about Mother Cabrini and her vision for the complex she built on the lovely spot overlooking the Hudson. I like to imagine Mother Cabrini might feel the closing of the school was a sign that her work among the immigrants of the last century had been accomplished. The children and grandchildren of those immigrants were now simply part of American life; full participants in its rights and responsibilities. I like to imagine that Mother Cabrini would point her finger at our New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, whose Italian grandparents were immigrants to New York City. Finally, I like to imagine that Mother Cabrini would tell our Mayor that he should drop the knife and fork, get a slice to go, and take the A train up to Hudson Heights. Here, he’ll see firsthand what a difference a strong, New York woman made to the lives of thousands of New Yorkers at the turn of the twentieth century. And, he can still enjoy the views of the Hudson.