It is a joy to offer Holy Mass here at the Mother Seton House and to celebrate with you the 50th anniversary of its being opened to the public. We also recall that yesterday was the 38th anniversary of the canonization of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. At the time, I was a seminarian at Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, and I vividly recall taking part in the many Masses celebrated at the Motherhouse. It was a joyful, grace-filled time for us as seminarians!
This is a place that brings us to the heart of Catholicism not only in Baltimore but also in the United States; for it was in this house that Mother Seton discerned God’s special calling, a calling that would prove so consequential for the Church in our country.
Most of you who have gathered here this morning already know the story of Mother Seton’s life and the significance of this house. In 1808 Suplician Father Louis DuBourg invited a young widow and recent convert, Elizabeth Bayley Seton, to come to Baltimore to open a school for girls. She accepted the invitation and came here with her three daughters in 1808. She was welcomed by the community at St. Mary’s Seminary who helped her open the school here on Paca Street. Today that same spirit of welcome is so evident in the hospitality that Fr. Ulshafer, Fr. Kemper and the Sulpician fathers extend to all of us today, and for that we are most grateful.
It turns out that Mrs. Seton lived here only one year, until June 1809 but it proved to be a very important year in her life. During that year she took her first vows before Bishop John Carroll. During that year she discerned that it was God’s will for her to found a community of women religious, viz., the Daughters of Charity. During that same year, she met a seminarian named Samuel Cooper who have her money to purchase property (known as the Valley) in Emmitsburg. It is also the case that the then-Mrs. Seton was the only occupant of this house. After she departed it was used for storage and began to deteriorate.
This is a good day to remember those who rescued this house which is both a civic landmark and also a landmark for Catholicism in America. Sulpician Father, James Kortendick, began to repair the house in the late 1930’s even as Mother Seton’s Cause for Canonization was introduced in 1940. In 1962, Archbishop Lawrence Shehan, 12th Archbishop of Baltimore, and Fr. Lloyd McDonald, the Sulpician Provincial Superoir, formed a committee that oversaw the restoration of this house. The following year, in March 1963, Mother Seton was beatified and the Mother Seton House was opened to the public for the first time. And the rest, as they say, is history!
II. Living Legacy
Or is it? The words of Pope Paul VI at her canonization still ring in our ears: “Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is a Saint! She is the first daughter of the United States of America to be glorified with this incomparable attribute!”
In his homily, Pope Paul went on to say that what sanctity is. “A saint,” he said, “is a person in whom all sin, the principle of death, is cancelled out and replaced by the living splendor of divine grace … ” Sanctity means that a unique individual with unique gifts leads a life of heroic virtue coupled with a mystical love for Christ. She was and is an original image of Christ and his love.
The Holy Father also pointed out that Mother Seton was an American. The point was not simply to proclaim that she was the first American saint. No, the Holy Father wanted us all to realize that our country is fertile soil – “Your land too, America,” he said, “is indeed worthy of receiving into its fertile ground the seed of evangelical holiness.” It is a holiness forged in prayer and sacrifice, a holiness that blossomed in an evangelical style of life shaped by the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, a holiness that poured forth its love by assisting the poor, educating the young, ministering to the sick and dying.
III. Today’s Scripture Readings
Today we read in the Scripture about the mercy of God. Moses pleaded with God to have mercy on the Israelites when they lapsed into idolatry during the sojourn in the desert. St. Paul proclaimed himself the worst of sinners so as to illustrate the power of God’s forgiveness and mercy in Christ Jesus. And in the Gospel, Jesus spoke movingly of the lost sheep whom the shepherd goes in search of, and of the lost coin which the widow earnestly seeks. In that same Gospel reading, Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son who was welcomed home with such joy by his father.
Those readings shed light on the living legacy we celebrate this morning. Throughout her life, Elizabeth Ann Seton was a woman of great charity – as a wife, a mother, a widow, and as a religious. She came to Baltimore not to seek comfort and security but rather to educate the young, especially those in need. The door of her home and the door of her heart were always open to those whose needs included not only physical care and comfort but also encouragement along the path of discipleship. In a word, her whole life was shaped by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy which continue to be carried forward by the Daughters of Charity. In God’s grace her life became a total gift of self to God, to her fellow sisters, to her family, and to those in need.
Most often, dear friends, it is charity that moves us toward God. It is charity that gives us the courage, the hope, the renewed faith to turn our lives around, to seek the mercy of God, and to accept God’s grace that puts us on the path to good order in our lives, to friendship with God and service to others. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s example of charity – a charity that lives in our midst in works of healing and service sustained by the Daughters of Charity, her beloved sisters, continues to inspire many to open their hearts to God’s mercy. And for this blessing we give thanks today.
IV. Be Children of the Church!
As Mother Seton prepared to pass from this world to the next, on January 2nd, 1821, she spoke her last words: “Be children of the Church!” She did not mean that we should be childish – immature and self-centered – but rather that our spirits should be innocent and open to God’s will and ready to live the Gospel completely in the communion of the Church.
As we celebrate the anniversary of this house made holy by her presence, let us seek, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to be in Christ true children of God and of our Mother, the Church. Let this house remind us that the Church is truly our spirit home where we can rejoice always to experience the mercy of God and then to bear witness to that mercy in works of education, healing & charity. May God bless us and keep us always in his love!