NYC Cultural Affairs Commissioner Resigns After Mother Cabrini Blunder

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the departure of Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner, amid controversy surrounding the agency’s mishandling of Mother Cabrini.

By: Basil M. Russo, ISDA President

What began as an initiative to honor some of NYC’s most influential women has quickly turned into a political mess that’s roiled the Italian-American community.

Recently, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray — with the assistance of NYC Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl — launched She Built NYC, a public arts program developed to celebrate seven women whose contributions positively impacted the city.

To help decide which women would be honored with statues, She Built NYC conducted a poll to bring everyday New Yorkers into the selection process. Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini — an Italian-American icon better known as Mother Cabrini — overwhelmingly came in first place with 219 nominations.

Despite the outpouring of support, McCray and Finkelpearl snubbed Cabrini and instead selected singer Billie Holiday, Rep. Shirley Chisholm, LGBTQ activist Marsha Johnson, educator Elizabeth Jennings Graham, abortion rights activist Helen Rodriguez Trías, transgender advocate Sylvia Rivera and lighthouse keeper Katherine Walker.

The Italian-American community was stunned and baffled, and the blunder brought New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (de Blasio’s rival) into the fray when he pledged $750,000 in state aid to build Cabrini a statue earlier this month.

Related: Gov. Andrew Cuomo Pledges $750,000 to Fund Mother Cabrini Statue in NYC

De Blasio, who has bared the brunt of the political damage, announced Finkelpearl’s resignation this past Thursday, saying in a prepared statement: “Tom has done a remarkable job in creating a more equitable and accessible cultural sector for all New Yorkers.”

The decision to oust Finkelpearl is a good start, but the mayor needs to atone for the flap and deliver a mea culpa to the hundreds of thousands of NYC Italian-Americans (and to the city’s 2.3 million Catholics).

The road to sainthood

Mother Cabrini was a true pioneer, who’s good will and compassion still aid and uplift people in New York City and around the globe today.

Consider the following:

  • She founded more than 70 schools, hospitals, houses and orphanages dedicated to the sick and poor, and Italian immigrants
  • She was the first U.S. citizen to be canonized 
  • She is the patron saint of immigrants

She arrived in New York City on March 31, 1889, after Pope Leo XIII recruited her to aid the waves of poor and vulnerable immigrants who streamed through Ellis Island. She soon obtained the permission of Archbishop Michael Corrigan to found an orphanage, which is located in West Park, New York today and is known as Saint Cabrini Home.

She organized catechism and education classes for Italian immigrants and provided for the needs of thousands of children. She was as resourceful as she was prayerful, finding people who would donate money, time, labor and support.

Plagued by years of illness, she died at the age of 67 in 1917 in Chicago. By then, she was an icon who defied incalculable odds while pursuing a higher mission.

She once wrote:

“Let us be generous, remembering always that the salvation of many souls is entrusted to our charity. We can do nothing of ourselves, for we are poor and miserable, but if we have faith and trust in Him who comforts us, then we can do all things.”

Her words are just as relevant now as they were then, and in today’s ever-divisive world, a statue of Mother Cabrini would act as a unifying symbol and a reminder of what it is to be an exceptional human being.

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