Category Archives: Elizabeth Ann Seton

The Opportunity for a Richer Understanding of Canonization

This is a guest post by our archival intern for the semester, Jenna Brady, Mount St. Mary’s University class of 2023.

Throughout my internship with the Daughters of Charity Archives, I have had the unique opportunity to go through the past newsletters of sisters from the West Central Province in the 1970s. The West Central Province was established in 1969 by the Daughters of Charity in St. Louis as one of five provinces located in the US. While there are several interesting topics and vast stores of history that I have read and learned about, one of the most exciting events was the Canonization of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. This momentous event took place on September 14, 1975 and was an event that many Daughters of Charity petitioned and prayed hard to achieve.

Elizabeth Ann Seton

The newsletters that I have had the opportunity to read and index recount the journey toward canonization and the great anticipation throughout the early ‘70s. The letters make constant reference to the different preparations that were being made by the provinces in anticipation of the canonization of their namesake. The newsletter from October 1975 is completely devoted to the events throughout the province; such as different Masses and talks that were held during the months preceding the canonization.  This description not only shows how important and monumental the canonization was to all involved but as the newsletter states, “brings into focus the oneness of thought and of purpose in the Daughters of WC Province…” (West Central Province Newsletter, October, 1975, 1).  It then goes on to include an excerpt from a sister in each province discussing the steps that were taken in their own province to prepare and celebrate. Many of these sisters are those who had been featured throughout the course of the newsletters regarding different matters of the province.

View of the crowd at the canonization in Vatican City

While the details of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s canonization are easily accessible today, being able to read firsthand accounts of the celebrations and the profound impact this had on her order gives a deeper meaning to the event. Through reading these newsletters, I have been given the opportunity to come to view the canonization not just as a celebration of a new Saint but rather as the canonization of the woman many sisters considered their mentor in faith and mother in life.

Special Edition of the Marillac Provincial Newsletter, October 1975

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St. Joseph’s School before St. Joseph’s Academy

The commitment to education of the American Daughters of Charity and Sisters of Charity dates to Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s initiative for female education, begun in Baltimore in July 1808.  It took two years, however, for female education to become a primary mission of the Sisters of Charity in the form of St. Joseph’s School in Emmitsburg, MD.   

Invited by Rev. Louis William DuBourg, P.S.S., President of St. Mary’s College, the Widow Seton began a small boarding school for Catholic girls on Paca Street with the support of the Sulpician priests at St. Mary’s Seminary.  There she met Samuel Sutherland Cooper, a seminarian who was divesting himself of accumulated wealth in order to pursue his vocation to the priesthood.  He encouraged the widow to agree to direct an educational program on a property that he would purchase.

Pace Street House, Baltimore, c. 1890s

Located beyond the town limits of Emmitsburg, Cooper and the Sulpicians believed the setting to be ideal for an institution to educate girls, with nearby Mount St. Mary’s College providing education for boys. 

On June 22, 1809, Mother Seton arrived at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg with one of her daughters and a few of her companions; the rest of her children, early community members, and two pupils arrived a little more than a month later when the Stone House was ready for occupancy.  On July 31, 1809, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s officially began, and St. Joseph’s School became one of the first free Catholic schools for girls staffed by sisters in the United States.

As it became increasingly clear that funding was required, the school began admitting boarding students who paid tuition in May 1810.  These students came from the surrounding Frederick County and became the first boarding students. 

The school curriculum included grammar, spelling, reading, writing, geography, parsing, arithmetic, French, music, and fine sewing, etc.   All pupils received religious education and faith formation, according to their grade level.  Mother Seton wrote to her friend, Julia Scott, how her daughter Annina “studies French, Spanish and Italian with [the day students] under a mistress who is sweetness and modesty itself”

After St. Joseph’s School became St. Joseph’s Academy in 1828, the school continued to teach “day scholars” from the surrounding area for free up until 1870.  When operating costs began to hinder this practice, the Sisters still offered discounts and worked to find ways for students to afford tuition when they needed it. 

St. Joseph’s School and, later, St. Joseph’s Academy, were not parochial schools but Catholic schools sponsored and funded by the Sisters of Charity.  Saint John Neumann, CSsR, 4th bishop of Philadelphia, initiated Catholic parochial education when he established the first diocesan parochial school system in the United States in 1852.


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Mother Seton’s Guadalupe Painting

This is the final 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, the Emmitsburg-based Sisters united with the international community of the French Daughters of Charity.

A treasure of the archives is a piece owned by Mother Seton that can seem out of place for her time period in the Northeast United States – an oil painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Purchased by Matthias O’Conway – father of Sister Cecilia O’Conway, the first sister to join Mother Seton’s community in 1808 – from Emmitsburg native James Hughes, the image hung over the altar in the historic St. Joseph’s House (also called the Emmitsburg White House).  O’Conway had likely become familiar with the image and the devotion it inspired through his travels around the world, including time in Spanish New Orleans and Cuba.  The icon’s cost of $200 in 1811 evidently gave Mother Seton pause in accepting it, writing to Matthias, “I must go back a long way to tell you the mingled feelings of love and sorrow with which I received the dear picture which Mr. Heughs [sic] says he saw you pay down two hundred Dollars for – but it was to our Adored and that is enough for You.”

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton to Matthias O’Conway, June 5, 1811; Courtesy Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center

Indeed, as a Catholic and early supporter of Mother Seton’s community, while this was not the first painting that Matthias donated, he was known to experience money problems when he was not working as a translator and publisher.  However, the place of prominence that this painting received, which “[made] our humble chapel look really like a chapel,” points to the place that this work held in the hearts of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.

The Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe is December 12.

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