It was by happy accident that my family and I wandered into St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s old stomping grounds: a forested oasis of solitude a little over an hour away from the busy metropolis of our nation’s capital. We had spent a hectic and exciting series of days in Washington D.C., and were now on our way to spend the rest of the week on a little tour through Pennsylvania. We planned to stay our first night in Gettysburg. How to get there? We spontaneously decided on driving through Emmitsburg, Maryland and possibly making a stop at the National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes.
Our little detour turned out to be a beautiful way to spend the afternoon. After a short drive up Mount St. Mary’s, we parked, entered the gates and walked down the forested path edged by a series of shrines and statues: corners for prayer and meditation inspired by Jesus, Mary and many of the saints.
We had the place almost to ourselves. The kids loved the long walk into the woods and the discovery of each new treasure along the way, including the pool of spring water near the end that had the look of Tolkien’s Lothlorien.
At the very end of our walk, we found the anticipated Lourdes Grotto – the oldest known replica of Lourdes which dates back to 1875. (Although, believe it or not, we didn’t get a nice photo of it.)
We also found another little surprise. At the conclusion of our walk, just before the beautiful Lourdes Grotto, we found a historical marker noting “Mother Seton’s Rock”.
Here, between the grotto and a quaint little chapel, was the spot where St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had spent many Sunday afternoons teaching children of the mountain parish in the early 19th century.
My own children were thrilled to have the chance to sit on the very rock that she had, and to get a taste of the humble life she lived and the natural surroundings in which she spent many of her afternoons sharing her faith with others.
“Seek God in All Things”: Mother Seton, American Saint
Today St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is an inspiration to many – to mothers, to teachers, to religious sisters, to those who serve the sick, to converts, to those in many walks of life. But as a young woman, she probably never imagined that her life would take the turns it did and that she would be remembered by so many people centuries after her death.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born into a wealthy Episcopal family in New York City in 1774, two years before the United States Declaration of Independence. (Read about her and her husband’s genealogy on this Emmitsburg Area Historical Society webpage.)
A child of privilege, young Eliza went on to face much adversity during her short life. By the time of her death at age 46 from tuberculosis, she had suffered many sorrows. When she was 3 years of age, her mother died. As a teenager, she was all but abandoned by her father and step-mother. As a wife and mother, she suffered the death of her husband William Seton, faced destitution with no means to care for her five children, and mourned the loss of two of her children. Yet, despite these struggles, Eliza kept her peace and trust in God.
After converting to Catholicism thanks to the inspiration of Italian Catholic family friends, Elizabeth (Bayley) Seton went on to leave an incredible legacy of faith in American Catholicism. She founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s (the first Catholic religious order to originate in the United States, which after her death became linked with the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul). She founded the St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, which many point to as the beginnings of the parochial school system in the United States. In 1975, Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born American citizen to be declared a saint.
Elizabeth became known as Mother Seton after her move to Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1809 to found the St. Joseph’s Catholic school for girls. She had a true heart for the souls of children, as evidenced by her Sunday lessons “from the rock”, and many letters she wrote to her own daughters and to other young girls in her care.
Here is an example – a letter Elizabeth wrote to her youngest sister-in-law Cecilia which includes a sweet little poem.
Let your chief study be to acquaint yourself with God because there is nothing greater than God, and because it is the only knowledge which can fill the Heart with a Peace and joy, which nothing can disturb – Father of all Beings how extensive are thy mercies! How great how inexpressible. It is in Thee we live and move and have our being . . . Thy paternal cares are over all mankind. . . .
As a little child relies
on a care beyond his own
knows he’s neither strong nor wise
fears to stir a step alone
let me thus with Thee abide
as my Father guard and guide.
- Elizabeth Ann Seton, letter to her sister-in-law Cecilia Seton, November 19, 1802
I loved reading Elizabeth’s letter to her firstborn daughter Anna Maria (Annina) on her eighth birthday:
This is your Birth day – the day that I first held you in my arms – May God Almighty Bless you my Child and make you his Child forever – your Mother’s Soul prays to Him to lead you through this world, so that we may come to his Heavenly Kingdom in Peace, through the merits of our blessed Saviour.
- Elizabeth Ann Seton, letter to her daughter Anna Maria (Annina) Seton, May 3, 1803
One more example of Elizabeth’s correspondence – a letter giving spiritual direction to one of her former students, reminding her of the religious education she received at her First Communion and encouraging her to place God at the center of her life:
God bless you, my loved child, Remember Mother’s [Elizabeth's] first and last lesson to you: seek God in all things. In all your actions submit your motives to this unerring test: ‘Will this be approved by God’s all-seeing eye?’
- Elizabeth Ann Seton, letter to a former student, about 1818
Our family was blessed to become a little better acquainted with this holy woman as we made our visit to Mother Seton’s former hometown in this beautiful area of Maryland during our drive that day. From the back of the little chapel that sits just a stone’s throw from “Mother Seton’s Rock”, a statue of her likeness overlooks that spot where for many years she gathered children of the mountain parish on Sunday afternoons to teach them the Catholic faith.
For more about St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life, her shrines and memorials, visit:
- National Shrine Grotto of Lourdes at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland
- National Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland
- Find A Grave Memorial for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
- Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in New York, New York
- St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Museum, Sisters of Charity of New York
- More info about Mother Seton’s Rock at the Historical Marker Database
- More info about the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes at the Historical Marker Database
- The Practice of Spiritual Direction in the Life and Writings of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton – a dissertation by Shin Ja Lee, 2010
- Sharon Seckens’ photos of Emmitsburg, Maryland
- Various books and DVDs for both children and adults about the life and faith of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton