Collection: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
ARTIST: Julie Lonneman
We remember St. Elizabeth Seton as the founder of the first American religious community for women, the Sisters of Charity. St. Elizabeth also created the first Catholic parish school and the first Catholic orphanage in America. She became the first American-born citizen to be beatified (1963) and then canonized (1975). She accomplished these great works despite tremendous opposition, hardship and personal sorrow.
“We know certainly that our God calls us to a holy life. We know that he gives us every grace, every abundant grace; and though we are so weak of ourselves, this grace is able to carry us through every obstacle and difficulty.”
—Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
Her feast day is January 4.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley, one of two daughters of a prominent Episcopal family, was born in New York on August 28, 1774. She was a charming little girl, small-boned and dainty, with great brown eyes and a face like a cameo, who from the very first loved God and wanted to be good. Having lost her mother at the age of three, she was deeply attached to her physician father and used to sit beside her schoolroom window watching for him on the street. When he appeared, she would slip out quickly and run for a kiss. As a young girl, she experienced the ups and downs of adolescence, imagined now and then that her father did not love her (there was a stepmother), and on one melancholy occasion she fantasized ending it all. She rejoiced in the world on one day and on the next longed to retreat to a convent in the country to teach children about God, or to join the Quakers "who wear such pretty bonnets."
Beautiful, vivacious, fluent in French, a fine musician, and an accomplished horsewoman, she grew up and became a popular guest at parties and balls. Long afterward she wrote of all this as quite harmless, except for distractions at night prayers and the bother of fussing over dresses. Small wonder young William Seton fell head over heels in love with her. She returned his love adoringly and they were married, surely to live happily ever after.
It began felicitously enough in a gracious home on Wall Street, William busy at his family's shipping business, Elizabeth with the beginnings of a family. Anna Maria was born, then young Willy, and then came a thin thread of worry in the form of William's ill health. With the death of his father, their fortunes began to decline. William was tormented by visions of debtor's prison, while Elizabeth was certain that God would help them to survive. "Troubles always create a great exertion of my mind," she wrote, "and give it a force to which at other times it is incapable... I think the greatest happiness of this life is to be released from the cares of what is called the world."
In two and a half years, they were bankrupt. Elizabeth spent that Christmas watching the front door to keep out the seizure officer. The following summer she and the children stayed with her father, who was a health officer for the Port of New York on Staten Island. When she saw the babies of newly arrived Irish immigrants starving at their mothers' breasts, she begged her physician father to let her nurse some of them since she was weaning her fourth child, but he refused. By summer's end, he too was a victim of the yellow fever epidemic, and Elizabeth was grief-stricken. More and more she turned to the Scriptures and the spiritual life, and in May of 1802 she wrote in a letter that her soul was "sensibly convinced of an entire surrender of itself and all its faculties to God."
Then in 1803, the doctor suggested a sea journey for William's health. Against Elizabeth's better judgment they set sail for Italy to visit their friends, the Felicchi family. To pay for the voyage, she sold the last of her possessions -- silver, vases, pictures, all probably inherited from her father. The voyage was pleasant, but arriving at Leghorn they were quarantined in a stone tower outside the city because of the yellow fever epidemic in New York. There she endured for forty days the cruelest suffering she was ever to know, possibly the key to all that happened during the rest of her life. She wept, then reproached herself for behaving as though God were not present. She tended the racked patient, now coughing blood; amused Anna Maria, who had come with them, with stories and games; and held little prayer services. When the cold numbed them beyond bearing, she and Anna Maria skipped rope. William died two days after Christmas in Pisa, at the age of thirty-seven. Only the laundress would help the young widow to lay out his body.
While waiting to return to America, Elizabeth attended the churches of her Italian friends where she was deeply impressed by the Catholic belief in the real presence. If this teaching about the Blessed Sacrament had been held in the Episcopal church in New York at the time, Elizabeth Seton's story might have been very different, for this doctrine was at the very heart of her conversion. Returning to New York, poor now and living upstairs in a little house supplied by friends, the news of her interest in the church stirred up consternation on all sides. She agonized with indecision about it until finally, on March 14, 1805, she became a Roman Catholic.
Several plans to support her family failed, and finally she opened a boardinghouse for schoolboys; but when her sister-in-law, Cecelia Seton, became a Roman Catholic also, her angry supporters withdrew. Hearing of her need, the president of St. Mary's College in Baltimore offered her a residence with a teaching position in that city. She accepted and left New York for good on June 8, 1808.
In March of 1809, she pronounced her vows before Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, was given some property in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and in June she, her three daughters, her sisters-in-law, Cecelia and Harriet Seton, and four young women who had joined them, began what was to become the American foundation of the Sisters of Charity. For special occasions they wore black dresses with shoulder capes, a simple white bonnet tied under the chin (like Elizabeth's mourning dress); and for everyday they wore whatever else they had. Their temporary abode provided four rooms, two cots, mattresses on the floor under a leaky roof where in winter snow sifted down over them. Vegetables, now and then a bit of salt pork or buttermilk, and a beverage called carrot coffee was their fare-all flavored with that great zest for survival which had become a habit with Elizabeth. When they moved to their unfinished permanent home they were invaded by fleas which had infested the horsehair for the plaster. Finally the home was completed and they had "an elegant little chapel, 30 cells, an infirmary, refectory, parlor, school, and workroom."
But once again death became familiar. Harriet died, then Cecelia, and torrents of invective from New York condemned Elizabeth as "that pest of society, that hypocrite and bigot." In the eleven years left she would lose Anna Maria and little Bec (Rebecca) as well; her grief over the loss of her loved ones was long and terrible.
But life went on. The rule, money troubles, possessive clergy, an ill-suited spiritual director, additional schools, the demand for more and still more sisters, were only some of her burdens. Through them all she seemed to remain cheerful and patient, but her letters to her director reveal the terrible suffering, the aridity, the darkness of soul. Her sons, upon whom she doted, were ordinary, self-centered young men whose faults their mother never saw quite clearly. Until the end of her life she sent them money, proposed schemes which did not appeal to them, wrote them sentimental letters, and worried for their souls. William eventually married (one of his sons would become a bishop); while Richard, having been spiritually adrift and in debt, returned home, rectified his life, signed on a merchant voyage, and died at sea. Catherine, her youngest child, became a Sister of Mercy in New York and lived to be ninety-one.
Elizabeth Seton died slowly and painfully of the tuberculosis which had stricken all her family. At the last she was sustained on nothing but a little port wine. She had written to her best friend not long before, "I'll be wild Betsy to the last." The night of her death, January 4, 1821, she began the prayers for the dying herself, and one of the sisters, knowing that she loved French, prayed the Gloria and the Magnificent in French with her. The spirited young woman who had wanted only to marry a handsome man, be a happy wife, and raise a pretty family, had had adventures beyond her wildest dreams. Loving by nature, she grew in faith and hope because of trial, not in spite of it. And with each trial God revealed resources, strength, and courage she did not know she possessed. We call it coping -- and we need a patron saint for coping.
Born: August 28, 1774, New York City, New York, USA as Elizabeth Ann Bayley
Died: January 4, 1821
Beatification: March 17, 1963 by Pope John XXIII
Canonization: September 14, 1975 by Pope Paul VI