A delicate brooch.
A lock of hair.
A family christening gown.
A much-prayed rosary.
These ordinary items belonged to a saint.
To St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, specifically, the first native-born American saint.
Photo: ‘Seton Family Treasures’ include a variety of familial heirlooms. (photo: Courtesy of the Seton Shrine)
Marking the 200th anniversary of her death, the Sisters of Charity of New York presented the Seton Shrine in Emmitsburg, Maryland, with a collection of relics from their foundress. This new exhibit, “Seton Family Treasures,” enhances visitors’ understanding of the many roles she held in her 46 years of earthly life.
Coming into contact with the actual items of a saint, even through glass, makes the saint real. The material reality prevents one from keeping the saint at an arm’s distance as a statue or a painting. Very often, when we think of relics, we think of slivers of things, but here at the shrine through November, one can come face-to-face with whole things, whole things held, used and representative of a holy soul. The brooch, pendants and locks of hair demand we see this woman as a physical person of flesh and blood and her faith as something more.
These objects reveal a unique individual with a unique relationship with God. Like all saints’ lives, her story also provides a road map to Christ for all of us still in exile to follow. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life is an ongoing story of being invited deeper and deeper in and saying “Yes” to the invitation.
The shrine already boasts an extensive collection of relics from her life on permanent display. One could learn St. Elizabeth’s story from the videos and regular items and get a sense of her growth in holiness over the course of her life. However, the new exhibit brings the faithful into more intimate contact.
Old and new exhibits taken together reveal the saint as a romantic, joy-filled, dedicated, determined and ever-resilient woman, one who was dedicated to her husband, children, God and, by extension, to the poor and marginalized of the new world. She lived six of the seven sacraments in her lifetime.
Saints make the ordinary of life a celebration of ordinary time.
Starting with her life as a young bride, the gold filigree bow brooch is a beautiful representation of the Setons’ happy experience of this lifelong sacrament. According to family tradition, every bride in the Seton line is said to have worn it on her wedding day. Likewise, Elizabeth’s tiny wedding band, also worn by one of her daughters at the profession of her vows in the Sisters of Charity, stands out in its simplicity.
In the same case, there are portrait pendants side by side of William Magee Seton and Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, showing her hair down. It’s hard to think of a saint as a young bride, but there she is, and she’s beautiful. The story of her putting her portrait in his suitcase so he would not forget her when work demanded he travel hints at the ongoing happy romance of their relationship.
As a mother, this saint illustrates that love always multiplies. She and her husband had five children: William, Richard, Anna Maria, Catherine and Rebecca. She took joy in their gifts (Rebecca’s piety, for example) and worried when they seemed distant or ill. In the special exhibit, there are relics that connect visitors to each of them: a Bible, a christening gown, a lock of hair, rosaries, portraits — all of these things highlight the reality of her life as a single mother struggling to care for those she loved after losing her husband when all five of her children were still young (age 8 and under).
As a widow and convert, Elizabeth suffered from poverty and rejection of friends for her conversion. Yet she persevered in hope. She started the Sisters of Charity once she moved to Emmitsburg, and the books and handwritten notes reveal a woman who understood that God held a bigger plan than hers, even in her darkest moments. The films and notes accompanying the exhibit remind the viewer that saints are, in all things, like us. They had moments when all felt lost, when God seemed far and when they thought it would never get better. (The loss of her husband and, later, her two children to the same disease were part of Elizabeth’s earthly sorrows.)
As a foundress, her handwritten notes for her community and prayer books and schedule reveal a deeply integrated piety and the expectation that she and her Sisters of Charity look for the visible needs of the invisible people of the world and meet them. Founding the first women’s religious community in the United States, she and those who joined her community helped envision Catholic schools and Catholic hospitals. She took the pain of her own suffering and used it as an inspiration for a whole new ministry that would spread out across the nation, helping the poor and the sick and providing education and support for marginalized populations.
Lastly, in the center of the collection, is her iconic bonnet and shawl, the ones often seen in her profile portrait. The black bonnet is softer and less severe in real life. The embroidery of a silver “S” on her shawl is a physical reminder of an actual time and place, when she put needle to thread to mark her things. The color may have been what was available, but it hints at whimsy and humor in addition to practicality. It puts flesh to the bones of the story of her life.
Sitting in the room after viewing the exhibits, one could see how her life imitated the Joyful, Luminous and Sorrowful Mysteries in life and reflected the truth of the Glorious ones in her death and declared sanctification.
Proclaimed a saint in 1975 by Pope St. Paul VI, he encouraged, “Rejoice, we say to the great nation of the United States of America. Rejoice for your glorious daughter. Be proud of her. And know how to preserve her fruitful heritage.”
Her countrymen and women now have the opportunity to be within arm’s reach of things she touched, things she treasured, things that led her deeper into friendship with God and might help us as well. Make it part of your 2021 to come and meet this first saint of our country face-to-face.
By Sherry Antonetti
July 17, 2021
National Catholic Register