Elizabeth Ann Seton
Memorial Day: January 4
Elizabeth Ann Seton
"The first end I
propose in our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the
manner he wills it; and thirdly to do it because it is his will."
-Elizabeth Ann Seton
Elizabeth Seton, the first native-born citizen of the United States ever to be canonized, was born into the devout Episcopalian family headed by her father Dr. Richard Bayley, a well-known physician and professor of anatomy at King's College (now Columbia), and her mother Catherine Charlton, who was the daughter of the Anglican rector of Saint Andrew's Church, Staten Island. Her mother died when Elizabeth was three-years-old. Although her father remarried, Elizabeth and her younger sister Mary were his favorites.
Her unusual, but far-reaching, education and character formation were his supreme concerns. He taught her to curb her natural vivaciousness. Dr. Bayley's second wife had seven children, so these two were under the special care of their father. (It may be worth noting that one of Elizabeth's stepbrothers became the Catholic Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley of Baltimore.) Elizabeth was 11-years-old when the Revolutionary War ended. Bayley was a Loyalist during the British occupation of New York.
Even in childhood, Elizabeth delighted in prayer and in spiritual reading, especially the lives of the saints, the Bible, and Imitation of Christ. She was also devoted to her Guardian Angel.
After the war, Bayley was made Inspector General in the New York Department of Health. In 1792, he was appointed to the Anatomy Chair in the Department of Medicine at Columbia College.
At 19 (in 1794), Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, a first- generation American of English parentage and heir-apparent to a rich shipping firm. After her marriage, Elizabeth became an active philanthropist, so active that she became known in New York as the "Protestant Sister of Charity." In 1797, already the mother of two, she was one of the founders of a society designed to help poor widows with small children.
William and Elizabeth were deeply in love and gave life to five children: Anna Maria was born in 1795; William, Jr. in 1796; Richard; Catherine; and Rebecca (b. 1802). Financial calamity visited the family business in the form of the war between France and England--many of their ships were seized--and the business failed. William's father died leaving him to look after his siblings. Then his health, too, failed--he contracted tuberculosis. In 1802, her father, Dr. Bayley, who had pioneered research in surgery, diphtheria, and yellow fever, contracted yellow fever and died.
Because of his tuberculosis, William's doctors felt he should spend winter in sunny Italy in 1803-1804. He had been a guest there of the Filicchi brothers in Leghorn several years before his marriage. So Elizabeth, William, and the eldest daughter Anna Maria arranged to spend several months with the Filicchi's.
Due to a yellow fever epidemic in New York, they were quarantined on the ship for four weeks after the seven-week voyage. Elizabeth never complained about the sad state of affairs, even in her diary. She took everything cheerfully as permitted by a loving God for their good. William Seton died in Pisa, Italy, in December 1803-- nine days after their release from quarantine--but had progressed much spiritually during their confinement.
Elizabeth converted to Catholicism primarily due to God, but instrumentally due to the Filicchi family, especially Antonio. They visited Florence. She went to church with Signora Filicchi and experienced a crisis when she saw the elevated Host one Sunday. Living with the Filicchi's dispelled her myths regarding Catholicism, because of their piety, virtue, love for one another, and charity. "If the practice of the Catholic faith could produce such interior holiness," she felt she must learn more about their Church. Sra. Filicchi kept a strict Lenten fast--allowing nothing until after 3:00 p.m. Elizabeth liked going to Mass every day.
Antonio Filicchi advised her that only the Catholic Church had the true faith and asked her to seek and pray for enlightenment. Elizabeth returned to New York on June 3, 1804, and put herself under instruction. Unfortunately, she advised her Rector Hobart and her family of her decision. All tried to sway her. She fell into despair until Epiphany 1805, when her reading roused her to action.
She was received into the Catholic Church on the March 14, 1805, with Antonio Filicchi as her sponsor. Elizabeth had returned to a bankrupt firm, so she was entirely dependent upon her relatives for her support. It would have been easy, if she had remained an Episcopalian. Instead, she was ostracized by her family and friends when she became a Catholic, except by her two sisters-in- law, Harriet and Cecilia Seton.
Antonio, Father O'Brien (the Dominican Rector of Saint Peter's Church), and Father Cheverus of Boston helped her financially. She decided to teach at a new girls' school, but it was rumored that she would instill Catholicism among her students and after three months, the school lost all its pupils and had to close. So, she arranged another teaching position. Fifteen-year-old Cecilia Seton announced then that she was becoming Catholic and was thrown out of her home. Cecilia sought refuge with Elizabeth setting off a storm that had Elizabeth lose this second job.
Elizabeth sought a new calling. A new, very holy priest came into her life--Father William Valentine du Bourg (Dubourg), a Sulpician Father, who was President of the Sulpician College of Saint Mary in Baltimore. He said Mass at Saint Peter's in New York in August 1807, when the woman in widow's dress came to receive Communion with tears streaming down her face in rapt devotion.
A few hours later, she called the rectory and requested the privilege of meeting Father du Bourg, who recognized her at once and listened attentively to the story of her conversion and present difficulties. Father du Bourg had been contemplating establishing a Catholic girls' school in Baltimore and proposed that she found a religious community to take up this work, since there was none in Baltimore for teaching.
Bishop John Carroll, Father Cheverus, and Father Matignon were consulted and encouraged her, but they thought she should wait. She waited one year. In June 1808, Father du Bourg met with her in New York again at the home of Mrs. Barry. She immediately went to Baltimore and opened Saint Joseph's School for girls next to the chapel of Saint Mary's Seminary. This marked the beginning of the Catholic system of parochial schools in America.
She and her associates lived as religious under a rule and wore habits. Cecilia Conway of Philadelphia joined her. Another recent convert, Mr. Cooper of Virginia, died leaving money for the education of poor children. With this they bought a farm near Emmitsburg, Maryland. Elizabeth's sisters-in-law Cecilia and Harriet also joined them. Elizabeth and her daughter Anna Maria took private vows before Archbishop Carroll.
In December 1809, Harriet Seton died, Cecilia followed in April 1810. In 1810, Bishop Flaget obtained in France the rule of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, changed the rule somewhat. Three sisters were selected to train them, but Napoleon forbade them to leave. The revised rule was approved by Archbishop Carroll in January 1812 and Elizabeth was elected as the Superior of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Joseph. Anna Maria died during her novitiate in 1812, taking her final vows on her deathbed, but Mother Seton and 18 sisters made their vows on July 19, 1813. Thus was founded the first American religious society.
The sisters were very active, establishing a free schools, orphanages, and hospitals. They became most well-known, however, for their work with the then growing parochial school system, which became one of the glories of the Catholic Church in the United States. In addition to her responsibilities to the congregation, Mother Seton personally worked with the poor and sick, composed music, wrote hymns, and penned spiritual discourses.
Of Elizabeth's children, Rebecca died in 1816; Richard died in Italy in 1821 (the same year as his mother Elizabeth); William, Jr. entered the Navy and died in 1868. Mother Catherine Seton, daughter of the saint and the first postulant of the New York Sisters of Mercy, died at age 91 in 1891, she prepared many condemned criminals for death.
Saint Elizabeth was a charming and cultivated woman of determined character. In the face of all the social pressures her 'world,' Elizabeth was devout and comfortable as an Episcopalian, but she persevered in religion and responded to God's call for her to extend and develop the Catholic Church in the United States. Of all the attendant discouragements and difficulties she faced, the hardest to bear were interior to herself; for example, she detested having to exercise authority over others and she suffered much from bouts of spiritual aridity. But she conquered in the Sign she had chosen and conquered heroically.
By the time of her death, her inspiration spread to the founding of nearly two dozen sister communities around the U.S. Today the congregation is one of the most numerous and influential of its kind. Her cause was introduced in 1907 by Cardinal Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore. Impressive cures claimed as miraculous during her cause include one from leukemia and another from severe meningitis.
One by one, God took away the foundations on which Elizabeth's comfortable life was built, substituting a faithful Catholic family in Italy, a new faith, and new spiritual guides distinguished for their holiness and wisdom, and led her, like Abraham, into a strange new land (Attwater, Bentley, Cushing, J. Delaney, S. Delany, Farmer, Walsh, White).
O Father, the first rule of Our dear Savior's life was to do Your Will. Let His Will of the present moment be the first rule of our daily life and work, with no other desire but for its most full and complete accomplishment. Help us to follow it faithfully, so that doing what You wish we will be pleasing to You. Amen.
Lord Jesus, Who was born for us in a stable, lived for us a life of pain and sorrow, and died for us upon a cross; say for us in the hour of death, Father, forgive, and to Your Mother, Behold your child. Say to us, This day you shall be with Me in paradise. Dear Savior, leave us not, forsake us not. We thirst for You, Fountain of Living Water. Our days pass quickly along, soon all will be consummated for us. To Your hands we commend our spirits, now and forever. Amen.