The First Mission of Charity

This is part of a yearlong series about the early days of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s commemorating the 200th anniversary of the death of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, foundress of the community.  In 1850, Emmitsburg-based Sisters united with the global community of the French Daughters of Charity.

After Mother Seton and her companions left Baltimore in June 1809, the small group formed the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s in the village of Emmitsburg in northern Frederick County on July 31, 1809.  They began to enact their mission of service to those living in poverty and began with their nearby neighbors. 

Dated February 5 and addressed to Mrs. Seton, two women, simply named “Cecilia and Catherine” wrote “an account of the first Mission of Charity.”

This mission was in the tradition of Saints Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, whose rules for community life the Sisters adapted for the American situation.  When visiting the poor, sisters provided nursing care and resources to those in difficult situations.  Catherine and Cecilia evidently travelled to a home in the vicinity of Emmitsburg “after some difficulty on the road about eggs.” 

The family they ministered to on this day was sick, likely from one of the waterborne disease that routinely swept through Western Maryland in the early 19th century.  This brief letter described what the sisters observed about the family’s situation.  The spellings and grammar are kept as written (if you can imagine where the periods go in modern standardized English, it becomes easier to understand):

We found enough to do at first & even now but all the sick are much better 2 of them are now setting up it was yesterday the oldest girl is about though not well she eat but once since her Mothers death until we came.  She has eat a tolerable breakfast & was going to wash the bed cloathes in truth they are very dirty.  I think it would be much to the comfort of the one who is obliged to stay in bed if we could put something clean on her.  She is also getting better & better ever since we came, however we forbid the young girls to wash there is also 2 young men their brothers in & out all the time & perhaps you will not think it necessary to send Sisters for the night as they do not set up now at all.

They note that a doctor has not had the chance to visit yet, but they seem aware that they have done what they could to improve health and comfort for the family going through a difficult time.

The Catherine of the report may be either Sister Catherine Mullan or Catherine Seton, Mother Seton’s nine-year old daughter who travelled with her from New York and lived with the community.  After her mother’s death, Catherine lived with her brother William and travelled around Europe before joining the Sisters of Mercy of New York in 1846.

Cecilia could refer to either Sister Cecilia Seton, Mother Seton’s sister-in-law who was one of the first to join the community, or Sister Cecilia O’Conway.  However, other correspondence of Cecilia Seton shows a very different handwriting.  It shows far more similarity to Cecilia O’Conway’s handwriting, although not definitively so.  

The authors recognized this event as the First Mission of Charity undertaken by the new community!    

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The Death of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

This day, January 4, 2021, is a special and significant one for the American Daughters of Charity and the global Vincentian family – the 200th anniversary of the day that the American foundress of the community left this world and entered eternity. 

Elizabeth Bayley Seton was first addressed as Mother Seton by Archbishop John Carroll at the St. Mary’s Seminary on Paca Street in Baltimore on March 25, 1809.  Eleven-and-a-half years after she founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, which brought the Rule of St. Vincent to the Western Hemisphere for the first time, and 18 years after the dread tuberculosis took the life of her husband, changing the course of her life forever, Mother Seton succumbed to the disease herself.  She was 46 years old.

The most valuable records of that moment, after midnight on the morning of January 4, come from her Sisters in community; her last living daughter, Catherine; her Sulpician superior, Father John DuBois; and her spiritual director, Father Simon Bruté.  In her bedroom in the Emmitsburg White House, the Sisters of St. Joseph’s gathered for her last moments on this Earth.  The scene, heartbreaking to witness:

“Oh, the beautiful countenance of our Mother at that moment, never can it be effaced from my memory.  As she was too feeble to address them herself, the Rev. Superior, Father Dubois, performed this office in her name, and thus delivered to the assembled community the last will of their dying Mother.”

Father DuBois went on to address the Sisters:  “Mother Seton, being too weak, charges me to recommend to you at this sacred moment, in her place; first, to be united together as true Sisters of Charity; second, to stand most faithfully by your holy rules; third, that I ask pardon for all the scandals she may have given you, that is, for indulgences prescribed during her sickness by me, or the physician.” (V. 2 Annals, 412)

To all assembled, she gave her last pronouncement as Superioress of the community:

“I am thankful sisters, for your kindness, to be present at this trial.  Be children of the Church; be children of the Church” (V. 2 Annals, 412)

Father DuBois gave her the last rites of the Church.

Her last words were the names of the Holy Family.

Father Bruté created emotive, beautiful, haunting images of those last moments.

Today, five religious communities in North America recognize Mother Seton as their foundress:  The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, Sisters of Charity of New York, Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, Sisters of Charity of Halifax, and the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.  The American Daughters of Charity have a special devotion to Mother Seton because of the joining of her Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s with the French Daughters of Charity in 1850.  She was canonized in 1975.

In this year 2021, expect us to look at many aspects of Mother Seton’s life and legacy.

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us!

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Frederick County Historic Sites Consortium’s annual “Museums by Candlelight” Event Virtual in 2020

Alongside other historic sites here in Frederick County, Maryland, the Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives is participating in the first online “Museums by Candlelight” event! Check out our presentation on Mother Seton’s “Our Lady of Guadalupe” painting, in time for Advent season and Our Lady’s feast day on December 12!

https://www.visitfrederick.org/…/museums-by-candlelight/

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