Seton Shrine Displays Saint’s Annotated Bible, Offering Window Into Her Faith - Seton Shrine

Seton Shrine Displays Saint’s Annotated Bible, Offering Window Into Her Faith

Mother Seton’s Bible shows a great love for the Word of God through many underlined passages and occasional annotations.

By Andrew Fowler

EMMITSBURG, Md. _ In the Book of Tobit, Anna is in agony. Her son, Tobiah, has been sent to Media to retrieve funds for his ailing and now blind father, Tobit. She is convinced, however, that Tobiah is dead; and in her grief, she weeps aloud and keeps watch at the road, waiting for his return (Tobit 10:7).

This striking image of a mother’s pain deeply impacted Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American to be canonized, so much so that her Bible, gifted to her by friend Antonio Filicchi after entering the Catholic Church in 1805, still retains her pen’s underling of “her son coming”.

The Bible stayed close to her as the widow and mother moved from New York and eventually settled in Emmitsburg, Md., where she founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, the first community for religious women to be founded in the United States, as well as one of the first Catholic schools in America

“In this period when she had this Bible, Mother Seton was desperate to see her son William come back from overseas,” where he was serving as a Naval officer, said Tony DiIulio, programs director at The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Md. “She undoubtedly saw herself in Anna.”

The Bible shows a great love for the Word of God through many underlined passages and occasional annotations, particularly in the Psalms and  a striking interest in both the Old and New Testament.

And now, through early November this relic will be on public display in the Shrine’s new $4 million museum, which is attached to the Basilica where Mother Seton is entombed. The Bible was loaned to the museum by the University of Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library.

The priceless Bible offers pilgrims and researchers unique and personal insights into how one of the most important figures in the history of the American Church read Scripture, revealing the dramatic effect that certain passages had on her and the timelessness of its drama.

For DiIulio, Mother Seton’s Bible is a great means to “introduce people to God and get them closer to God.”

“She was ahead of her time with loving Scripture, reading Scripture and really making it her own,” he said. “She was inspired by it in a way that the Church challenges each of us to be inspired.”

An Avid Reader

There are actually two Bibles in existence with Mother Seton’s annotations.  One is owned by Notre Dame and now at the Shrine. The other  is currently housed at the Old Cathedral Library in Vincennes, Ind., presented by the Rev. Simon Gabriel Bruté, SS: a French Sulpician missionary priest, friend of Mother Seton, and eventual bishop of the Diocese of Vincennes (1834-39).. Both were published by Matthew Carey — an Irish immigrant to Philadelphia, Pa., who produced the first Catholic Bible in the United States. The Notre Dame Bible — the one temporarily displayed at the Shrine — is a second printing.

Before her conversion to Catholicism on March 14, 1805, Mother Seton “read the bible avidly” and often with “pen in hand,” according to Elizabeth Bayley Seton: Collected Writings, Volume IIIb. At the time she received the Bible now on display, she was a “widow trying to determine a future course for herself and her children,” as the Volume states. It would take her several more difficult years to discover her religious vocation until, in 1809, she founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.

In this Bible, she marked more than fifty Psalms and extensively annotated the Old Testament. But one word that appears in her handwriting often in the margins is “eternity,” as it did after this passage, Genesis 24:67: “Who brought her into the tent of Sara his mother, and took her to wife: and he loved her so much, that it moderated the sorrow which was occasioned by his mother’s death.”

“We get out the magnifying glass for the students to look at because they’re not used to cursive, but it’s incredible her tiny, beautiful handwriting,” said Jean McManus, Librarian for Catholic Studies and Archives Engagement at the University of Notre Dame Hesburgh Library.

McManus, who handled the delivery of the Bible to the Shrine, added that the markings are “evocative of her inner spiritual life.”

Mother Seton focused on several themes when underlining passages: “Peace” and “peaceably” are underlined 44 times; “bless,” “blessed” and “blessing” 42 times; “weep,” “wept,” “weeping” and “tears” 27 times; “exceeding” and “exceedingly” 10 times; and “silence” and “silent” 10 times, according to the Volume.

Additionally, Mother Seton wrote little notes, remarking on Scripture’s wonder like commentating “Oh how beautiful” after Exodus 31:6 (when God has “put wisdom in the heart of every skillful man, that they may make all things which I have commanded thee”.)

The fact the Bibles survived is a testament to not only Bruté and her grandson, Robert — who gifted the edition on display to Notre Dame — but also Prof. James Edwards, an archivist and librarian at the university in the late 19th century. His preservation work laid the foundation for the Hesburgh Library’s rare book collection, of which Mother Seton’s Bible has been studied by countless students for nearly 150 years.

“[Edwards] had a vision to collect materials about American Catholicism from all over the country,” McManus said. “He did that by a letter campaign, connecting with bishops and dioceses and other prominent Catholics, and essentially solicited their collections to come to Notre Dame.”

An Eye to Eternity

DiIulio said he hoped to display this Bible at the Seton Shrine from “day one,” when he became the Shrine’s director of programs in 2015. However, prior to the new museum and visitor center’s opening last September, the Shrine did not have the facility to properly house the relic.

“Because of the state-of-the-art environmental controls that we’ve been able to build out, we were able to do things like displaying the Bible, and this inspired the confidence of a place like Notre Dame, a world-class institution, to loan us something of priceless value,” he said.

The conversation between the Shrine and Notre Dame began in 2022, with the latter agreeing to loan the relic to the Shrine after the Museum opened in September 2023. The Bible finally arrived in April, as the university’s spring semester ended.

“We’re so happy that we’re able to make this loan happen and get closer to the Shrine, especially with the 50th anniversary of her canonization approaching next year,” McManus said. When asked what she hopes pilgrims to the Shrine receive when viewing the displayed Bible, McManus emphasized a “profound sense of connection with Mother Seton” and “knowing how much it speaks to her relationships.”

For the Shrine, the Bible is another avenue to invite people into Mother Seton’s story, DiIulio said. The Shrine offers a wide range of activities, including its Junior History Interpreter program, in which volunteers — ages 8-16 — portray real 19th-century students of St. Joseph’s School who share “their” lives and interact with guests.

“We invite visitors to see themselves in that story so that, hopefully, their faith grows and that they understand what God can do for them — and what He did for Mother Seton,” he added.

The Shrine is expected to receive thousands of visitors throughout the summer, particularly on June 6 when the Eastern pilgrimage of the National Eucharistic Revival — a movement to re-catechize U.S. Catholics on Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist — passes through Emmitsburg. One of the four pilgrimage trails is named in the saint’s honor.

Concurrently, Scripture reading by Catholics has seen a recent resurgence, in part, through the “Bible in a Year” podcast led by Father Mike Schmitz and Ascension Press, and other theologians like Scott Hahn and Jeff Cavins.

“Mother Seton always kept eternity in mind,” DiIulio said. “[Reading the Bible] is a way for us to do likewise because we share that same goal she sought, and the same God. This is our destiny — and it’s open to everybody.”