Bernacki & Associates, Inc.

Restoring the Artifacts of Mother Cabrini and Discovering Her Legacy

December 22, 1917, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini died in Chicago. She was recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church in 1946. Her significance and contributions to Chicago are numerous-but specifically, Columbus hospital in Lincoln Park, which was demolished approximately a decade ago. The hidden Shrine within the hospital remained; it was restored, and officially re-opened on October 1, 2012.

Our involvement began with a call from the Project Architect, Chris Payne of Sullivan, Goulette & Wilson Ltd., with a request to catalogue and assess the condition of the artifacts that once belonged to Mother Cabrini and had been on display at the National Shrine. 

During the assessment and subsequent restoration of Mother Cabrini’s artifacts, we gradually uncovered the legacy of a dynamic businesswoman, leader, and faithful servant through her notes, articles of clothing and furniture. We came to realize that the chairs, desk, tables and accessories used by Mother Francis Xavier Cabrini were instruments that carried out an honorable purpose; to provide care for the sick and poor; to establish schools, hospitals and orphanages.

The furniture items were of quality representative of the genuine craftsmanship. But they definitely have suffered from wear and the well-intentioned attempts to repair and “freshen them up” over the past 90 years. I’d like to share a bit of the challenge we were confronted with as we sought to preserve Mother Cabrini’s belongings for future generations.

This example shows the Eastlake chair. The images document the disassembly of the chair to find the numerous nail holes and staple marks that penetrated the wood frame causing splits, structural instability and damage. The photos reveal how often the chair was recovered. The upholstery was removed, and because of its fragile state, we took great care in disassembling the chair. Nails that held the upholstery also held together the wooden frame.

Photo:  Detail before conservation; front view

Photo: Detail before conservation; front view

Photo:  Detail before conservation; rear view

Photo: Detail before conservation; rear view

Photos:  Frame condition revealed after upholstery removal

Photos: Frame condition revealed after upholstery removal

Photo:  Disassembled chair frame

Photo: Disassembled chair frame

The immediate focus was to stabilize the chair, conserve the finish and reattach the upholstered seat and back. While removing the upholstered seat, we discovered that another covering existed beneath the top layer-the original to the chair (photo below). In order to secure and reattach the upholstery post conservation treatment, a newly fabricated support trim was adhered to the frame. 


The chair was reassembled and stabilized, the finish was cleaned of grime and previous conservation attempts, the wood losses were consolidated and remained in some areas. The original upholstery was attached to the new support.  


This chair and other furniture items restored by Bernacki & Associates, Inc. are on display at The National Shrine of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini 2520 N. Lakeview Ave Chicago IL 60614.

Diana Bernacki
Bernacki & Associates, Inc.