Jutting through the now-silent battlefield at Gettysburg lies Emmitsburg Road. Follow it through the still haunting historic site and beyond, by another 10 miles or so, and you will find yourself in the historic town of Emmitsburg, Md.
The proximity of the two locales is mentioned because, while many vacationing Catholics will naturally think to visit one of the key Civil War sites, they may not consider that just a few minutes away is one of the nation’s key Catholic sites.
And with new exhibits recently added and existing attractions recently refurbished, Emmitsburg is well worth a short trip.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Emmitsburg grew out of a settlement established by Maryland colonists, who, in 1728, sought to escape the persecution that Protestants were inflicting upon their Catholic neighbors elsewhere in the colony.
Later, both Mount St. Mary’s College (now Mount St. Mary’s University) and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton — the first American-born saint and foundress of the first American religious community for women and the first U.S. parish school, whose feast day is Jan. 4 — came to the area, establishing an island of Catholicism in what was then a remote part of the nation. Even today, the town has only 3,000 or so residents.
According to Mount St. Mary’s website (MSMary.edu), Father Jean DuBois, a refugee from the anti-Catholic and bloody French Revolution, founded a small church here, after he "was attracted to ‘a light on the mountain and found a blessed spot, one of the loveliest in the world, and there erected a crude cross, the symbol of the holy work he was undertaking.’"
He also found a natural grotto here, and it was a place both he and Mother Seton — who upon her arrival in Emmitsburg stayed at his cabin until her own quarters were ready — loved to pray. Indeed, long before it became a national shrine, the grotto played an integral part in the area’s spiritual life.
Less than two decades following Our Lady’s 1858 apparitions to St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France, at a grotto there, the one here was dedicated to the one in Lourdes and named the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Over the past 139 years, the university has enhanced this "loveliest spot in the world" with, among other things, gorgeous Stations of the Cross, a quaint little chapel and a Rosary walk. There are also statues commemorating other apparitions of Our Lady, such as the one recalling her appearance at Lavang, Vietnam, and another memorializing her apparition at Banneux, Belgium.
The shrine has recently opened a new visitor’s center, with small exhibit cases that line the broad hallway leading to its excellent bookstore. There is also a newly minted chapel capable of holding several hundred people. The chapel’s glass walls allow congregants the privilege of contemplating the goodness of God in nature at the same time they contemplate his goodness in sacrificing his only begotten Son for our sins during the Mass.
Down the road from the Grotto Shrine sits the sanctuary-basilica dedicated to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. While the beauty and power of this great pilgrimage site has been described in these pages before, Mother Seton’s Sisters of Charity have recently inaugurated an expanded basement museum with its "Charity Afire" exhibit.
Opened in the summer of 2013 to coincide with the Battle of Gettysburg’ 150th anniversary, the exhibit details the sisters’ key role in tending to the wounded and dying during that fateful conflict. The battle’s center was 12 miles to the north, and the sisters felt the earth shake from the exploding cannon fire on that historic occasion.
Although all of the new exhibits are affecting, one that is particularly moving involves the story of Gen. John Fulton Reynolds and his fiancée, Catherine Mary (Kate) Hewitt. They met on a ship sailing from San Francisco to New York, fell in love and got engaged.
Shortly thereafter, on July 1, 1863, Reynolds died on the first day of fighting at Gettysburg. Kate had promised him that, for her, there was no other, and that if he fell in battle, she would enter the religious life. True to her word, shortly after his burial in Lancaster, Pa., on July 4, she entered the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, not far from where her beloved had given his life for his country.
In addition to "Charity Afire," the Seton Shrine also offers local tours guided by historians, who teach visitors about the part played by both Emmitsburg and the sisters in what is arguably the Civil War’s central battle.
Brian O’Neel writes from
Planning Your Visit
For hours and more information on the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, visit MSMary.edu/grotto or call (301) 447-5318.
For hours and more information on the new exhibits and special events at the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, visit SetonHeritage.org or HeartoftheCivilWar.org or call (301) 447-6606.