By Gina Christian
The first canonized saint born in the U.S. is nearing her 250th birthday — and she’s more relevant than ever, said the executive director of her national shrine.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, foundress of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph and a pioneer in Catholic education in the U.S., was “one of us” who “walked on the ground where we walk,” Rob Judge of the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland, told OSV News.
The shrine marked the saint’s Jan. 4 feast day with a televised Mass celebrated at its basilica by Auxiliary Bishop Bruce A. Lewandowski of Baltimore. The feast day also kicked off a two-year commemoration of both Mother Seton’s milestone birthday and the 50th anniversary of her canonization, which will fall in 2025.
The two-year commemoration features several events connected to the National Eucharistic Revival, launched in 2022 by the U.S. bishops to increase devotion to Jesus Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist.
The eastern route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage — one of four that will be traveled from May 17 to July 21, converging at the July 21-24 National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis — has been named for the saint. From June 5-6, the Seton shrine will host the pilgrims for two days of prayer, worship and acts of charity, with a Mass to be celebrated by Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore.
During the pilgrims’ visit, the shrine will debut a new short film on the saint, detailing how the Eucharist led Mother Seton, raised a devout Episcopalian, to come into full Catholic communion.
That Eucharistic devotion, along with a deep trust in God’s providence, defined an extraordinary woman whose sanctity “came about by doing very ordinary things, but ordered towards God,” said Judge, citing the “everyday experiences” of joy and suffering that shaped Mother Seton throughout her life.
Mother Seton was born as Elizabeth Ann Bayley in New York City Aug. 28, 1774, to a prominent Episcopalian family. Her mother died when she was 3, and as a teen, the future saint “felt a lot of loneliness,” Judge said.
She “fell madly in love” with — and at age 19 married — William Magee Seton, said Judge. However, the wealthy shipping magnate’s death from tuberculosis in 1803 left her a widow with five children. (Her daughter Anna would succumb to the disease in 1812.) In Italy, where the Seton family had been residing at the time of William’s death, Elizabeth Ann Seton discovered Catholicism, and after returning to the U.S. embraced the full faith in 1805.
The ensuing years were difficult, but Mother Seton persisted in the belief that “God had a plan for her life,” said Judge. In 1809, Mother Seton relocated to Emmitsburg and founded her religious congregation — the first community for women religious established in the U.S. — as well as St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School.
Mother Seton died of tuberculosis in 1821, having “lived her life with purpose, very simply,” said Judge. “God did beautiful things with her ‘yes’ (to his will).”
Canonized in 1975 by St. Paul VI, Mother Seton continues to resonate with American Catholics, with many parishes and schools named after her, said Judge.
At the same time, younger generations “don’t necessarily know a lot about her, and they’re eager to learn more,” said Judge, who spoke with OSV News on Mother Seton’s feast day while hosting an exhibit on her life and legacy at SEEK24, an annual Catholic youth and young adult conference in St. Louis, Missouri.
Judge summed up Mother Seton as a “seeker, servant and saint.”
“We have people coming up to our booth and saying, ‘She’s my confirmation saint,'” said Judge. “And young women are coming up and saying, ‘She’s my girl.'”