When Nicole Swannack signed up for an online book club with the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton last spring, she thought she might learn more about her faith and the life of America’s first native-born saint and maybe make a new friend. What she didn’t anticipate was the remarkable way that her experience would inspire not only her but one of her own children in her Catholic faith as well.
“I had never done a book club before,” Swannack says. “I have five children, and I homeschool, so there’s always so much going on. But I had this little feeling of the Holy Spirit telling me, ‘Just do this. Just sign up for the book club. It will be good for you.’”
The Shrine, based in Emmitsburg, Md., began offering digital book clubs during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020, and they continue several times a year under the direction of Anita DiGregory, virtual experience facilitator for the Shrine. The book clubs are one of several virtual programs, including tours of the Shrine and basilica, that allow people around the world to explore and connect with the history and spirituality of Mother Seton.
“The book clubs are another way of accomplishing our mission,” DiGregory explains. “Our goal is to share the life and legacy of St. Elizabeth Seton with the community at large, as she is a saint for everyone. As a wife, mother, foundress, convert, widow, and teacher, there are so many aspects of Elizabeth Seton’s life that touch people on so many different levels.”
Swannack signed up for a six-week book club focused on the book Nothing Short of a Miracle: God’s Healing Power in Modern Saints by Patricia Treece, and the group met weekly through video calls.
“I learned about saints that I knew about previously but never really took the time to get to know personally. And learning more about the saints and sharing about it with others strengthened my own faith,” she says.
Swannack was certainly inspired by the life of St. Elizabeth Seton and stories of other saints in the book she read, but she was not the only one whose faith life was touched by her experience in the book club. Her 9-year-old daughter Rose had a special spiritual request that was ultimately fulfilled through the book club as well.
“For as far back as I can remember, Rose has been telling us that she wanted to be a nun or a sister,” Swannack says. “She’s my kid who always wants to come to daily Mass with me and wants to lead prayer. The spirit definitely works through her, and a couple of weeks before the book club, Rose asked me if I could find her a ‘sister friend.’”
“I wanted to have a sister friend,” Rose explains, “because I want to be a sister when I grow up. I wanted to see what a sister looks like.”
Though there are some religious orders of sisters located near the where the Swannacks live in Cary, N.C., there were not any sisters in the schools or otherwise visible in their community. At first, Swannack was not sure how to find her daughter a “sister friend,” but then she found the answer through her participation in the online book club at the Shrine.
As it turned out, another participant in the book club was Sr. Patricia Newhouse, a retired Sister of Charity based in Michigan who spends her summers volunteering at the Shrine. One evening, Swannack asked for permission for her daughter Rose to join the book club for just a few minutes in order to meet Sr. Pat, and the two spoke for several minutes. After that, Sr. Pat offered to have a private video call with Rose, and that was the beginning of a friendship. Sr. Pat and Rose now speak at least once per week, and earlier this year, the Swannack family even made a trip to Emmitsburg to visit the Shrine and meet Sr. Pat in person.
“I really enjoyed meeting the whole family,” Sr. Pat says. “I taught for over 40 years and always love interacting with young people. It’s great that Rose wanted to meet me because kids don’t see sisters a whole lot nowadays. They don’t know who we are or what we do. I think what surprises them most is how much we like to have fun.”
DiGregory believes that the friendship between Sr. Pat and Rose is a perfect example of the kind of personal connection that is one of the most valuable benefits to participation in the book clubs at the Shrine.
“We talk, we laugh, we pray together, and we truly become friends,” DiGregory says. “Our connection not only supports us in growing in our faith and living out our vocations, but it helps with the day-to-day ups and downs, as we know people are praying for us.”
The Seton Shrine book clubs foster friendship here on earth, but they also help to personalize stories of the saints, our friends in heaven, and bring them to life, especially that of Mother Seton.
“Doing the book club completely changed my opinion of St. Elizabeth Seton,” Swannack says, admitting that she previously thought they would not have much in common. “What resonated with me most was that she was a mother of five and she cared so much for the salvation of her children. We had the same worries, the same anxieties, the same joys. I found her to be such a wonderfully real and relatable person.”
As a wife, mother, sister, teacher, and friend, Mother Seton spent a lifetime focused on loving and serving others through personal connections. That important work continues today through the book clubs at the Shrine and some of its most enthusiastic participants: Sr. Pat, Nicole Swannack, and her 9-year-old daughter, aspiring sister Rose.
For more information about the book club program, please visit the Shrine’s website, www.setonshrine.org.