Feastday, January 5
Recent popes have canonized a number of American saints. But when Pope Paul VI raised Elizabeth Ann Seton to the altars on September 14, 1975, he gave the Church a saint who was typically American by both birth and disposition. Elizabeth Ann Bayley, born in lower Manhattan just before the outbreak of the American Revolution, was of English stock. Her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, was a noted physician; her mother Catherine Charlton Bayley was the daughter of a very worthy Episcopalian clergyman. Elizabeth was baptized Episcopalian. Although she lost her mother at an early age, her father saw to it she received a good education and training in character. As she grew up, she showed an unusual concern for the poor and for her charities. She came to be called “the Protestant Sister of Charity.” Even in these early days, Elizabeth manifested a religious bent that was unusually devout.
In 1794, at the age of 19, Elizabeth Ann married William Magee Seton, a wealthy young international merchant of Scottish ancestry, in Trinity Episcopal Church. She bore him four daughters and two sons.
Unfortunately, the current war between Napoleonic France and England, by cutting off foreign trade, ruined her husband’s business, and he also fell victim to tuberculosis. His Catholic tradesmen friends, the generous and pious Filicchi family of Leghorn, Italy, invited Elizabeth to bring William to Italy, in the hope that a sea voyage and change of climate might cure him.
The couple and their eldest child, Anna Maria, reached Leghorn on November 18, 1803. The sea voyage had not improved William’s health. On their arrival, local health authorities insisted that they not land, but be put for a month in quarantine in the prison-like lazaretto in the harbor.
This was a great hardship for the dying man, although both he and his wife took it as God’s will. Only on December 19 were they released. The Filicchis welcomed them, but William Seton died, aged 35, on the following December 27, 1803, and was buried in Tuscan soil.
Mrs. Seton and Anna Maria remained with the Filicchis until Spring. There, in a Catholic country, living with a devoted Catholic family, and able to attend a Catholic church and learn of the treasure of the Blessed Sacrament, Elizabeth became a Catholic at heart. On advice, however, she waited until her return to New York to enter the Church formally. She was received there on March 14, 1805, and made her first Holy Communion with extraordinary fervor on the feast of the Annunciation, March 25. Impoverished now, she decided to support herself and family by opening a private school. But her Protestant former friends treated her very brusquely after her conversion, so that she had practically no pupils to teach.
Not knowing which way to turn, but placing her reliance on God’s guidance, Mrs. Seton in 1808 accepted an invitation to open a Catholic school in Baltimore. There, among friends but still struggling, she finally met with success. In 1809 she moved her growing school to Emmitsburg, in northern Maryland. By that time Elizabeth and a number of her assistant schoolteachers had won permission to establish a religious order, the Sisters of Charity. She took her first vows in the presence of Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore on July 2, 1809. He gave to her then, as superior, the title by which she later was so well known: “Mother” Seton.
It was at Emmitsburg that Mother Seton and her sisters organized in 1810 what became the American Catholic free parochial school system. In 1814 she set up her first American orphanage in Philadelphia, and in 1823 she arranged for the opening in Baltimore of the first Catholic American hospital.
The whole venture was, of course, accompanied by many organizational problems. Meanwhile she was still raising her own children. Three of her daughters died of tuberculosis, two of them after taking their vows as Sisters of Charity. Her fourth daughter, Catherine, later joined the Sisters of Mercy. Keeping her two boys on the right track was one of Mother Seton’s major problems. She herself died of consumption in 1821, aged only 46. Since 1809 she had played her double role as a superior and mother with earnestness, but also with a spiritual joy and wit that charmed all.
Asked just before her painful death what she considered the greatest gift of her life, she had answered without hesitation: “The greatest grace of my life was having been led into the Catholic Church.”
Elizabeth Seton is a model for all American women: nun, teacher, nurse; yes, also wife and mother.
–Father Robert F. McNamara