Background by Dom Forker
“Mary’s Mountain” and “Joseph’s Valley”
Men and women who had never heard of Emmitsburg before they arrived here have formed the core of Catholicism in the United States. Mystically, they have gravitated to “Mary’s Mountain” and “Joseph’s Valley.”
According to popular legend, the first refugees who came to Emmitsburg seeking religious freedom were Ottawanta, a Piscataway chief, and his family. Recent converts to the Catholic faith, they were persecuted for their “betrayal” of paganism. After his wife and children had died, Ottawanta prayed the rosary to the “Bright Lady” every day, imploring her to reunite him with his family in heaven. One day the Blessed Mother allegedly appeared to him with her Infant Son and assured him that his wish would soon be fulfilled. Then she told him that, because of his love and fidelity to her, a temple dedicated to her name would rise on “yon distant mountain,” and, “in this valley,” endless bands of virgins, consecrated to the Lamb, would serve Him in His poor.
In 1728, William Elder and a group of refugees that included his family left St. Mary’s City in Southeastern Maryland, and traveled westward, seeking religious freedom. At the base of “Mary’s Mountain,” they built their homes and celebrated the first Mass in the Emmitsburg area. Finally, after the War of Independence, they gained their own (spiritual) freedom.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is probably the most famous name connected to Emmitsburg. When Bishop John Carroll, Father William Dubourg, and she were planning the site of her new community, they agreed that it should be in Baltimore. But Samuel Cooper, the funder of the project, said, “No, it will be in Emmitsburg.” Mother Seton had never heard of Emmitsburg before.
Some years later, a young Sister of Charity said to her, “Everything is so quiet here. Nothing ever happens.” Mother Seton replied, “Just you wait, Sister, one of these days there is going to be a great explosion here.” The “great explosion” may have happened on September 14, 1975, when Pope Paul VI proclaimed her to be the first native-born American saint.
The Sisters of Charity at Emmitsburg existed from 1809 to 1850. On March 25, 1850, the long-awaited union with the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul was consummated. It should be noted that the Blessed Mother had told Mother Seton of this impending union some four decades earlier.
Up until this merger, the pastors of St. Joseph’s Church in Emmitsburg were, for the most part, priests from Mt. St. Mary’s. Father Mariano Maller of the Congregation of the Missions (C.M.), also known as the Vincentians and the Lazarists, came to Emmitsburg on December 28, 1849, to become the first spiritual director of the Daughters of Charity in the United States. In June of 1852, he became the first Vincentian pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Emmitsburg. Unto this day, the Vincentians continue to shepherd their flock at St. Joseph’s.
Fathers John DuBois and Simon Brute fled religious persecution, also. They left their native France during the trials of the French Revolution and, following separate paths, eventually ended up in Emmitsburg. Later, each of them became a bishop, DuBois in New York (city and state) and Brute in Vincennes (now Indianapolis), Indiana Both of them, by the way, were spiritual directors of Mother Seton, who affectionately referred to Brute as her “Angel of the Mountain,”
Brute held her in high regard, also. One day he advised the Sisters of Charity community, “Don’t lose any fragments belonging to Mother Seton, for someday how precious they will be.” (Recently, Brute’s cause for canonization was advanced.)
DuBois established the fiber of Emmitsburg’s love for the Blessed Mother. In 1806, he named his new church on the mountain St. Mary’s, and he dedicated it to her on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption. In addition, he placed in the open tower a statue of Our Lady. Emmitsburg was an agrarian community at the time. He knew that the farmers, pausing in the heat of a summer’s day, would wipe their brow and look upward. He wanted them, during these moments of perseverance, to see Mary, their mediatrix and advocate, looking down upon them protectively with a Mother’s love.
John Hughes, also a victim of religious oppression, came to Emmitsburg via County Tyrone, Ireland. He was admitted to the Mount by DuBois upon the strong personal recommendation of Mother Seton. Ironically, he eventually became DuBois’ assistant and later his successor in New York.
The next time you visit the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, above Mt. St. Mary’s, inspect closely the primitive log cabin in which Hughes lived, and then try to fathom that the occupant of that simple dwelling became the first archbishop of New York and the “architect” of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. He laid the cornerstone for it in 1859.
John McCloskey, another product of Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary, was named Hughes’s coadjutor general in 1844 and, after his superior’s death in 1864, his successor and the second archbishop of New York. Eleven years later, he was elevated to the rank of cardinal, the first American to be so honored.
When the Mount honored him at a testimonial on June 23, 1875, he said, “Whatever I am, whatever I may be, under God’s providence, I owe to this institution….”
Michael Corrigan, also educated at Mt. St. Mary’s College, became McCloskey’s coadjutor general and successor as Archbishop of New York. As Archbishop of New York, according to Richard McBrien, Editor of Encyclopedia of Catholicism, “He developed and consolidated many charitable institutions, schools, a seminary, and ethnic parishes to meet the growing needs of the pluralistic Catholic population.
Unbelievably, over a course of 76 years (1826-1902), priests of Mt. St. Mary’s served as spiritual stewards of New York with the rank of either bishop, archbishop, or cardinal.
Bishop James Edward Walsh was undoubtedly Mt. St. Mary’s finest missionary. Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston once said of him, “(He) is the finest missionary to go forth from America during my lifetime.”
In the summer of 1981, just before he died, he told Father James Forker, also a product of Mt. St. Mary’s, “Some of the happiest moments of my life were spent saying the rosary at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes at Mt. St. Mary’s.” Three weeks later, Father Forker gave “America’s finest missionary” his final blessing.
The history of spirituality in Emmitsburg, it appears, is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest seed of all, yet when fully grown, it is the largest of plants. It becomes so big a shrub that the birds of the sky come and build their nests in its branches.
On July 31, 1809, the day on which the Sisters of Charity began to live the full community life, they were ten in number. On September 14, 1975, the day that Mother Seton became a saint in the eyes of the Catholic Church, the members of her community numbered nine (9,000) thousand.
The pioneer students and seminarians at Mt. St. Mary’s numbered eight. Today the seminary is almost full to capacity. Opening the 1999 school year, Mt. St. Mary’s housed one hundred and sixty-five candidates for the priesthood. Today, it has seminarians from 32 different dioceses in the United States, in addition to one from Peru and one from Spain.
Why is Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary flourishing while vocations at almost every other seminary in the United States are dwindling? According to the late Monsignor Hugh Phillips, the longtime chaplain of the Grotto and the president of the college from 1967 to 1971, “We don’t have liberal theologians here. We have a traditional approach to discipleship. We didn’t change our approach after Vatican II, like most seminaries. The bishops of the United States send their seminarians to us because they want that approach.”
On October 3, 1910, James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, in the “Introduction” to The Story of the Mountain, the history of the first hundred years of the Mount, said, “Indeed, she (Mt. St. Mary’s) has sent out so many and so distinguished priests and prelates that she is proudly called the “Mother of Bishops.” That appellation was later modified to the “Cradle of Bishops.” So far, forty-eight products of Mt. St. Mary’s have been named bishops. No other seminary in the United States comes remotely close to that number.
Let us now, like Our Lady, look down from “Mary’s Mountain” to “Joseph’s Valley.”
In the days leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, there was a legitimate fear that the action would take place in Emmitsburg. An estimated 90,000 Union troops were located in and around the premises of the Daughters of Charity. In fact, Union officers were planning battle strategies in Mother Seton’s White House.
The sisters multiplied their prayers, promising the Blessed Mother that they would erect a statue of Our Lady of Victories on the campus if the grounds of St. Joseph’s Academy were spared from damage. Unexpectedly, new orders for the Union Army arrived just in time. The soldiers speedily formed their ranks and marched to their fate in Gettysburg.
True to their word, the sisters erected a statue of Our Lady of Victories just after the Civil War ended. To this day, she stands on a pedestal, within a gazebo, holding the Infant Child Jesus in her arms.
The Daughters of Charity had barely enough time to offer up their prayers of thanksgiving to their Protectress when many of them became part of the battle that they had so desperately tried to avoid. They nursed the wounded and the dying of both sides, Union and Confederate soldiers alike. History has affectionately referred to them as the “Angels of the Battlefield.”
The sisters and students of St. Joseph’s twice showed “charity” to President Dwight David (“Ike”) Eisenhower and his wife Mamie, lining the roadside of Old Route 15 to show their respect for them. The first time occurred in 1955, when the president and his wife were traveling from Washington, D.C, to Gettysburg, so that “Ike” could convalesce from his recent heart attack; the second time, on January 20, 1961, when he was leaving the White House for the final time.
The Eisenhowers and St. Joseph’s grew close to each other during their declining years. For example, St. Joseph’s honored Mamie with an honorary doctorate degree, and “Ike,” an accomplished artist, gave the religious and educational institution a self-portrait.
Gianna Sullivan, another “daughter of Charity,” came to Emmitsburg for the first time on January 31, 1993, the Feast of St. John Bosco. She and her then-fiancé Michael visited The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes and felt called to leave their conventional medical careers and move to the Emmitsburg area to continue Our Lord’s and Our Lady’s work. Since that time, a period of 12 years, the Blessed Mother has appeared daily to Gianna, excepting Fridays, a time of penance. Unique to the Emmitsburg apparitions have been several points discussed by Our Lady on many occasions, and addressed by Gianna and Michael in their “Fatima (Portugal) Talk” on July 12, 2004:
- Our Lady describes the Emmitsburg area as the “Center of Her Immaculate Heart.”
- She has said that it is the only apparition site in history where the Father has allowed her to come presenting the Child Jesus as a refuge for all children.
- She links the “Center of Her Immaculate Heart” (Emmitsburg, MD) in the East with Our Lord’s “Center of Divine Mercy” (Scottsdale, AZ) in the West, where Gianna’s experiences began, in a union likened to the “Covenant of the Two Hearts”. That union between East and West symbolizes the horizontal beam of the Cross which Our Lord carried on His shoulders before being crucified and which He Himself raised up vertically to the Father on Calvary. Our Lady rejoiced:”Through the Cross evil’s reign shall end.”
- It is from this place, the “Center of Her Immaculate Heart,” that God’s Divine Mercy will be unveiled and the Child Jesus through His Spiritual Eucharistic Reign will usher in an Era of Peace.
On May 11, 2000, Our Lady placed her appearances in Emmitsburg in the context of her Plan as it has unfolded over 20 centuries:
“This holy place in Emmitsburg will be a living realization of the Gospel. My Immaculate Heart and the Eucharstic Heart of my Son are inseparably united in the plan of salvation…. I have been waiting for 2000 years to fulfill the plan God the Father has commissioned to me, to bear the fruits of my Son’s redemption. Through my Immaculate Heart I will obtain for you from my Blessed Son every grace, justice, charity and peace. What commenced in Fatima with my three little children will continue now and come to fruition here at the ‘Center of My Immaculate Heart.'” (May 11, 2000).
She further explained in March and June, 2000, the role of the Child Jesus in this plan, a role that has not been fully understood and has been greatly misrepresented by those not familiar with Our Lady’s words in Emmitsburg:
“It will not be His Final Judgment and coming, for this next era will be the Covenant of Our Two Hearts, a Spiritual Eucharistic Reign….” (March 2, 2000).
“I have told you that this is my Son, the Child Jesus who will return again, not in a corporeal body to walk the earth, and not as the Glorified Just Judge as He will come at the end of time, but as a Child of Hope to usher in an era of peace as God’s Mercy is unveiled. This has been foretold for many centuries and is not a new theology, which many seem to believe.” (June 29, 2000).
“Great explosions” have already taken place in Emmitsburg. But Our Lady, in these common points and select messages, appears to indicate that even greater ones are yet to come. On September 8, 2000 (Our Lady’s birthday, by the way), the Archdiocese of Baltimore discontinued the Thursday night prayer group meetings at St. Joseph’s Church in Emmitsburg, the site of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to Gianna Sullivan and Our Lady’s public message for the world*. The following day, Gianna released a statement that applies as much to the history of Catholicism in Emmitsburg as it did to that moment:
“This is a gift.
Be at peace.
Continue to pray.
God’s hand is in all of this.
Watch and see!”
*Both the private and public apparitions of Our Lord to Gianna and the public messages from Our Lady of Emmitsburg to the world continue; however, in accordance with Church requests, not on Church property.
Dom Forker, the author of Our Lady of Emmitsburg: The Center of Her Immaculate Heart, taught English and American literature, Journalism, and Creative Writing at Delaware Valley Regional High School in Frenchtown, New Jersey for 39 years. He is the author of more than thirty books including The Men of Autumn and Sweet Seasons. The Father of three grown sons, he lives with his wife, Nancy, in Milford, New Jersey.