Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
The Church celebrates the feast day of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) on Jan. 4. “Mother Seton” was both a wife and mother of five, founder of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph and the first American citizen born in the U.S. to be declared a saint. I had the opportunity to get a quick look at the magnificent National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (visit https://setonshrine.org/) in Emmitsburg, Maryland, last spring. (Visit the shrine on Jan. 4, 2018, 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., and you can join in Mass celebrated by Archbishop of Baltimore William Lori and hear him preach for the feast day.)
Mother Seton was born into an Episcopal family in New York City. She married a successful businessman when she was 19, and went on to have five children with him. She was widowed in 1803, and converted to Catholicism in 1805. She went on to found the first women’s religious community established in the U.S., which still serves today in the U.S. and Canada.
She was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975. Her remains have been entombed in the Basilica of the Emmitsburg shrine since 1968.
Components of the shrine include the Basilica, which was completed in 1965 and designated a minor basilica in 1991, along with the visitor center and museum which tells the story of Mother Seton and her nuns. Also on the grounds is the 1750 Stone House, one of the first homes in Emmitsburg in which Mother stayed. (In 2015, President Obama presented Pope Francis with an original key to the Stone House upon the pontiff’s visit to the White House.) Also part of the tour is the Shrine’s White House, an early 1800s home into which Mother and her sisters moved after the Stone House. Its historic furnishings, including a school room similar to that which Mother might have taught in two centuries ago, help take you back to the early days of the community.
Other features on the property are the St. Joseph Cemetery and a Mortuary Chapel, built by Mother’s son, William, to honor his mother after she died. Take a look also for the Stations of the Cross, bronze images you’ll find in the stone wall surrounding the cemetery.
The shrine is located just 15 miles from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of the Civil War’s bloodiest battle (which is how I stumbled on it, leaving the battlefield). Mother Seton’s sisters traveled to the battlefield to care for the wounded of both sides (see the Civil War Sisters exhibit).
Start at the Visitor Center, which offers an introductory 12-minute film; tour on your own or take one of the free guided tours offered throughout the day. The shrine is open 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and is free to visit; religious items are for sale in the gift shop. If you want to pay a modest fee, the shrine offers tours to the surrounding areas, such as to the Gettysburg battlefield.
There are also opportunities for spiritual nourishment at the shrine, including Mass Sunday through Friday at 1:30 p.m. and confession before Mass Monday through Friday, 12:15 to 1:15 p.m.
The shrine is a place of beautiful art and architecture, and does a magnificent job telling the story of Mother Seton and her community. The grounds are well maintained, peaceful and extensive; take time to kneel and pray before the remains of Mother Seton, located in the Altar of Relics in the Basilica. It’s a wonderful Catholic as well as American heritage site, and well worth a visit.