If you’ve never heard of Emmitsburg, MD, you’re not alone. This little gem of a town near the Pennsylvania border hosts unique but memorable attractions.
A few years ago, I jokingly wrote about the fact that there are patron saints for just about everything. But I admittedly didn’t know much about what it took to become a saint. And I certainly didn’t know that there was a shrine to the first saint from the United States right here in my home state of Maryland.
In Emmitsburg, MD, just a short drive from both Baltimore and Washington, DC, you’ll find the National Shrine to Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, a woman who made an impact on many in her short time.
Visiting the shrine just to walk on the grounds is worth the trip itself but because we didn’t know much about her work, the Shrine hosted us for their Living History tour. This tour takes you to the historic homes on the campus and brings her story to life with actors portraying significant figures from the 1800s.
The Living History Tour at the Seton Shrine
Upon arrival, you might think you’re on a beautiful college campus. This was, once upon a time, a campus of sorts for local girls attending school there.
Elizabeth Seton was born and raised in New York City and married William Seton at the age of 19. She went on to bear five children before losing her husband after nine years of marriage. As a widow at 28 with five children, Elizabeth was resourceful enough to run a school for girls in the Baltimore area and eventually recruited to do the same in Emmitsburg, MD.
When she arrived, she was given a meager place to stay at The Stone House in 1809. Upon entering, you’ll meet one of the “sisters” dressed in period-appropriate attire. She explains how the house was used for accommodations and also served as a small chapel and later a laundry room. But she presents everything in present tense and even gossips a little about the comings and goings at the house.
The next stop is The White House where we meet Catherine Seton and one of the Mothers in the year 1842. After losing her mother in 1821, she toured Europe looking to find her purpose in life. She returned to the school in Emmitsburg and gave us a glimpse into life at the school – including education, chapel services, and even her mother’s last days.
After touring The White House, I had a chance to meet the actors who portrayed the historic characters. Their performances were so convincing that I wondered if it was scripted (it’s not) and told them how well they had captured the women from that time.
On our way back to the Visitor Center, we walked through the cemetery that housed many of the sisters who has passed away over the years. Their graves are simple but indicate a long life, well-lived. And you’ll also see the graves of some of the Seton family including some of her children.
The Basilica and the Life of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
After walking through the cemetery, we returned to visit the Basilica. Although there are services there every day, you are free to enter the church and admire everything from the Italian marble, mosaic tile, and German stained glass.
You’ll also have the chance to visit the final resting place of Elizabeth Seton.
During our visit, we spoke with a docent who pointed out the artwork throughout as well as his favorite sculpture just outside the church entrance.
Upon closer examination, we were told that the Sisters there wanted to make sure that the church wasn’t too perfect, to represent the fact that we are imperfect before God. And if you look closely to the tiled arch over the alter, you’ll see that one of the designs is exactly imperfect.
After visiting the Basilica, we walked through a few self-paced exhibits to learn more about Elizabeth Seton, her life, her family, and what it took for her to finally be named a saint in 1975.
Visiting the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
The Basilica, Museum and Gift Shop are open Monday through Saturday 10am-6pm and Sunday 12-6pm. The grounds and historic cemetery are open year-round from dawn to dusk.
You can easily do a self-guided tour and can find a map of the grounds inside the Visitor Center. If you’d like to attend a guided tour, check out the Living History Tour as well as other available tours online.
339 S Seton Ave
Emmitsburg, MD 21727
What Else to Do in Emmitsburg, MD
If you’re heading to the nether regions of Emmitsburg, it’s worth making a day of it! Although you’re about two hours from DC or Baltimore, Gettysburg is less than 15 miles away in Pennsylvania. But if you want to stay more local, you can visit the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes just a few minutes away but we chose to stay right in Emmitsburg.
National Fallen Firefighters Memorial and 9/11 Memorial – To Lift A Nation
Literally right next door is the US Emergency Management Institute. It’s a federal property so you can’t just breeze in but you are allowed to enter to visit two memorials onsite. (Be prepared to show your photo ID and have your car searched).
Having worked for a fire department for many years, I knew about the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial but had never ventured up that way. It’s a small but poignant memorial to honor those firefighters that have died in the line of duty. In addition to engraved names, there’s also an eternal flame on site.
Just a few steps away, you’ll find the 9/11 Memorial – To Lift A Nation, a poignant 40 foot bronze sculpture honoring some of the heroes from September 11th.
Grab a Historic Bite at the Carriage House Inn
If you’re looking to have a nice lunch or dinner before heading home, stop by the Carriage House Inn which is literally just up the street from the Seton Shrine. I was out with my son and he’s very into “nice sitdown meals” these days so we enjoyed a lovely meal together including a baked brie and a crabcake sandwich.
What ultimately mattered was that I got to explore more of my home state of Maryland and spent a quality day with my son!