New exhibit offers glimpse into everyday life of the Setons

The Seton Family Treasures are on display at the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and feature many clothing articles and everyday knick-knacks once owned by the virtuous family, particularly those of Elizabeth Ann Seton’s children.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, patroness of Catholic schools in the U.S., is depicted instructing schoolchildren in a sculpture seen in front of Sts. Philip and James School in St. James, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton opened its latest exhibition beginning July 1. “Seton Family Treasures”, as the exhibit is called, showcases various former belongings of the Setons.

The beautiful shrine, dedicated to the first American-born Catholic saint, is located in Emmitsburg, MD, less than a 20-minute drive from Gettysburg, PA, and includes a museum, ornate basilica, and extensive grounds which cover the location of Mother Seton’s housing to which she moved in the early 1800s.

Though closed for a time during the pandemic, the shrine has reopened and welcomes the return of guests and pilgrims.

The Seton Family Treasures are on display in the museum and feature many clothing articles and everyday knick-knacks once owned by the virtuous family, particularly those of Elizabeth Ann Seton’s children. Among these are contained the personal writings of several of the Setons as well as certain sacramentals that held deep spiritual meaning for those who used them.

Spread throughout the exhibit are works of art that portray family members and the saints who had gone before them. Each item has a story of its own to tell, piecing together the daily blessings and woes that the Setons experienced.

Rob Judge, executive director of the national shrine, spoke with Catholic World Report about the items on display in the Seton Family Treasures exhibit.

“Some of the artifacts point towards themes that were present in her early life,” Judge said. “For example, they show her father, who as a pioneering public health officer in New York…Elizabeth Ann Seton undoubtedly drew from her father’s compassionate work in her early work for the Widows and Orphans Society in New York and then her commitment to caring for the poor in Emmitsburg and beyond.”

From a devout and spiritually hungry Protestant, to the Catholic foundress of a new religious order, Mrs. Seton led a pioneering life in every imaginable way. But hers was a life filled with sorrows that she had to bear as those closest to her met with unexpected ends.

The Setons were no strangers to the “fragility of life,” as Tony Dillulio, programs director at the shrine, put it. Disease was never too far from the home. The proximity of the threat of illness is one modern Catholics can empathize with in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a video introduction to the exhibit, biographer Catherine O’Donnell mentioned the wonderful courtship that William and his beloved had enjoyed. “It was a beautiful marriage,” O’Donnell said.

However, their union came to an end on a venture overseas. After a 56-day voyage across the sea, the couple and their daughter Anna Maria reached the port of the Italian town of Leghorn. They were immediately put into quarantine. For a month, they lived in cramped conditions. Meanwhile, William’s health deteriorated. Eight days after being released from the mandatory quarantine, Elizabeth’s ailing husband passed away.

The Fillichis, a family of friends to the Setons, comforted the mourning widow and child. Apart from being charitable, the Filicchis were staunch Catholics. Through their hospitality and living faith, Elizabeth was drawn into the Church. Several of the paintings found among the Seton Family Treasures were gifts of the Filicchis.

“Sacred art played a critical role in [Elizabeth’s] life,” Judge explained. “She writes movingly of the impact art in Italy had on her conversion.”

Even later in life, religious art was of great consolation to the saint.

“A special favorite – Christ the Redeemer,” Judge says of one painting, “is believed to have been given to her by her husband, Will. That painting was so important that according to her letters, she had it brought into her room as she lay dying.”

The Filicchis also offered Elizabeth spiritual classics in literature. A French translation of Introduction to the Devout Life by Saint Francis de Sales, another gift from the gracious Italian family, can also be found in the exhibit.

Taking after its namesake, the shrine – though closed to the general public – decided to be a force for good during the pandemic. Starting in 2020 and continuing into this year, staff pursue a prayer hotline in which they seek to comfort those who call and ask for prayer requests or consolation. The shrine plans to keep up the prayer hotline ministry going forward.

Mother Seton could sympathize with the emotions one goes through amid social distancing and living in confined quarters. The chamber she and her family were placed in was frigid and bland. Nevertheless, even in such circumstances forced upon her in quarantine, she did not despair. Rather, she put her trust in God.

Elizabeth’s quotidian customs during this time included reading Sacred Scripture, journaling, and singing. (She and her husband shared a passion for music.) Even with the fullness of faith not yet upon her heart, she was a saint in the making.

These pastimes were habits she bestowed to most of her children. There were five of them in total: Anna Marie, William, Richard Bayley, Catherine Charlton, and Rebecca Mary. Many of her children, however, passed away from disease in their youth or young adulthood.

Several of the Seton girls were fluent writers themselves. The shrine’s new exhibit features a volume of collected writings from Rebecca, who took her Christian faith to heart. The family Bible of William II, of whose faith Elizabeth was often worried, is also included. A slew of additional religious texts which Mother Seton had access to accompany it. Her crucifix and Rosary, sacramentals that she was frequently drawn to, appear as well.

Perhaps the most iconic inclusion is the black bonnet, which is most prominently seen in many works of art depicting Mother Seton. Elizabeth donned this same bonnet as foundress of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s at Emmitsburg.

Several of the beautiful artifacts on display, such as Mother Seton’s bonnet, came from the Sisters of Charity of New York.

2021 marks the bicentennial of Mother Seton’s passing in 1821 and seems to be ushering in a new era for the national shrine to one of the United States’ most beloved saints.

As a June 24 press release from the shrine states, “The Seton Family Treasures exhibit is a central focus of a year-long commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Mother Seton’s death and will eventually be a major part of a modernized and expanded museum at the Shrine.”

Seton’s shrine “is one of the few places where you can walk in the actual footsteps of a saint,” Judge said. “The Seton Family Treasures exhibit takes that one step further by showcasing items that she held in her own hands; items that brought her joy and comfort just as the items in our own lives do the same for us.”

The new exhibition allows visitors to experience the familial dynamics of Elizabeth’s marriage and the lives of her children throughout the years.


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About John Tuttle 1 Article
John Tuttle has a BA in journalism & mass communications and theology from Benedictine College. He is a lover of truth and beauty. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tablet Magazine, The Wanderer, Catholic Insight, Franciscan Media, The University Bookman, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and others.

2 Comments

  1. In times like these I really appreciate these inspiring stories. Its amazing how some people can power through or maybe more accurately pray their way through life tragedies and somehow be Christ’s servants. Thank you for providing this article.

  2. There’s a pretty good 1980 biopic of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life starring Kate Mulgrew. (Star Trek Voyager, Orange is the new black.) It’s posted on YouTube.

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