200 years of faith

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EMMITSBURG, Md. - Peering through a glass display case, 9-year-old Gloria Whitfield was impressed with an old letter that rested on a 19th-century wooden writing desk. Composed by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the May 3, 1803, note, written in a flowing black script, was addressed to one of the saint's daughters on the girl's birthday.

"May almighty God bless you, my child, and make you his child forever," it said.

Establishing an up-close connection with the first U.S.-born saint was a thrill for Gloria, a member of St. Timothy Parish in Chantilly. The youngster was equally impressed by a locket with St. Elizabeth Ann's hair, relics and other historic artifacts on display at the visitor center of the Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg.

"It's cool," said Gloria. "She did a lot for Catholic schools. She helped a lot of people."

Gloria was one of about 1,000 people from across the country and around the world who converged in Emmitsburg Aug. 2 to celebrate a special Mass honoring the 200th anniversary of Mother Seton's arrival in the small town.

The celebration also commemorated the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the community of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's - the first new community for women religious in the U.S.

The liturgy was the highlight of a weekend of events that also included the showing of a specially commissioned 30-minute documentary on the life of Mother Seton and the dedication of the Seton Legacy Garden behind the stone farmhouse where she founded the Sisters of Charity July 31, 1809.

Even though heavy rains washed out a planned re-enactment of Mother Seton's arrival in Emmitsburg in a Conestoga wagon, the bad weather failed to dampen high spirits among the many attendees at the Mass.

In his homily, Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden of Baltimore said the key to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton's success was her "unlimited love and faith in God."

"We celebrate the miracle of love personified in the person of Mother Seton," said Bishop Madden, who was joined in the sanctuary by Cardinal William H. Keeler, retired archbishop of Baltimore, retired Auxiliary Bishop William C. Newman of Baltimore and Vincentian Father G. Gregory Gay III - a Baltimore native and worldwide superior general of the Rome-based Congregation of the Mission, known as the Vincentians, and the Daughters of Charity.

"She responded to God's will for her at every station of life," Bishop Madden said.

Born into a prominent Anglican family in New York, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton at age 20 and had five children. When her husband contracted tuberculosis, he took his wife to Italy in an effort to find a cure in a warm climate. He died in Italy in 1803, leaving her widowed at age 29.

During her time in Italy, Elizabeth was inspired by the Catholic faith. On her return to the U.S., she decided to became a Catholic and was received into the church in New York in March 1805.

Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore invited her to Baltimore to serve as a school mistress. The school flourished and her feelings of support from God inspired her to start the religious congregation.

She took her first religious vows at St. Mary's Seminary in March 1809 and in the summer of that year moved with a small band of sisters to Emmitsburg. During this time she began the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. She modeled her order on the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in Paris.

St. Elizabeth Ann established St. Joseph's Academy and Free School, the first free Catholic school for girls staffed by sisters in the United States. Many trace the modern Catholic school system in America to St. Elizabeth Ann's Emmitsburg institution.

Her sisters opened the first Catholic orphanage in the nation, located in Philadelphia, and also provided ministry in health care, serving as nurses at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore.

Sister Claire Debes, provincial leader of the Daughters of Charity in Emmitsburg, called St. Elizabeth Ann an "extraordinarily courageous woman, yet an ordinary person."

"Elizabeth Ann Seton could see beauty in so much of life," Sister Claire said.

From St. Elizabeth Ann's original religious community grew several independent communities in North America, and today about 4,000 Sisters and Daughters of Charity minister in North America, according to Sister Betty Ann McNeil, Daughters of Charity archivist for the Emmitsburg province. They are active in education, parish life, social justice, health care and other ministries.

Sister Betty Ann said the bicentennial celebration was "very personal" for her. She was a teenager in Emmitsburg when Pope John XXIII beatified Mother Seton in 1959. Sister Betty Ann also was one of the youngest Daughters of Charity to attend Mother Seton's canonization by Pope Paul VI Sept. 14, 1975, in Rome.

"The sisters told us in 1959 that some of us would have to take their places to continue the community," Sister Betty Ann told The Catholic Review, Baltimore's archdiocesan newspaper. "Fifty years later, I look out and say to these young people, how many of them are going to take our places?"

"I hope it's also been a celebration of call and response," she said, "of responding to God's call to live the word and sacrament."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009