The National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland, is opening a new $4 million state-of-the-art Seton Shrine Museum and Visitor Center on Sept. 22, offering visitors an interactive encounter with the first American-born canonized saint.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774–1821), a widowed mother, opened one of the first free Catholic schools for girls in the United States and established the first order of women religious in the country — the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph — on the very grounds where her shrine and the new museum and visitor center are located. She was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975.
The shrine includes St. Elizabeth Ann’s original “Stone House” and “White House” as well as the basilica. With the addition of the museum and visitors center, pilgrims to the shrine now have the opportunity to immerse themselves in her life by walking in her footsteps where she lived and served, and through interactive displays and exhibits in the museum that are rich in American history and the history of the Catholic Church in America.
What was formerly the provincial entrance near the basilica has been transformed into a modern and welcoming visitor center, seamlessly connecting visitors to the gift shop and museum galleries. Inside, the galleries paint an intimate portrait of Mother Seton through dozens of artifacts, visual storytelling displays, and digital interactive exhibits.
The museum houses three core galleries: the SEEKER exhibit, which delves into Mother Seton’s troubled childhood, fairytale marriage, bankruptcy, widowhood, and conversion to Catholicism; the SERVANT exhibit, which explores how Mother Seton founded a new community of consecrated religious and pioneered a way for women in America to serve God; and the SAINT exhibit, which provides insights into the dedicated efforts of thousands of Americans across four generations for Mother Seton to be declared a saint.
“One of my favorite exhibits is an exhibit which consists of a digital touch screen, showcasing the 14 Sisters of Charity communities,” said Rob Judge, executive director of the shrine. “The impact exhibit allows visitors to look all around the world at all the past and present missions that the hundreds of sisters have worked in over the years, showcasing the huge impact they’ve had in serving the poor. And it all came from a woman who decided to start a school after she was widowed and invited other women to join her.”
Judge notes that Elizabeth Ann Seton never set out to build a huge network. “That’s the beauty of it. If we are faithful one step at a time, that is available to all of us. The impact exhibit helps make that clear. Her life and work developed into so much more than founding a school. By a simple yes, so much good has been done,” he told CNA.
In addition to the permanent exhibits, the museum also features two special exhibits that will be on display for a limited time.
The first is “Fancywork: Early American Needlework from St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School,” an exhibit with more than 20 pieces of needlework dating from the early 1800s to the 1870s and the stories of the students behind the works.
The second is “Getting in the Habit: Iconic Clothing of the Daughters of Charity,” which displays dozens of historic artifacts that explore the ranging apparel of the Daughters of Charity throughout the years, exhibited by the Daughter of Charity Province of St. Louise, Provincial Archives.
“This story from 200 years ago is worth telling today through this state-of-the-art facility,” said Tony Dilulio, director of programs for the shrine and a wealth of knowledge when it comes to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Dilulio coordinated the experts involved in the lighting, exhibits, and design — many of whom also created landmarks such as presidential libraries.
“I would love to challenge every visitor to be a ‘servant saint seeker.’ To seek God as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton did. To work as diligently as she did her whole life, and to be a saint!” Dilulio added.
With the addition of the new museum and visitors center, the shrine anticipates a significant increase in pilgrims, which averages 60,000 visitors annually.
“We need models and intercessors, and she’s par excellence,” Judge said. “We’re hoping that through these exhibits people get to know her a bit. She’s a very relatable saint. In order to relate to someone you have to know something about them. We hope this museum allows people to relate to her and get to know her better and seek her intercession in their lives.”
The Mass, blessing, and dedication Sept. 22 will be presided over by Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore. More information on the Seton Shrine Museum can be found on the shrine’s website.