By Danielle Bean
Visitors who walk the grounds of the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Md., often report feeling like they’ve stepped into a history book.
That’s no accident.
Just ask 12-year-old Nikki Robinson who has spent three years in the Shrine’s Junior History Interpreters program. Nikki portrays an actual person in costumes, participates in period activities and is there to show and not just tell what it was like to be a student in the early 1800s at the first Catholic school for girls run by an order of Religious Sisters in the young United States.
“I love learning about history and knowing that I’m walking in the footsteps of Mother Seton and her students,” Nikki says. “The beginning part of the program is where we find out ‘who we are’ and we get to research and learn what we can about that person. So, getting to know that person, who is kind of lost to history, and bring them back to the present is really cool.”
The Shrine is one of the few places where a visitor can walk in the literal footsteps of a saint. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American saint, lived and worked on the grounds of the current Shrine, as she founded the first religious order of sisters in the U.S. Starting in September, people will be able to visit a new $4 million museum and visitors center dedicated to telling the story of Mother Seton in new and vibrant ways.
But an integral part of the Shrine remains the expansive grounds and the very buildings in which Mother Seton raised her children, worshipped, taught and ultimately died as one of the most important figures in the history of the Catholic Church in America.
And inside those buildings on afternoons and weekend days from September to August, any number of the 29 current members of the Living History program seek to show in real terms life for a 19th century girl at the school. These volunteers play real historical characters who come to life and interact with guests. In character, these volunteers share about their lives as sisters and students who lived and worked with Mother Seton.
While the junior interpreters are on site year-round, the Shrine hosts two weekends of special interactions and family activities each year known as Academy Comes Alive. This year’s dates are May 4-6 and May 11-12. Timed tickets are required and can be purchased online at https://setonshrine.org/academy-alive/.
The four-year-old Junior History Interpreters program employs Mother Seton’s educational philosophies and methods, continuing her legacy of mothering to young hearts and minds, forming them in their faith, giving them confidence, and training them for success in the world.
Young girls who take part in the Junior History Interpreters program range in age from 8 to 16 and make a commitment to extensive training. To play the part of a student in St. Elizabeth Seton’s school accurately, they must learn many of the traditional skills her students learned, from penmanship and needlework to hospitality and foreign languages.
“The first class we teach is pen and ink,” says Lisa Donahue, museum educator at the Shrine and one of the main teachers in the Junior History Interpreters program. “They learn some basic calligraphy skills. This year we’re having them make their own journals using a hammer and nails to string it.
“Most importantly the girls are taught why learning these skills was important in the 19th century and they then can teach the visitor.”
The participants commit to a minimum of two hours of training per week and monthly three-hour workshops where they learn what they need to know to immerse themselves in character. As a result, the junior interpreters themselves often see history come to life in a new way.
“The depth to which they teach the history and values of the Church is excellent,” says Trish Robinson, mother of Nikki Robinson. “I studied at Mount St. Mary’s and my husband attended Mother Seton School in Emmitsburg and got his Masters from The Mount, so this area is special to our family. For Nikki, at age 12, to know and understand the impact that the Church and St. Elizabeth had in her own community is pretty outstanding.”
A happy accident of the program are the friendships cultivated among the students themselves. Katie Langville, mother of Giada, a 14-year-old junior history interpreter at the Shrine, says, “I like that it is teaching Giada more about our Catholic faith, and it’s also great that she can have fun with our faith with other girls her age. Being part of the program is a great way for my daughter to make friends.”
The opportunity for authentic, faith-based friendship is something Donahue notes as well. She recalls how one student came to share with others in the program that she was being bullied at school, and the whole class rallied to support her.
“She comes after school and on weekends, and she has found real friends here,” says Donahue. “She wants to be here all the time. Those are the things I’m seeing that I’m really proud of — the confidence and self-esteem the girls have developed and the friendships they are making.”
Friendships the girls form in character cross over into real life as well. “Getting to know and working with the other girls in the program has been so great,” says Nikki Robinson. “That’s another way we get to learn more about the students that were there, by talking with each other and sharing ‘our’ histories.”
Trish Robinson is one of many parents who are grateful for that legacy. “I have no doubt,” she says, “That we will look back years from now and see how the JHI program and St. Elizabeth Seton impacted our daughter in the best ways.”
Donahue sees the connection between St. Elizabeth Seton and her young students as a powerful and personal one. “I tell the girls when they get accepted into the program that they are here because Mother Seton wants them here,” she says. “I really feel like she chose them.”
For more information about the program, please see https://setonshrine.org/jhi/.