Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born American citizen to be canonized, and is one of the most widely celebrated saints in the United States. An active missionary and energetic founder of schools during America’s early years, Seton was active throughout the American colonies. She is widely commemorated, especially in New York and Maryland, where she was primarily active. Of the numerous sites connected to her life, the most important is the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, where she founded her first school.
Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first saint of the Roman Catholic Church who was a citizen in what would soon become the United States. Born into a Protestant family in New York City in 1774, Seton and her siblings had an uneven childhood after the death of their mother. She was subsequently raised by her father and stepmother, and for a brief time her uncle. She was married from 1794 until 1803, and they spent the last few years of the marriage in Italy where they hoped the warm climate would benefit her husband’s tuberculosis.
His death in 1803 left Seton both bereft and bankrupt. However, her time in Italy impacted her spiritually. Upon returning to the United States, she converted to Roman Catholicism. She then relocated from New York City to Baltimore, which had a larger and more thriving Catholic religious community. There she attempted to found a school for girls, but was financially unsuccessful and the school eventually failed.
However, in 1809, with the help and prompting of local Church officials, she relocated to the nearby town of Emmitsburg, where she established both the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, as well as the first freee girl’s Catholic school. The next year the order formally adopted the rules of the Daughters of Charity and took on the mantle of Mother Seton.
The school was a success, and Elizabeth Ann Seton went on to found additional schools throughout the area. She died in 1821 and was canonized in 1975. In the later years of the 19th century, her order continued to expand, with numerous institutions named in her honor, including the College of St. Elizabeth in New Jersey and Seton Hall Universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton stands on the site of her first school. The grounds, originally a farm, now incorporate the 18th century stone house which once served as the headquarters of the order, as well as the white house where the order later relocated, a cemetery and mortuary chapel. A large basilica is now located at the site.
The basilica is one of the first churches in America to be so designated. Although not particularly large, it is beautifully built out in a quasi-modern style. The highlight of the basilica is the Altar of Relics, where Seton’s remains are currently entombed after having been moved several times since her death.
The National Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton is a large complex located on the south side of Emmitsburg, approximately fifty miles northwest of Baltimore. The shrine is open daily from 10:00am-4:30pm with tours of the grounds offered most days. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. Web: www.setonheritage.org (official website).
Elizabeth Ann Seton has been honored since the time of her death, especially in her hometown of New York City. She is enshrined on the doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, is commemorated at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church where she was batized, and at St. Raymond’s Cemetery with a statue. Other sites of interest are the Mother Seton House in Baltimore, as well as the College of St. Elizabeth in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.