St. Joseph’s Hallowed Ground

St. Joseph’s Church and graveyard

“We are on Hallowed Ground”

Ask nearly anyone in St. Joseph’s Parish, and they will tell you, “We are on hallowed ground.”

This may seem like an odd claim. After all, St. Joseph’s Parish in Emmitsburg, Maryland seems like any other place along the Mason-Dixon Line separating Maryland and Pennsylvania. Quiet country roads wind through a peaceful valley – also named after Saint Joseph – and lead into historic towns and villages. Farmers plant fields. Cattle graze. The wooded trails of Catoctin Mountain Park beckon. On the highway outside of town, there is a barbecue restaurant. Along another road, a supermarket is filled with busy shoppers. There is even a McDonalds restaurant. It all seems so…ordinary.

Saint Joseph’s Valley, however, has been known as hallowed ground since colonial times, if not earlier. Legends abound. In one popular story, the Blessed Mother appears in a vision to Ottawanta, a Piscataway Chief. She foretells the founding of Mount Saint Mary’s College and Seminary, and of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton: “A temple to my name will crown the mountain’s brow whence innumerable bands of Levites and Mitered heads will depart to convey the tidings of the Gospel. A holy Sisterhood will arise.” And yes, there is a Mount Saint Mary’s overlooking Saint Joseph’s Valley.

Daughters of Charity nursing Civil War Soldiers
Daughters of Charity nursing Civil War Soldiers

Saint Joseph’s Valley is also considered hallowed ground in our Nation’s remembrance of the Civil War. The National Park Service invites visitors to “Journey Through Hallowed Ground” in and around Gettysburg and through Saint Joseph’s Valley. The Gettysburg Battlefield, site of both the Union army’s decisive victory during the Civil War and of Abraham Lincoln’s famous address, is perhaps the most hallowed ground in America. And, it is just twelve miles away.

Both Saint Joseph’s Valley and the Parish, the Vincentian confreres, and the Daughters of Charity are part of the Gettysburg story. In 1863, about 80,000 soldiers from the Army of the Potomac encamped on the Daughters’ property near St. Joseph’s Church immediately before the Battle of Gettysburg. General Otis Howard, leader of the Union forces, confined the confreres to the basement and used St. Joseph’s rectory as his headquarters. During the actual battle and afterwards, the Daughters of Charity cared for both sides as nurses. History remembers these heroic Daughters as “Angels of the Battlefield.”

The Vincentian confreres, the Daughters of Charity, and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton have deep spiritual roots in Saint Joseph’s Valley. Their influence is marked in street names like DePaul Street and North Seton Avenue. (Mother Seton even gave Saint Joseph’s Valley its name.) Their legacy is experienced in the institutions they established.

Buildings and landscapes connected to the Vincentians, the Daughters, and to Mother Seton still can be seen and touched. Some buildings, such as St. Joseph’s rectory (known as St. Vincent’s House), built in 1854, remain in active use. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton lived in the “Stone House,” built in 1750. And, the “White House” served as the Sisters of Charity’s first motherhouse.

After Mother Seton’s death, her Sisters eventually united with the Daughters of Charity of Paris, France. Today, the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton includes a Museum and a Basilica, which houses Mother Seton’s remains.

The work of holiness continues today

Through active participation in the Eucharist, we commit to share our faith, to evangelize, to build unity through acceptance and welcome, and following the spirit of St. Vincent dePaul to assist those in need.                                       – Parish Mission Statement

It is important to remember that the Vincentians did not come to Saint Joseph’s Valley because it was hallowed ground. The confreres moved into St. Joseph’s Parish in 1854 to serve as spiritual directors to the Daughters of Charity, and to minister to the poor and vulnerable. It was the good work of the confreres, the Daughters, and the members of the Parish that helped make Saint Joseph’s Valley the hallowed ground people recognize today. And, that good work continues.

Today, a confrere from St. Vincent’s House still serves as chaplain to the Daughters of Charity, with special care for the aging and infirmed sisters. Another confrere is assigned as chaplain to the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Other confreres serve an active parish with a large number of young families. These confreres recognize the privilege of walking on ground made holy by past deeds. But, they also understand that St. Joseph’s Parish must continue the work of holiness today – in prayer centered on the Eucharist and in service to the outcast, the vulnerable, and those in need. This vision of prayer and service attracts parishioners from as far away as Pennsylvania, who travel a great distance to participate in the life of the parish. In fact, one-third of the parish membership lives in Pennsylvania.

St. Joseph’s Parish provides significant financial and volunteer support to the Seton Center. The Seton Center is sponsored by the Daughters of Charity and assists low-income families in Emmitsburg and throughout the local area. Parish volunteers provide transportation for clients and provide other assistance. They also participate in food and clothing drives.

St. Joseph’s sponsors many parish organizations including the Knights of Columbus, the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, the Sodality of the BVM, and the St. Vincent dePaul Society. There is also a large Catholic home-school organization. The Parish’s commitment to community service was recently demonstrated by five Boy Scouts from the St. Joseph’s Emmitsburg Troop 727 who earned the rank of Eagle. For one rural Scout Troop to produce five Eagle Scouts in a single year is a remarkable achievement.

Fr. John Holliday reads to fourth graders at Mother Seton School
Fr. John Holliday reads to fourth graders at Mother Seton School

St. Joseph’s Parish sends a large number of students to Mother Seton School, the regional Catholic elementary school. Mother Seton School is run by the Daughters of Charity and traces its history to the St. Joseph Free School for Girls, founded in 1810 by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

The confreres are an active presence at the Mother Seton School. In fact, Fr. John Holliday, the pastor, recently read a Dr. Seuss book to the schools’ fourth graders during Read Across America Day.

The Vincentian confreres and the parishioners of St. Joseph’s Parish are well aware that they walk on hallowed ground. They strive to continue the work of holiness through prayer and service today. Their hope: to keep Saint Joseph’s Valley hallowed ground for generations to come.

Check out their website to learn more.  Here are some photos.

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