Chicago’s already impressive collection of religious architecture has a new addition to tempt the tourists and serve the faithful.
The new National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini opens Monday, October 1st in Park West, just across the street from the Lincoln Park Zoo.
The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus have been working on this project for a decade, which saw the demolition of the old Columbus Hospital, and the construction of both a residential tower and a dedicated building for the shrine and chapel.
The tower you’re probably familiar with. Lincoln Park 2520 was a grand plan for a huge luxury tower that got scaled back into a more modest affair, though its television commercials still pop up on basic cable now and then.
Unfortunately, just 60 years after her death, Mother Cabrini is less well-known in her adopted home town. Long-time residents still remember all that she did for the city. But with so many new people moving to Chicago each year, today when you say “Cabrini” most people think “Green.” But as the advertisement states: “If You Don’t Know About Mother Cabrini, You Don’t Know Chicago, Sister.”
She was born in Italy as Francesca Cabrini in 1850, and became a nun in 1877 and was in charge of an orphanage. Later she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In 1887, Pope Leo XIII sent her to a place in desperate need of her help: America.
Cabrini arrived in New York in 1889 with six other nuns and began work putting together a new orphanage. She eventually ended up with 67 orphanages, hospitals, schools, missions, and asylums around the world. Three of those institutions were in Chicago — Columbus Hospital in Park West (opened in 1905), the Columbus Extension Hospital for the Poor on the West Side, and Assumption School on East Erie Street in Streeterville.
Columbus Hospital was her 46th, and the one where she died of heart failure, just a few days before Christmas, 1917.
In 1909 Mother Cabrini became an American citizen, so in 1946 when she was canonized a saint, she became the first American saint. It caused a flood of pilgrims to visit her room at Columbus Hospital, which was left in tact after her death. So many people visited that in 1955, Cardinal Stritch named it a shrine. The centerpiece of the shrine was a portion of her arm.
In 2002, the hospital closed and was demolished, being mostly replaced by the Lincoln Park 2520 tower mentioned above. But the heart of the hospital — the Cabrini Chapel — was left intact. Today it has been restored, and along with the new shrine designed by Mark Sullivan of Sullivan, Goulette & Wilson, stands as an independent, though adjacent, building.
The inside has been magnificently redone. The hand-painted frescoes look fresh. The stained glass windows from Florence, Italy gleam in the sun. And the marble shines like new.
Just outside the chapel is a small museum explaining Mother Cabrini’s life story and how she shaped Chicago. When Mother Cabrini died in 1917, her belongings were kept. Bernacki & Associates spent months restoring these artifacts and today her room has been recreated and filled with the saint’s actual furniture and personal belongings, arranged just as they were when she died almost a century ago.
Even if you’re not religious, and just need a place to sit and think and get your head together, this shrine is worth visiting. Like may religious facilities in downtown Chicago (Holy Name Cathedral, Assumption
Church, Saint James Cathedral), this building has a garden space that is open to the public to spend quiet time in contemplative thought as a sanctuary from the rigors of everyday life. But unlike the other facilities downtown, the silence may occasionally be broken by the roar of a lion or baying of wolves from the zoo across the street.
We were invited into the shrine the week before it opened to the public, and took some great pictures of the interior. Even with ladders and tarps and workmen all around, it was still a very impressive space. Check out the photo gallery for some great pictures of Chicago’s newest sacred space.