EMMITSBURG, Md. – When the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton opens its new $4 million museum and visitors center next year, it will be a milestone for those with a deep devotion to America’s first native-born saint. But for the sisters who trace their lineages back to Mother Seton, it will be an especially poignant moment – especially as pilgrims enter through the grand provincial entrance that so many of their predecessors used.
“Our sisters are very excited,” said Sr. Mary Catherine Norris, provincial of the Daughters of Charity, province of St. Louise and a member of the Shrine’s board of directors. “They’re excited to have the space utilized in such a way that they will see the pilgrims coming and going and have opportunities to interact with people which we think will be lovely.
“I think they’ll add another element of welcome to people who are coming. They’re happy to have folks come and share in the legacy of Mother Seton.”
The Shrine broke ground June 24 on the fully renovated and relocated museum and visitor center, a year-long project that will transform the pilgrimage experience for tens of thousands of people who come to the Shrine each year.
The modernized museum will bring state-of-the-art and interactive techniques to tell the life story of the first native-born American saint from childhood to sainthood, strengthening devotion to Mother Seton and spreading her message of faith, hope and perseverance in the face of adversity.
Plans call for a reconfiguration of the original grand – but underutilized — entrance near the Basilica into a spacious and welcoming visitor center that will lead people into the new museum. Once inside, visitors will learn about Seton’s dramatic journey from socialite in 18th century New York to founder of the first community of women religious to be established in the United States, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s. They will hear of the nation-wide effort to have Seton formally declared a saint and the legacy of her work that continues to this day.
“Mother Seton is a saint for all of us,” said Rob Judge, executive director of the Shrine. “Her story resonates with so many people today because her life was filled with the ups and downs, joys and struggles, that permeate our own lives. One of our missions at her Shrine is to preserve her legacy for generations to come, and this museum project is a major step in that effort.”
Visitors will be able to see artifacts such as the bonnet she wore after establishing the community and the dancing slippers she wore as a girl. Videos and other exhibits will allow visitors to better experience the life of this important American saint in tangible ways.
“Since the past is this big, distant thing, it doesn’t always feel real,” said Scott Keefer, the archivist for the Daughters of Charity, St Louise province, who is based at the Shrine. “To correct that, to show that this was a real person, that’s a big hurdle to overcome. Hopefully this museum will help.”
Leaders with both the Sisters of Charity and the Daughters of Charity believe the museum will be an essential part of introducing Mother Seton to new audiences who are looking for a saint they can relate to despite the fact that she died 201 years ago.
“We’ve been talking for a while now about the awareness of Elizabeth Seton as saint for our time,” said Sr. Donna Geernaert of the Sisters of Charity Halifax and chair of the Seton Shrine board. “Thinking about the era in which she lived and the role of women in that time, Elizabeth really stands out as a strong woman.
“There is nothing like looking at Elizabeth’s dancing slippers to realize she was a person who loved life. More and more today we need to speak to the love of life and her commitment to faith and the care of her family and friends.”
Funding for the project is coming from the $10 million “New Century of Charity” capital campaign that was launched last September by the Shrine’s National Leaders Council (NLC) and is ongoing, having surpassed its original goal of $7 million. Money raised during the campaign also will be used to support the “Seeds of Hope” retreat program for those on the margins of society and to create an “Innovation and Sustainability Fund” to support expansion of the activities at the Shrine such as its renowned living history programs and other ministries.
The groundbreaking of the museum came during a meeting of the NLC, a group of business leaders and benefactors with an enduring devotion to Mother Seton and the Shrine.
“We all yearn to have a purpose-driven life and feel in the end somehow some way we’ve made a difference,” said Luci Baines Johnson, chair of the NLC. “Elizabeth Ann Seton was an American wife, mother, and widow who fell on difficult financial times and nurtured a start-up, the Sisters of St. Joseph’s, and all those who trace their lineage back to her. She has something we can all identify with – and I do. She has been my inspiration and strength for over 50 years. To serve her mission is to give me the greatest of rewards, a purpose-driven life.
One reason that Mother Seton resonates so much today is due to the tumultuous nature of our times – when so many people have gone through periods of illness, financial turmoil and other difficulties. Mother Seton dealt with the loss of a husband, bankruptcy, shunning by family for joining the Catholic Church and then the early deaths of children and other friends. Yet, she never wavered in her faith.
“Her struggles are just as relevant today as were 200 years ago,” said Sr. Mary Catherine Norris. “The legacy of Mother Seton is she was fearless at a time when women weren’t exactly known for that. She’s a great role model whether you’re a mother, an educator, a daughter or a widow.”
The success of the fundraising campaign that will allow the Seton story to be told better is also a testament to the lives touched by the sisters who came after her and continue to care for others today, she said.
“A lot of people who contributed to campaign knew her legacy through the other sisters they’ve encountered over the years,” she said. “Many people gave because they believe in the work sisters have done and continue to do and want to be a part of it.”
As for the museum, the sisters, just like others who visit the Shrine to walk in the footsteps of a saint, are excited to experience the new, dynamic storytelling techniques when it opens next year.
“You have to meet people where they are,” said Sr. Mary Catherine Norris. “So, we have to bring her to people in the language they understand.”