In 1975, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton became the first American-born saint. Born Elizabeth Bayley, she married William Seton and had five children. After the death of her husband, she converted to Catholicism and opened a school. She eventually founded the Sisters of Charity, a religious organization devoted to education for all. According to the website of the Sisters of Charity Federation, it now consists of twelve congregations and over 4,000 members.
This past September, the Catholic Church in America celebrated the 40th anniversary of the canonization of Elizabeth Ann Seton. The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton has opened an exhibit on her life, death, and canonization.
The outer walls of the exhibit show a timeline of Seton’s life from a young girl to the time of her death. Stout pillars scattered throughout the large room bear informational plaques detailing the canonization process, including accounts of the miracles credited to Seton’s intercession. Among the items displayed is a book containing petitions from Catholic lay people asking the pope to canonize Seton. Also displayed in the exhibit is the painting that hung from the railings in Saint Peter’s Square during the 1975 canonization. According to the National Shrine website, the exhibit will remain open through August of 2016.
Michelle Weighart, a junior education major at Seton Hill University (SHU), visited the National Shrine (as well as the nearby Mount Saint Mary’s where Seton attended Mass and taught Sunday school) this past summer. She spoke of sharing the experience with fellow students and connecting it to her own vocation. “Visiting the National Shrine was a great experience, and getting to go with fellow Setonians made the trip even more powerful. Here we were, students being taught under the principles of Aunt Liz, and being able to walk where she once did in a literal sense. We were able to sit on the rock where she taught, and this was the biggest moment for me as an education major.”
Seton is currently interred in the base of an altar in the Basilica at the National Shrine. When the Basilica was built, the closed coffin containing her bones was able to be viewed through a glass pane covering the front of the altar. At the advent of the canonization, a slab of marble was placed over the glass to hide the coffin. However, visitors today can venerate a relic placed in front of the kneelers near the altar.
Most recently, Seton was recognized by President Barack Obama during Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C., where the president gifted the pontiff with the key to the American saint’s house in Emmitsburg, Maryland, now on the grounds of the National Shrine.
A small celebration sponsored by campus ministry was held at SHU on Sullivan Lawn, echoing the celebrations that had taken place there forty years earlier. Students and Sisters of Charity were welcomed under the tent to eat cookies and talk about Seton’s life. Displayed on a table nearby was a poster board containing information about Seton as well as pictures of campus celebrations from 1975 and more recent photos taken at the National Shrine. Medallions and prayer cards from the National Shrine were also available.
A few of the Sisters shared their memories of the celebrations held on SHU’s campus; others shared memories of being in the Vatican Square when the canonization was formally announced. One of these Sisters was the Director of SHU’s Campus Ministry, Sister Maureen O’Brien.
“They divided sisters into three groups by age, ten sisters selected for each of the groups, sort of like a lottery. I was chosen from the youngest group,” said Sr. O’Brien. Accompanied by Sr. Mary Norbert Long, Sr. Gertrude Foley and others, Sr. O’Brien journeyed to Vatican City to witness the canonization.
“It was very exciting, we got up very early in the morning to go to Saint Peter’s Square. The canonization itself was at ten o’clock. It was a glorious day, it was beautiful. The sky was cloudless…It was probably a high point of my life and my community to hear Pope Paul VI say, ‘Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is a saint!’” said Sr. O’Brien.
Back at SHU, students and faculty were celebrating with the Sisters. A brass band played from the roof of Canevin.
“The excitement lasted for months,” Sr. O’Brien recalled. “Every diocese had a special celebration. It’s still very exciting for us because for years we had really prayed for the canonization. It was like a dream come true and it continues to impact Sisters.”
In reflecting on the legacy of Seton’s life, Sr. O’Brien commented on its relevance today. “I think that Mother Seton’s spirituality was a very practical spirituality, to meet the needs as we see them each day. It’s really important for us to continue to articulate the values that Elizabeth Seton stood for, that she found so important in her life. That her spirit is our spirit.”
In discussing the life of Seton this past September, Sisters and students alike agreed with this sentiment.
“I thought it was really cool to hear the stories of sisters who were actually there,” said Katie Smith, a senior majoring in psychology and theology. “It’s hard for us to imagine because we don’t have experiences like that in our contemporary culture, so it’s interesting to see what that was like through the Sisters of Charity and how meaningful it is to them and to us as a school founded on the values of Mother Seton.”
The discussion continued as the past and the present met under the common history shared through Seton and her desire to serve through education. At the urging of Sr. Catherine Meinert, several of the students shared their reasons for choosing to attend SHU.
“Everyone here at Seton Hill is just genuinely nice and polite,” said Colleen Malley, a sophomore theatre performance major. “When I came here on a tour, I noticed that the students wouldn’t hesitate to open a door for me or move aside to let me pass.”
The night ended soon after with quiet chatter and refreshments.