By Andrew Fowler
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is known for many firsts – she’s the first “homegrown” American saint; she started the first congregation of women religious founded in the United States; and as almost every U.S. Catholic knows, she was a pioneer in Catholic education.
Now, one more “first” can be added to the list: She was likely the first person to display an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the U.S.
In the newly-opened museum at National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Md., hangs an 18th-century painting owned by Mother Seton’s religious community of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the world’s most recognizable, venerated and reproduced images of the Blessed Mother.
More than 20 million pilgrims annually visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City to gaze in awe at the miraculous Marian depiction displayed on St. Juan Diego’s tilma. Far fewer people will trek to the Seton Shrine in Emmitsburg, but for those who know and love Mother Seton, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that she owned is evidence of her dynamic faith that created new paths of evangelization in the United States.
It’s also the subject of a Catholic art detective story.
New research from the Shrine and Notre Dame professor Tim Matovina — who specializes in U.S. Catholic and U.S. Latino theology and religion— shows that the saint’s painting is the first known image of Our Lady of Guadalupe to be publicly venerated in the U.S.
“If you take the broader view that the Catholic history of the United States begins when Catholic settlers arrive, then there are plenty of Guadalupe images in the Southwest before 1811,” Matovina said. “But in 1811, none of those territories were part of the United States yet.”
His research concludes that Mother Seton’s image of Our Lady of Guadalupe “is the first one that existed in the territorial boundaries of the United States.”
Origins of the Painting
What we know about Mother Seton’s image of Our Lady of Guadalupe begins on June 5, 1811, two years after she moved to Emmitsburg. On that date, she wrote a letter to her friend and benefactor, Mathias O’Conway, expressing her gratitude for a $200 painting of “our Adored,” referring to Our Lady of Guadalupe, that “makes our humble chapel look really like a chapel.” The image was eventually placed prominently over the altar in the Sisters’ chapel, according to a note on the painting’s back.
It is unknown exactly when Mother Seton and O’Conway met. Nevertheless, their bond was strong. According to his biography in Record of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, the pair “became warm friends,” and he “raised strong friends and financial supporters” to assist her in founding the first Catholic school for girls in the U.S. and the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, the first community of religious women in the nation.
O’Conway was a nomad. Born in Galway, Ireland, he initially emigrated to Grenada before moving to Philadelphia, then Seneca, New Orleans, Cuba, and across Central and South America. As a younger man, he served in the Pennsylvania militia, and became a frontiersman, trading with Native Americans in the Midwest, before finding his vocation as a linguist.
A master of languages, particularly French and Spanish, he published the first Spanish-to-English grammar books in the United States. In the 1790s, he was hired as an official interpreter for the government in Havana, and while living there, served as a pallbearer in the reinternment of Christopher Columbus’ remains.
His devout faith and travels, especially to Central America, would have likely led him to cross paths with Our Lady of Guadalupe, said Lisa Donahue, research and exhibitions coordinator at the Shrine. His gift to Mother Seton was, perhaps, unknowingly significant in introducing the Marian apparition to America, whose 17 states at the time were overwhelmingly Protestant
But it was also fitting, Donahue said.
“Mexicans see Mary in a different way — and Mother Seton embraced that,” Donahue said. “She made it a very prominent image in her home, her school and her chapel. That speaks to who she was in wanting to accept and be a friend to all people.”
Matovina first encountered Our Lady of Guadalupe 40 years ago as a graduate student at the then-Mexican American Cultural Center (now the Mexican American Catholic College) in San Antonio, Texas.
Since then, he has devoted part of his studies to Our Lady of Guadalupe, including authoring Theologies of Guadalupe: From the Era of Conquest to Pope Francis that examines the way theologians understand her and the devotion that spread through half a millennium.
To the uninitiated, the tilma could simply be dismissed as sacred art; yet devotees, like Matovina, believe it is the “living representation of her presence.”.
In December 1531, Our Lady appeared five times to St. Juan Diego and, speaking in his native language, asked for a church to be built on Tepeyac Hill, which had once been a site for Aztec worship. When Juan Diego brought her request to Bishop Juan de Zumárraga of Mexico City, the bishop was skeptical, asking for a miraculous sign. Following the Blessed Mother’s instructions, Juan Diego gathered Castilian roses (not native to Mexico) on the barren Tepeyac Hill, which she then arranged in his tilma. When he visited the bishop again, the tilma opened, revealing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In the nearly 500 years since, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s image and message has resonated with natives, Mexicans and Catholics around the world: from a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, to Notre Dame in Paris, to a seminary in China — the last, of which, Matovina saw in a visit prior to the pandemic.
‘A Catholic Trailblazer’
In the United States, the spread of devotion, “goes wherever the Mexican population goes,” says Matovina, which during the colonial and early Mexican national periods mostly pertained to the Spanish colonies in the Southwest. The largest growth in devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe United States came in the early 20th century when the Mexican Revolution and Cristero War — during which the government persecuted clerics and religious — forced 10 percent of the country’s population north. Throughout the 20th century, Mexicans also migrated to the Midwest in pursuit of railroad and construction work, and then to the U.S. east coast in the 1960s.
All of which makes Mother Seton’s early 19th century painting particularly interesting, as Mexicans had not migrated that far north at the time.
The painting is now on display for pilgrims to the museum at the Shrine, on loan courtesy of the Daughters of Charity, Province of St. Louise.
No other U.S. institution has claimed to have an earlier depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe. However, whether it remains the first image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the United States is not the “be all, end all” said Rob Judge, executive director at the Shrine. For him, O’Conway’s gift is a relic of Mother Seton and an “illuminating window” into her life.
“Ultimately, by having Our Lady of Guadalupe in the chapel, she found the image profoundly important to her and the sisters’ spiritual lives,” Judge said. “The fact that Mother Seton had it at this point in the United States’ history shows that, once again, she was a Catholic trailblazer — not for notoriety’s sake, but in selfless pursuit of devoting herself to God, Christ and our Blessed Mother.”