Tag Archives: New York City

Mother Cabrini

Mulberry Street, New York City, ca.1900

From 1880 to 1920 more than 4 million Italian immigrants came to the United States, mostly from rural southern Italy. Many were poor peasants escaping the chaotic political situation and widespread poverty of a recently united Italian peninsula.

Almost all the new immigrants came through Ellis Island; many settled in the crowded tenements of the New York region, where men found work in the subways, canals and buildings of the growing city. The women often worked in the sweatshops that multiplied in New York at the time. Almost half of the 146 workers killed as fire consumed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911, were Italian women.

Over time, the Italian immigrants moved elsewhere and became a prominent part of American society, but at first large numbers suffered from the over-crowding, harsh conditions, discrimination and cultural shock they met in cities like New York. Many returned to Italy with stories of the contradictions and injustices lurking in “the American dream.”

Mother Maria Francesca Cabrini

Mother Maria Francesca Cabrini (1850-19170), founder of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, an order of women missionaries , came to America in 1889 at the urging of Pope Leo XIII to serve the underserved poor. Her work is succinctly described on the website of the Cabrini Mission Foundation.

“She proceeded to found schools, orphanages, hospitals and social services institutions to serve the needs of immigrants in the United States and other parts of the world. Despite poor health and frailty, Mother Cabrini crossed the ocean 25 times during 29 years of missionary work, and with her sisters founded 67 institutions in nine countries on three continents – one for each year of her life.

Mother Cabrini was a collaborator from the start of her missionary activity. She was a woman of her time, yet beyond her time. Her message – “all things are possible with God” – is as alive today as it was 110 years ago. Mother Cabrini lived and worked among the people, poor and rich alike, using whatever means were provided to support her works. She was a progressive, strategic visionary, willing to take risks, adaptable to change, and responsive to every opportunity that arose to help others. In recognition of her extraordinary service to immigrants, Mother Cabrini was canonized in 1946 as the “first American saint,” and was officially declared the Universal Patroness of Immigrants by the Vatican in 1950.”

Be good to have leaders like her today in the church, as well as in society, wouldn’t it? “… a progressive, strategic visionary, willing to take risks, adaptable to change, and responsive to every opportunity that arose to help others.”

Her feastday is November 13th. “Mother Cabrini, pray for us.”

Building a City

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Tower of Babel. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 16th century

After the deluge, God renews a covenant with creation, and the descendants of Noah begin to fulfill God’s command “to increase and multiply and fill the earth.”

But then something else happens: human beings, desiring to be together, join in building a city. A common origin and language draws them together, not just as families or clans, but in a larger society. They look for human flourishing in a city. (Genesis 11,1-9)

Unfortunately, they overreach. They want to get their heads into the heavens and so they plan a tower into the sky. Like Adam and Eve reaching for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they want to be like gods, “presuming to do whatever they want” God says. Their tower becomes a Tower of Babel. It collapses and they’re scattered over the world, leaving their city unfinished.

It’s important to recognize that the Genesis story does not claim God’s against human beings building a city. The bible, in fact, sees the city as a place favorable for human flourishing. In the Book of Jonah, God values the great city of Nineveh. Jesus sees Jerusalem, the Holy City, cherished by the Lord, the place where he dwells. The Spirit descends on his church in the city. The Genesis story sees the city as good, but it can be destroyed by sin and human pride..

The picture at the beginning of this blog is a painting of the Tower of Babel by the 16th century Dutch artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s situates Babel in Antwerp, one of the key seaports of the time. Its shaky structure suggests it’s too ambitiously built. Still incomplete, it may not last. So the painter offers a warning against ambition and not caring for people, especially the needy.

It’s interesting to note that Pope Francis encourages mayors from cities to plan well. Commentators say the pope, conscious of a rising isolationism that’s affecting nations and international bodies today, sees cities to be agents for unifying peoples. They’re important places for humans to flourish. The United Nations also sees cities as key resources in the challenge that comes with climate change.

The picture at the end? You don’t have to be told. A great city. Still, its greatness will be judged, not by its big buildings or businesses, but how it encourages human flourishing.

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“A Vision Thing”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. is set to release her ‘Green New Deal” today–government proposals for health care for all, job guarantees, a push to eliminate U.S.carbon emissions. 

Good luck to her, but it’s going to be a hard road ahead. Maybe a start, but we are going to need more than political legislation and technological innovations to deal with climate change.

Here’s a favorite picture of mine from the Staten Island Ferry. You say it’s a picture of the New York skyline?

I say it’s a picture of water that gave birth to the city. True, isn’t it? The water was here first. The city came to be because water brought the world here, making the city a capitol of world trade and drawing millions of human beings to this place. 

These waters once abounded with fish, the surrounding areas abounded in game. Plenty for all, so the native peoples allowed the original Dutch settlers a little piece of land for themselves.

 Now look at it. The man who built the new World Trade Center claims it’s the tallest building in the country, challenging the heavens–like Babel.

.Be careful, though, about challenging the heavens and forgetting about the earth. Be careful about the waters that brought you where you are. No fish or oysters here to eat now. Little space for the waters to go when they rise. And they will.

Don’t forget– the water was here first. It’s a “vision thing.” That’s what Pope Francis says in “Laudato si”.

Elizabeth Seton, January 4

Elizabeth Seton 1804Today’s the feast of St. Elizabeth Seton (1774-1821), a saintly woman born at the time of the American revolution and a founder of the American Catholic Church.

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults sees her as an example of a woman in search of God.  We find God through Jesus Christ, but also through creation, through human relationships and through various circumstances of our lives.

Elizabeth Seton was a woman who found God in all those ways. As a little girl after her mother’s  death she was neglected by her father and at odds with her stepmother, and  she found God in the beauties of nature, in the fields around New Rochelle, NY,  where she played as a child.

Then, as a young woman, she married a prominent New York business man, William Seton.  They had five children and Elizabeth enjoyed a happy married life, lots of friends; she was active in her Episcopal church, Trinity Church, on Wall Street in New York City. She was drawn to Jesus Christ whom she  discovered in the scriptures and by helping the poor.

Her life changed when her husband’s business failed. When his health also failed, Elizabeth took him to Italy to see if a better climate could revive him. As they arrived in Livorno, Italy, he died in her arms in a cold quarantine station at the Italian port.

Some Italian friends took Elizabeth and her daughter into their home and there she began to think about becoming a Catholic. Her conversion after her return to New York City caused her to lose old friends and left her to face hard times as a widow with small children.

She moved to Baltimore, then Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she opened her first  Catholic school and gathered other women to form a religious community. She is one of the great saints and founders of the American Church, an important witness to the major role women played in establishing the Catholic Church in America.

Her quest for God was many sided, touched by sorrows and joys.  She’s a good example of how our relationship with God is formed by creation, by the people around us, and the varied circumstances we face as we go through life.

People like Mother Seton show how faith grows in us. That’s why the new U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults sees her as an example of how we find God in real life. More important than books, people tell us what believing means. They’re the first catechisms.

Happy Feast Day to all her daughters throughout the world who continue in her spirit. They are following her and their journey isn’t over.

A biography of Mother Seton:  http://emmitsburg.net/setonshrine/

Friday Thoughts: Stop and Go

“1010 WINS”

If you grew up in the Tri-State Region, commonly known as the greater New York City area, you know the sound of “1010 WINS”, the radio station that reaches millions living in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, especially those sitting in traffic.

“Traffic and Transit on the Ones”

Every ten minutes, “on the ones” as they say, comes the coveted traffic report, including mass transit (train and subway) updates, and of course all the action one needs to know about the “bridges and tunnels”.

What a nightmare commuting can be.

Stop and Go.

“YOU GIVE US 22 MINUTES, WE’LL GIVE YOU THE WORLD”

That’s what we hear, while sitting in our cars, or as we get prepared to sit in our cars—or perhaps board buses, trains and/or subway cars.

Twenty-two minutes, that’s all they need, and we’ve got it all: breaking international news, politics, weather, sports, culture, and of course, traffic and transit “on the ones”.

Of course those twenty-two minutes give us everything we need, except relief. Thanks to them we are now very well-informed people sitting in traffic, as opposed to complete and utter ignoramuses actively stuck behind Greyhounds.

“Top and Bottom of the Hour. The Beginning and the End.”

There’s another great news agency constancy at work in the Tri-State Area. Its broadcast begins at the top and the bottom of the hour. But there’s only one message. The news is always good. And it always leaves one relieved.

New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are filled with parishes. Most established by the immigrants of their time. And today they march on:

The Liturgy—The Great Prayer of God’s Church—won’t be stopped.

Day in, day out.

It is always the hour.

“YOU GIVE IT 22 MINUTES, IT’LL GIVE YOU MORE THAN THE WORLD”


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—Howard Hain

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Visiting Elizabeth Seton’s New York

Twelve of us from St. Mary’s Parish, Colts Neck, NJ, visited Elizabeth Seton’s New York yesterday. We took the 10 AM boat from Atlantic Highlands for pier 11 in downtown New York City and walked to St. Elizabeth Seton’s shrine and home on State Street nearby.

One of New York City’s distinguished citizens, she was born in 1774, a couple years before the American Revolution.  She’s also the first American saint to be honored by the Catholic Church.

Our first stop was a colonial house and a shrine near the ferry terminal at the end of Manhattan Island where Elizabeth Seton and her family lived for a short time. Most of her New York years were lived in this old section of the city.

Approaching Manhattan through New York harbor let’s you see the city as the earliest European explorers saw it. The island is the gem at the harbor’s center; on its left the Hudson River flows to the north, on its right the East River flows out to the coast.

In 1524 Giovanni Verranzano came upon New York harbor–he thought it was a lake– searching for a passage to the Pacific. The Verranzano Bridge stands at the entrance to the harbor today.

In 1609 Henry Hudson, exploring for the Dutch, sailed into the harbor and then up as far as Albany on the river that now bears his name.  The Dutch realized how valuable this place was and made a small settlement on the island. They called their trading post New Amsterdam and traded with the many Indian tribes here and along the Hudson River. Before any Europeans came, numerous Indian tribes fished, hunted and traded here.

The English had their eyes on the place too and in 1642 took it over. New Amsterdam became New York, and it was under English control till the American Revolution in 1776.

Millions of immigrants have come through New York harbor since then. This was their gateway to the new world.  Through the harbor, this country also traded the new world’s resources with the rest of the world.

We began our tour of Elizabeth Seton’s New York here because she and her family were closely connected to the harbor. Her husband, William Seton, invested in the ships that made New York one of the richest ports in the world.  But ships were a risky investment; they brought handsome profits but they could also bring bankruptcy if they didn’t come in. The Setons experienced both.

William Seton was one of Wall Street’s first venture capitalists. In 1801 the Seton’s went bankrupt after the loss of a ship at sea and the family moved to the rented house on State Street, our first stop on our tour.

Elizabeth Seton’s father, Doctor Richard Bayley, was the first Health Officer for the port of New York; (1796) he dealt with many of the first immigrants and travellers passing through here.

His job was to keep New York City safe from disease, and one of his tasks was to keep travellers who were dangerous health threats isolated. So, quarantine stations were set up for immigrants with yellow fever, cholera and small pox.

On our way through the harbor we saw some of the harbor’s early quarantine stations at Bedloe’s Island (1758-1796), Governor’s Island (1796-1799), Thomkinsville in Staten Island (1799-1858), just south of the St. George ferry station.

In the summer of 1801, Elizabeth was staying with her father at the Thomkinsville quarantine station when a boatload of sick Irish immigrants were brought in. She describes the dreadful conditions in a letter:

“I cannot sleep–the dying and the dead possess my mind. Babies perishing at the empty breast of the expiring mother…Father says such was never known before: twelve children  must die for want of sustenance…parents deprived of it as they have lain for many days ill in a ship without food or air or changing…There are tents pitched over the yard of the convalescent house and a large one at the death house.” (Letter July 28, 1801)

That same year, Richard Bayley died from yellow fever contacted while caring for a boatload of Irish immigrants off Thomkinsville. He’s buried in the family plot next to the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew in Richmond, Staten Island.

From Mother Seton’s shrine and house on State Street we walked to Trinity Church and then St. Paul’s Chapel, the Anglican parish she belonged to until her conversion to Catholicism in 1805. She lived her early years as a happily married woman with five children on Wall Street and Stone Street, close by these colonial churches.

As a devout Anglican, Elizabeth devoted herself to her family and to the poor. In 1797 she and other public-spirited church women began an aid society for destitute women and their children. “The poor increase fast: immigrants from all quarters come to us. And when they come to us they must not be allowed to die.” (Description of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows and Small Children.)

Looking eastward down Wall Street from Trinity Church on Broadway , you can see many of the founding institutions of America: the docks and slave market (no longer visible) on the East River  the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal building, a short walk from Broadway, and finally Trinity Church and King’s College on the western side of Manhattan. King’s College built on lands belonging to Trinity Church became Columbia University after the Revolutionary War, and later relocated in northern Manhattan.

Our final stop on our visit to Elizabeth Seton’s New York was St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Barclay Street, near to World Trade Center. Here she was received into the Catholic Church.

In June 1808, she left New York City with her family for Baltimore, where she founded a school on Paca Street, the beginning of the Catholic parochial schools system in the United States. Shortly after, Mother Seton moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where other women gathered around her and took vows as the Sisters of Charity. Her religious followers continued her work through schools, orphanages and hospitals found throughout the United States.

Mother Seton died at the age of 46 in 1821. She was canonized on September 14,1975

Yesterday, from St. Peter’s Church we walked to Broadway and then down Wall Street to catch the 3 PM ferry for the Atlantic Highlands.

No Nest, No Den

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We’re reading from the 9th chapter of Luke’s gospel this Sunday. (Luke 8,51-62) Jesus has completed his mission in Galilee, in the small towns around the lake, and sets out for Jerusalem. That’s how today’s gospel begins:

“When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled,
he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”

Luke doesn’t describe a journey from place to place. Rather, Jesus gathers disciples on the way. He’s not making this journey alone, or just with the twelve. He’s calling many others to experience with him the mystery of his death and resurrection.

It’s a hard call. You have to go through tough places, Jesus says, like the Samaritan town that he and his disciples passed through, where you’re not accepted. You may not feel powerful or secure. If you follow me, Jesus says, you won’t have nests like the birds or dens like the fox. You’ll meet circumstances and difficult situations that may seem unreasonable.

But don’t worry, by following Jesus you’ll made the journey.

Last week I had some visitors from Australia and I took them on a tour of downtown New York, to visit a saint who once lived on Wall Street. She’s St. Elizabeth Seton, Mother Seton; she lived with her family on Wall Street and a number of other places downtown in colonial times. One of the last places she lived in New York City is on State Street, right across from the Staten Island Ferry. A church honoring her is built over that house.
Setonshrine - Version 2

She’s a good example of what it means to follow Jesus, according to today’s gospel.
1.Elizabeth Seton 1797

I took my visitors on the Staten Island Ferry to show them where the quarantine stations were in the harbor. Mother Seton’s father, Doctor Richard Bayley, was New York City’s first health officer and his job was to isolate and care for people with diseases like yellow fever who were coming into the country on ships from overseas.
Quarantine 1833

In the summer of 1801, his daughter described the conditions at the quarantine station at Tomkinsville, Staten Island, where she was staying with her father. A boatload of Irish immigrants with yellow fever had just been taken off a ship:
“I cannot sleep–the dying and the dead possess my mind. Babies perishing at the empty breast of the expiring mother…Father says such was never known before: twelve children must die for want of sustenance…parents deprived of it as they have lain for many days ill in a ship without food or air or changing…There are tents pitched over the yard of the convalescent house and a large one at the death house.” (Letter July 28, 1801) Her father contacted yellow fever himself then and died shortly afterwards.

Through her life, Mother Seton experienced hard things like that. She was four years old when her mother died, and her father quickly remarried. Her stepmother never had much time for her, but neither did her father, a good man absorbed in his work as a doctor and away a lot.

She describes how lonely she was as a child. What kept her going was looking up into the clouds and believing that God was her father and he loved her.

Her fortunes changed dramatically when as a young woman Elizabeth Bayley met William Seton, one of the wealthiest young men in New York. They got married and had children and became part of New York’s high society. Alexander Hamilton was a neighbor, George Washington lived down the street. They were on top of the world and blissfully happy.
Wall St. 1825 copy

William Seton was one of the venture capitalists of his day. He was into banking and shipping. But as we know venture capitalists can go bankrupt as well as make millions. That’s what happened to the Setons. They went bankrupt, he died of sickness and his wife became a widow with five kids.

Elizabeth Seton went through a spiritual crisis. She was attracted to the Catholic faith, but the Catholic Church then was looked down on by New Yorkers. She lost most of her friends when she decided to become a Catholic. She had to leave New York and go to Maryland where she began a school and a religious community of women, the Sisters of Charity.
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Her school was the beginning of Catholic Parochial School system in the United States and she’s honored as our first native born American saint. In the new United States Catholic Catechism for Adults she’s presented as an example of how our search for God takes place. Sometimes we’re on top of the world, other times we’re like birds without nests and foxes without dens.

Sometimes we may think that the gospel is an old book about things from long ago. But if you look at it with yourself in mind you can see how it applies. There are times when our lives are transfigured, as the lives of the disciples were when Jesus took them up the mountain. At other times we are not sure where we are. Sometimes we can feel like we’re going through a Samaritan town where nothing makes sense. To follow Jesus is like that.

Saints like Elizabeth Seton are good guides too. Take a look at them. They’re better guides to life than movie celebrities, and more real.