Bensonhurst Catholics furious after NYC’s first lady snubs saintly winner of statue-building initiative

Raising hell: Ursula Agosta (left) and Rosalie Graziano (right) are furious that First Lady Chirlane McCray ignored the winner of the She Built NYC initiative, Mother Cabrini.
Photo by Marcus Stevens

She’s no saint!

Bensonhurst Catholics slammed First Lady Chirlane McCray for snubbing the saintly winner of a supposedly democratic election to determine the subject of a statue-building campaign honoring the trailblazing women of New York City history

“It makes no sense,” said Rosalie Grazaino, who has attended Saint Frances Cabrini Church in Bensonhurst for 50 years. “What happened to democracy?”

Congregates of the Bay 11th Street church near 86th street pooled their votes to nominate the house of worship’s beatific patron — known for her work with New York’s immigrants in the late 19th century — and the worshippers came to dominate the poorly attended polls with a whopping 219 votes.

But St. Cabrini’s supporters claim Comrade McCray spit in the face of democracy and threw their votes in trash when she chose seven different women to commemorate with statues across the city.

“It feels like we’re living in Communist China,” said Ursula Agosta, 72, a Bensonhurst resident and a parishioner at the Bay 11th Street church near 86th street. “I voted for her like I vote for the mayor, like I vote for the president.”

McCray launched the She Built NYC public initiative in June 2018 to address the city’s lack of statues honoring great women, and asked the public to nominate their favorites. Some of the top votes went to Saint Frances Cabrini, activist Jane Jacobs, and humanitarian Lillian Wald — all of whom received more votes than most of McCray’s picks.

Instead, Mayor de Blasio’s wife and Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen chose to commemorate jazz singer Billie Holiday, civil rights advocate Elizabeth Jennings Graham, doctor Helen Rodriguez Trias, and LGBTQ activist, Sylvia Rivera — none of whom were among the top seventeen women nominated.

The other three picks — Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, lighthouse keeper Katherine Walker, and transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson — did make the top seven spots, although none took first or second place.

The winners announcement caused a ruckus at the Bensonhurst church, where parishioners had mobilized friends and neighbors to cast votes for their patron saint, known as Mother Cabrini, after their priest, Reverend Guy Sbordone, urged the congregation to vote for her.

And Councilman Justin Brannan (D–Bensonhurst) penned an letter politely bashing the city on Aug. 16 for ignoring the open call’s results.

“I am delighted with the individuals who were selected… they are all personal heroes of mine,” he wrote. “However, the seemingly undemocratic process for arriving at these choices leaves me quite dismayed, as I feel the will of my people was denied.” The first lady has not yet responded to the letter, Brannan claimed on Aug. 29.

Even the panelists McCray chose to evaluate the public’s picks expressed frustration at the first lady’s dictatorial selection process, according to an art news website Hyperallergic.

“The whole thing was a charade,” Harriet Senie, an art historian on the panel, told Hyperallergic.

A spokesman at She Built NYC clarified that the seven statues are the first of many that the organization hopes to build, and claimed that the nominations were strictly advisory. The committee prioritized selecting a racially diverse group: only one of the seven statues, Katherine Walker, was white.

However, while the spokesman claimed that the committee would continue considering Mother Cabrini, he implied that a statue may not be in the cards, saying the saint is wealthy with tributes.

“We appreciate the passion and enthusiasm for honoring Mother Cabrini’s remarkable life and work, and we’re proud that New York City is home to a shrine honoring her, along with a street and parkland named in her honor,” he said.

Reach reporter Rose Adams at radams@schnepsmedia.com or by calling (718) 260–8306. Follow her on Twitter @rose_n_adams

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