Photo Courtesy of Nicholas DiGregory
The teachers and students of Emmitsburg’s Mother Seton School gather for a picture after Bishop Gainer’s anniversary Mass. The school traces its history all the way back to Elizabeth Ann Seton’s original school in Emmitsburg.
On March 2, 1809, Elizabeth Ann Seton penned a letter to her life-long and possibly dearest friend, Julia Sitgreaves Scott. The letter described Seton’s intention to move from Baltimore to the Catoctin Valley, where she would start a school on lands provided by a generous Mount St. Mary’s seminarian.
“He is about purchasing a place at Emmitsburg, and has offered me the department of taking care of the children who may be presented or rather of being the mother of the family,” Seton wrote in the letter. “This pleases me for many reasons—in the first place I shall live in the mountains, in the next I shall see no more of the world than if I was out of it and have every object centered in my own family.”
The Catoctin Mountains and Valley always held a special place in Seton’s heart. Throughout her life, she referred to the area as the “Valley of Blessings.” The town of Emmitsburg, nestled quietly in the Catoctin Valley, provided Seton with the perfect place to begin the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph. Emmitsburg’s reasonable distance from major cities and quiet country lifestyle allowed Seton and her religious sisters to be free of distractions, which in turn enabled them to focus all of their time on the care and education of the poor.
It was in quiet Emmitsburg, in the heart of the Catoctin Valley, that Seton’s religious community flourished. The Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph inspired the formation of other communities across North America. The religious sisters of these communities have served and educated the poor, just as Mother Seton did, in hundreds of countries throughout the world.
Mother Seton’s humble mission of love and service to the poor, a mission that found its realization largely in Emmitsburg, sowed the seeds for her canonization. The title of saint, which in the Roman Catholic Church signifies a person of utmost virtue and spirituality, was bestowed upon Elizabeth Ann Seton on September 14, 1975, making her the first American-born individual to be graced with the title.
Now, for the fortieth anniversary of Seton’s canonization, the town of Emmitsburg is once again celebrating their very own saint.
The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is hosting a year-long celebration commemorating the fortieth year of Seton’s sainthood. Entitled “40 Years a Saint,” this celebration is embodied in a premier exhibition that displays memorabilia previously unavailable for public admiration. This exhibit, which has become the centerpiece of the shrine’s museum, is composed of treasured objects, letters, documents, and pictures that were significant during Seton’s canonization process.
Among the most treasured of these pieces on display at the National Shrine is Seton’s canonization banner. When a saint is proclaimed by the Roman Catholic Church, a large image of the person is often painted and displayed prominently in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome. Seton’s canonization banner, which depicts her bathed in heavenly light and standing in the clouds above the earth, has not been seen by the public since the canonization celebration 40 years ago. It was removed from archival storage in Emmitsburg and restored specifically for the new exhibit at the shrine.
“That canvas was painted specifically for her canonization celebration in Rome, and it hung in Saint Peter’s Square, right above the entire celebration,” said Rob Judge, the executive director of the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. “It was the centerpiece during the canonization, and it is now the centerpiece in our museum.”
Besides the banner, many noteworthy artifacts of Seton’s canonization are on display at the “40 Years a Saint” exhibit. Among these items are letters validating miraculous healings for those who prayed to Mother Seton, as well as the congressional proclamation which denoted September 14, 1975, as “National Saint Elizabeth Seton Day.”
In addition to the yearlong exhibit, the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton hosted a three-day anniversary festival, which led up to the fortieth anniversary of Seton’s canonization on Monday, September 14, 2015. All public events throughout the festival were held at the National Shrine and were free to attend.
The weekend festivities started at 7 p.m. on Saturday, September 12, with a commemorative concert by Dr. David Hildebrand, adjunct professor of musicology at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and presenter for the Colonial Music Institute. Hildebrand, a master of colonial-era music, performed instrumental pieces from Mother Seton’s time period on the harpsichord, fiddle, period guitar, and recorder. An a cappella quartet also performed alongside Hildebrand.
“The grounds where Mother Seton once walked were again serenaded with the music of her time,” said Becca Corbell, the worship and retreat coordinator for the National Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton. “Dr. David Hildebrand beautifully escorted us through the life and sounds of her era.”
Events the following day began at 1:30 p.m. with a commemorative Mass celebrated by Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore. During the Mass, Lori shared his memories of Elizabeth Ann Seton’s canonization day. At that time, he was studying to become a priest at Mount St. Mary’s seminary; on the day of the canonization, he and his fellow seminarians helped the Sisters of Charity coordinate the celebrations in Emmitsburg.
“Looking back on it, I’m not sure that we were much help to the sisters,” joked Lori. “But I certainly remember how happy we were, how excited we were that a saint, who so loved Emmitsburg, and who so loved the grotto, and who knew our seminary, and who was the first saint born in the United States, we were so excited about all these things unfolding before us.”
During the commemorative Mass, Lori also praised Seton’s concern for, and care of, the poor, stressing that her example was one that should be followed by all men and women.
“It is safe to say that Mother Seton is not remembered as a mystic or a theologian, though, to repeat, she was a woman of deep contemplation, a poetic, gentle soul, who combined that gentility with resolute determination,” said Lori. “For her, her faith was not merely a matter of her head or her heart. It was something to be practiced with one’s hands.”
Following the conclusion of the commemorative Mass, a party was held outside of the shrine. Guests were offered refreshments and live music was provided by the Baltimore-based folk band, Charm City Junction. Fun-filled opportunities included games such as cornhole and hopscotch, nineteenth-century period photographs, and silhouette drawings. All the while, a living historian dressed as Elizabeth Ann Seton posed for photos and led tours through interactive exhibits.
The events of the three-day festival concluded on September 14, the anniversary of Mother Seton’s canonization. Since much of Seton’s life was spent as a teacher, students and teachers were invited to an anniversary Mass offered by Bishop Ronald Gainer of Harrisburg. More than half a dozen schools from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were present at the Mass, including the entirety of Emmitsburg’s Mother Seton School, which traces its history back to Seton’s original school.
“It’s amazing that our school has gone this far, and that we get to be a part of Mother Seton’s community now,” said Sydney McCarron, a seventh-grade student at Mother Seton School. “It’s great that we get to be here to witness everything she’s done.”
The events of the anniversary weekend were attended by hundreds of residents of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Among the most esteemed of guests were 150 Sisters of Charity from across the United States, Canada, and several other countries.
Although the three-day anniversary festival has ended, the National Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton will continue to host the “40 Years a Saint” exhibit through the summer of 2016. But even though the fortieth anniversary commemorations must end next year, one can be sure that the residents of the Catoctin Valley will continue to celebrate their beloved saint.
“[Seton] sent sisters out all over the country, who in turn have gone out across the world, and they’ve built hospitals and schools and orphanages—all of that came out of our community here,” said Judge. “And now, especially now that she’s canonized, she’s a saint of the universal church, which of course is international—Emmitsburg’s own, so to speak, has an international footprint. That’s a reflection on the community, and they rightly should have a lot of pride in that recognition.”
The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann is open for visitors from 10:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m. every day at 339 S. Seton Avenue in Emmitsburg.
Photo Courtesy of Scott Dugan