Where a U.S. Saint Started
The National Shrine Of ST. Elizabeth Ann Seton
BY Joseph Pronechen
July 4-10, 1999 Issue | Posted 7/4/99 at 1:00 PM
Yearly, more than 3 million people visit the Statue of Liberty. Just across the street from Battery Park, where they catch the ferry to Liberty Island, there is a landmark of U.S. Catholic history. It's the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, first native-born American saint, located in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary.
Her national shrine is in Emmitsburg, Md., where she is buried in the Chapel of St. Joseph's Provincial House of the Sisters of Charity.
She arrived in Emmitsburg in 1809, the year after opening a successful school in Baltimore.
These were the years when St. Elizabeth laid the foundation for the parochial school system in the United States and founded the first American religious order, the Sisters of Charity.
Elizabeth was born on Aug. 28, 1774, in New York. She was 14 when George Washington was inaugurated in New York in April 1789, at Federal Hall, close to where she was growing up.
Elizabeth's wealthy family was highly regarded. Her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, was the Port of New York's first health officer and a professor at King's College, now Columbia University.
In January 1794, she married William Seton, son of a wealthy shipping merchant, and they had five children by 1802.
In May 1801, the Setons moved into a handsome federal-style brick house at 8 State St., a street which follows the curve of the southern tip of Manhattan and borders Battery Park.
They had panoramic views of New York Bay and happy sights of their children playing in the park. No one, least of all Elizabeth, dreamed that one day a Catholic church containing a shrine in her honor would stand on this site.
The Seton's happy marriage lasted only eight years, during which time there were family deaths, sickness, a declining business and a lost fortune.
A sea journey was suggested to help restore William's failing health, and friends in Italy, the Filicchi family, offered to put them up. They arrived in November 1803; six weeks later William died.
Only 29, Elizabeth remained in Italy for three months with the Filicchis. A devout Episcopalian, she became immersed in Catholicism and the strong faith of her hosts.
For the next year, back in New York, she prayed intensely about converting, and on March 14, 1805, made the journey from Old St. Paul's Chapel to St. Peter's Church, just a few blocks away. At this first parish in New York, she embraced Catholicism. Because the climate of the time was hostile to Catholics, her conversion meant loss of family and friends.
Other hardships compounded, and Elizabeth was even thwarted from earning a livelihood because of her new faith.
When the opportunity came to open a school in Baltimore, she left New York in June 1808.
Today the shrine church on the site, built after her beatification in 1963, joins a larger, brick structure nearby.
The two together now serve as Our Lady of the Rosary parish church and its rectory.
In the late 19th century a mansion on the site had become New York's best-known mission. It was initiated in 1885 by an Irish visitor named Charlotte O'Brien, who was aided by Cardinal John McCloskey of New York. Our Lady of the Rosary mission was designed to shelter and aid the young Irish immigrant girls arriving in large numbers.
Because terrible situations often befell those who could not immediately find jobs, the mission was for them a safety net and charitable haven. Until 1935, it welcomed and sheltered nearly 175,000 young immigrants, often up to 300 at a time.
Today, the church actively serves tourists and workers in the office districts of lower Manhattan. The interior recalls Elizabeth's times with its classic Federal-Georgian-Palladian lines. Behind the altar, a large stained glass window portrays St. Elizabeth instructing attentive pupils. To either side, smaller colonial-style panes present scenes from her life.
The shrine itself is in the back of the church, which is where the front of the Setons' house looking toward Battery Park would have been. The focus of the shrine is a life-sized sculpture of Mother Seton, as she was called, with her hand around a little girl. The child holds an open book and looks admiringly up at her teacher.
The statue was finished for the occasion of Elizabeth's 1975 canonization by a member of her order, Sister Margaret Beaudette, a sculp-tress whose studio is uptown at Mount St. Vincent College in the Bronx.
From the three sisters Mother Seton first sent to New York in 1917 to work at an orphanage, today's New York contingent of the order has grown to about 550.
Because of her love for the Eucharist and her emphasis on charitable work, which she began even before she founded the Sisters of Charity, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton would feel doubly at home in this church and shrine on the site of her happy family home.
Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
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