It's been 200 years since the first U.S.-born saint began a ministry in the Western Maryland mountains, but Catholics who will celebrate St. Elizabeth Ann Seton's legacy this weekend say her work still inspires today's faithful.
Some are more familiar with the name of the saint known as Mother Seton - attached to schools, hospitals and relief organizations worldwide - than with the small figure from New York City who turned her back on high society to establish the nation's first women's religious community in Emmitsburg in 1809. But as they celebrate her legacy, Roman Catholic leaders say Seton's work has modern relevance. Many people in need who may have never heard of her, including non-Catholics, get food and schooling from efforts she launched in the 19th century.
"Today we know about the success of Elizabeth Ann Seton's efforts - the legacy of the community she founded, the seeds of the Catholic school system that she planted, and the widespread reach into health care and social services," said Karen Harding, director of Seton's National Shrine in Emmitsburg, where a three-day bicentennial celebration begins Friday evening.
Seton, who took vows as a nun after converting to Catholicism, moved from New York to Baltimore to launch a Catholic school for girls, then left for Emmitsburg to found what became the American province of the Daughters of Charity. She was canonized in 1975 by Pope Paul VI.
"Her followers are addressing many issues of today, which have a different face than in Elizabeth Ann Seton's time - new forms of poverty, slavery through trafficking, injustice to migrant workers, hunger experienced by millions and minimal wages that do not provide all the necessities," said Sister Claire Debes, Emmitsburg Daughters of Charity provincial superior.
The Rev. Kyle Ingels, chaplain of the Catholic Student Center at the University of Maryland, said that students at the school are as inspired by Seton's life and work as he was when he visited her shrine.
"She endured some real challenges in the wilderness of Maryland and remained committed to her faith. For young people, that's a great message," said Ingels.
Seton will be honored with a commemoration officials say has taken years to plan and includes a re-enactment of the two-day trek she took from Baltimore to Emmitsburg. A sister from the Daughters of Charity will dress as the saint, and a horse-drawn Conestoga wagon, similar to the one Seton used 200 years ago, will follow. The re-enactment Sunday will proceed from the Grotto of Lourdes at nearby Mount Saint Mary's University to the Seton Shrine.
Seton is known for helping lay the groundwork for American Catholic schooling. Her free school for underprivileged girls in the area was the first such school staffed by sisters in the country. She also launched a boarding school there and a mission at nearby Mount Saint Mary's College to oversee the infirmary and domestic services for the college and seminary.
Seton's ministry to the poor and needy quickly spread: She dispatched what were then called the Sisters of Charity to Philadelphia to manage the first Catholic orphanage in the country, as well as the first Catholic orphanage in New York.
"Her network grew and grew, and today it spreads from Emmitsburg to California," said the Rev. Michael J. Roach, history instructor at Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmitsburg. "She was really an outstanding woman from the old Protestant establishment, well connected in New York society, and she gave all that up to do this great work for the church."
The venues that bear her name include Seton Hall University in East Orange, N.J.; the Seton Hill section of Baltimore; Seton College in Queensland, Australia; Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg; Seton Keough High School in Baltimore; the Seton family of hospitals in Austin, Texas; and Elizabeth Seton School in the Philippines.
"She reached out to people of any religion and was committed to helping the poor," said the Rev. Douglas J. Milewski, assistant theology professor at Seton Hall. "That's a challenge to us as an institution, to reach out to the poor and needy and not just those who can afford to be educated here."
The Daughters of Charity, a branch of a religious community founded in France in the 17th century, now has six branches in the U.S. with more than 5,000 members. Locally, they operate such facilities as the My Brother's Keeper Meal Program & Outreach in Baltimore, Saint Ann's Infant and Maternity Home in Hyattsville, Saint Elizabeth's Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Baltimore and the Literacy Council of Frederick County in Frederick.
"Mother Seton's philosophy of service to poor, fragile and vulnerable people in a manner that recognizes their human dignity appeals to a lot of people," said Danise Jones-Dorsey, executive director for My Brother's Keeper. "Not only is her message important to the Daughters of Charity, but they have been able to convey that message to laypeople like myself who respond to the call for service."
Joan Angermaier, director of docents and tours at the Seton Shrine, said that on Sunday at about noon, every church nationwide that is named for Seton will ring bells in her honor.
Angermaier said that the Daughters of Charity have gone to great lengths to ensure that Seton's legacy and work are captured during the commemoration.
There will also be a Civil War encampment on the Seton shrine grounds with re-enactors who will discuss Civil War history and how the Daughters of Charity assisted Union soldiers in 1863. And there will be four showings of a 30-minute documentary about Seton in the Shrine Theater.
The celebration should offer glimpses into the saint's varied life.
She was born Elizabeth Bayley on Aug. 28, 1774, in New York City. Her mother died when she was 3, and Seton Shrine officials say that early in their lives Seton and her sister were rejected by their stepmother. She married a New York businessman and was active in the city's social scene, yet was also known for nursing the sick and dying.
She was one of the founding members of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children in 1797. That led to a conversion from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism. She moved from New York to a home on Paca Street in Baltimore at the request of John Carroll, the bishop of Baltimore. She founded a school for girls at the house, the first Catholic school in the city. Upon the donation of nearly 300 acres of land in Emmitsburg, she left Baltimore for the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
"It was absolute wilderness when she got here," said Angermaier.
Her conversion to Catholicism was met with disapproval from her family as well as her husband's. The scorn was among many hardships Seton endured; she and her husband, William, had five children, but two of her three daughters died as teenagers. Her husband's family ventures went bankrupt and his death left her penniless.
Yet she persevered. "She was not consumed by her hardships. There was no 'Why me?', no self-pity," said Harding, director of the Seton shrine. "As we face uncertainties in our own lives, we can look to her life as an example, to meet life's challenges with cheerful determination and trust in God's will for us, one day at a time."
If you go: Seton Bicentennial Weekend
The following events are free and will take place at the National Shrine and Basilica of Elizabeth Ann Seton, 333 S. Seton Ave., Emmitsburg. Call 301-447-6606 or go to setonshrine.org.
7 p.m.: : Celebration Weekend Opening Ceremony at the Basilica: Prayer service and defining moments in the 200 year history of the Daughters of Charity, followed by showing of the bicentennial DVD, "The Seton Legacy," shown in the Shrine Theater.
9 a.m.:: Eucharistic Liturgy in the Basilica: The main celebrant is Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops.
7 p.m.: : Concert in the Basilica: Music that Elizabeth Ann Seton would have enjoyed, from Bach, Mozart, Scarlatti, Haydn and others.
8 a.m.: : Eucharistic Liturgy in the Basilica: The main celebrant is the Rev. Gregory Gay, superior general of the Congregation of the Mission and Daughters of Charity.
8 a.m.: : Eucharistic Liturgy in the Glass Chapel, Shrine Grotto of Lourdes at Mount St. Mary's University.
9:30 a.m.: : Dedication of Seton Legacy Garden, Shrine grounds, behind the Stone House.
- Joe Burris