Sculptors Giancarlo Biagi and Jill Burkee with architect Martin Sendlewski at the Mother Cabrini Memorial in Battery Park last week.
Photo: Michelle Biagi © 2020

Riverhead has made a permanent mark on the island of Manhattan.

The celebrated new sculpture of Mother Cabrini that stands in Battery Park City at the southern tip of Manhattan, looking out at the Statue of Liberty, was created by sculptors, Giancarlo Biagi and Jill Burkee, who have a studio in Northville.

Their 12-foot-tall bronze sculpture depicts a young Mother Cabrini in a tiny paper boat with two small children. The three figures are looking expectantly toward the horizon, where the the Statue of Liberty.

Mother Francesca Cabrini was an Italian missionary nun dispatched by Pope Leo XIII to the United States to work among struggling Italian immigrants. She arrived in New York on March 31, 1889 with six members of the order she founded, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and went to work in the slums of Little Italy in Manhattan. The nuns established an orphanage and a hospital for the impoverished Italian immigrants. They went on to establish schools, hospitals and orphanages across the U.S.

Mother Cabrini, who died in December 1917, was canonized in 1946 as St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. The first American saint, she is considered the patron saint of immigrants.

The statue is unveiled in Battery Park Oct. 12. Courtesy photo: Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled the monument on Columbus Day, Oct. 12. Cuomo established the Mother Cabrini Memorial Commission a year earlier to help him develop the new memorial, which was not without controversy. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “She Built NYC” commission passed over Mother Cabrini and Cuomo stepped in to give the first American saint the honor he said she deserved.

Cuomo’s 19-member commission issued a call for artists last December with a Jan. 31 deadline for artist proposals.

A few weeks later, on Feb. 26, Biagi and Burkee learned their proposal had been selected. The pair immediately embarked on a whirlwind process of creating models and molds, working toward the casting of the full-size bronze monument. It is a complex process that was made even more complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.

They originally planned to go their studio in Italy to complete the project, but the pandemic meant they couldn’t travel and they were forced to make other plans. The work needs to be done near a foundry, a specialized factory that makes metal castings, where the Cabrini bronze would be cast.

A sculptor friend in Colorado, who was heading to Europe to be with family during the pandemic, offered her studio and home, so they hit the road.

Biagi and Burkee tapped Riverhead architect Martin Sendlewski to develop the site plan for the Cabrini memorial. Sendlewski has been working with them on various projects since Biagi and his wife, Germana Pucci, decided to build a home — and a studio for Biagi and Burkee — on land they bought in Northville in 2001. He is working with them on developing a gallery and cultural center on East Main Street in Riverhead, to be built on the vacant lot next to Barth’s Drug Store. Sendlewski was able to oversee the site work for the design in Battery Park City, which began in July, while the sculptors were working in Colorado.

Biagi, Pucci and Burkee have been working together as a team since 1977, Biagi said. Biagi and Pucci, natives of Pietrasanta, in the Tuscany region of Italy, met Burkee, a native of Colorado, after her parents went to a foundry in Italy where Biagi was then working. Her father, a sculptor in Aspen, Colorado, was commissioned to learn foundry work, Burkee said.

“We became very strong friends,” Biagi said.

Jill’s parents invited Biagi to visit America. He stayed longer than he first intended, obtained a green card and went to work for a man in Aspen, Colorado to build a foundry there. He married Pucci and she joined him in the U.S.

And so began a lifelong collaboration that has produced a large body of commissioned public and private work in marble, bronze and clay, that can be seen around the world.

“When Jill and I sculpt, we don’t just sculpt a figure, everything has a meaning. Everything has a direction, every piece, every expression, every hand that touches or holds has a meaning,” Biagi said. “The drapery has a meaning. The veil has a meaning, all those things.”

Courtesy photo: Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Mother Cabrini is sailing in a paper boat because as a child she would make little paper boats, fill them with violets and set them to sail in a river near her home in northern Italy, imagining they were journeying on a mission trip to the Far East, which was her dream.

The call to artists issued by the Cabrini Memorial Commission required the monument to depict a woman and two children.

“The paper boat is an important part about the concept,” Burkee said. “And that is the story of her making the paper boots and sending them down the river. That’s what everybody knows her about. And that’s how, when Giancarlo and I were designing the monument, we put her on the boat.”

The concept of Cabrini in the paper boat making the voyage won the artists the unanimous vote of the 19-member commission.

One of Cabrini’s hands touches the boy, gently but reassuringly, on his chest. Her other hand is very strong and grips the drape of her veil the way one would hold the rudder of a boat, steering it to its destination, Biagi said. Her dress is like the sail of the boat.

“One hand is very strong. The other one is very suave and gentle,” Biagi said.

The Biagi/Burkee bronze statue in Battery Park.
Courtesy photo: Martin Sendlewski

“If you see the boy’s face, he’s really scared because he’s coming to a new country,” he said. “We all have that fear. When we come to a country, when we go to a new place. We are all immigrants in one way or another. We all come from someplace else. It is true for anybody, even American Indians. We all came from Africa at one point. And so that’s what this sculpture represents,” he said.

“The little girl has one hand on her book, which is really important because instruction is very important to Mother Cabrini. And that’s why she was able to, to come here and through the education of the people she took them out out of the street, and gave them decency, nobility, all those immigrants,” he said. “And in the other hand, she’s holding the boat and also she holds a little violet.”

The girl sailing in the paper boat with Mother Cabrini and a little boy holds a book in one hand and a violet in the other. Courtesy photo: Martin Sendlewski

The boy holds an ocarina, a wind instrument made of fired clay that was invented near the town where Mother Cabrini was born at around her time of her birth.

“We chose that instrument because it comes from the same year that Cabrini was born near the place where she was born. And it also represents what the immigrants brought to this country. They brought their culture, their instruments, their love — their everything,” Biagi said.

Bas relief panels telling the story of Cabrini’s life wrap around the pedestal base of the statue.

Upon the statue’s completion, the sculptors had it brought from Colorado to New York on a flatbed truck. The bronze work was stored in a barn in Riverhead for a couple of days before it was installed in Battery Park, where it was welded to the base on site, Sendlewski said.

Sendlewski, who has designed numerous firehouses, said he has done a few monuments for those projects, including a 911 memorial. But this project was different.

“It really was special because I personally thought of my grandmother and she had always told me what it meant to her coming to America when she was 16, by herself, and seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, and coming into Ellis Island,” Sendlewski said.

Biagi and Burkee attended the unveiling of the monument on Columbus Day in Battery Park City, with the governor and members of the memorial commission, but Sendlewski didn’t get to see the completed installation with the statue in place until last week, when he traveled to Manhattan with Burkee, Biagi and Pucci.

“I knew there was one spot I wanted to sit, one bench where you sit, back up to the landscaping looking from behind toward the Statue of Liberty,” Sendlewski said.

“It was very special — one of those things you get to experience once in your life,” the Riverhead native said.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor and attorney. Her work has been recognized with numerous journalism awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She was also honored in 2020 with a NY State Senate Woman of Distinction Award for her trailblazing work in local online news. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.