Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
“He is more within us than we are ourselves.”
Elizabeth Ann Seton really fits the description of a woman for all seasons. She is truly a role model for women of today. Although she was always a very refined lady, she never shrunk from any kind of work which would help her or her family, whether it be her children or her ladies. She was a personification of motherhood all her life. She was a Protestant who converted after the death of her husband. She was a widow, a single mother, raising five children under the most impossible circumstances in a male-oriented world; she became a nun, and founded a religious community; you name it, Elizabeth Seton did it. Perhaps because she was such a beautiful girl, and was raised in New York society of the period, it seemed to many that she was able to just breeze through life doing wonderful things for the people of God, for the Church and for her family, without raising a bead of perspiration. Her life was anything but that.
New York City was abuzz with activity in 1774. It was two years before we, the people, would declare our Independence from Britain. So while it was exciting in retrospect, it was also covered by a heavy cloud of apprehension. The Boston Tea Party, staged the year before, which brought home the fact that the people of this new world were not happy being taxed up to their hip-boots, without representation. This had not received any positive reaction from the British. But it did send a strong message across the sea that there was unrest and dissatisfaction in the colonies from the people who were supplying a great deal of income to the mother country. New York was a major port and center for immigrants who come from all over the world. A great deal of income was funneling through this town. However, everyone in New York was walking very gingerly, not knowing what next week or next month would bring from the British.
All this tension seemed like a very dim far-off sound to the Bayley family on August 28, 1774, as a newborn baby's cry filled the air. It was the Feast of St. Augustine, but they probably didn't realize it, not being Catholic. However, the Lord knew it, and St. Augustine knew it. So as a special gift to this bold convert, whose mother prayed all those years for his conversion, Our Lord gave St. Augustine on his Feast day, the gift of Elizabeth Ann Bayley.
Nothing is by coincidence. In God's dimension, coincidence does not exist, unless it's Holy Coincidence. So in order to be fully understood, this miracle of our Saint being born on the feast of another powerful Saint, convert, founder of a religious community, Doctor of the Church, the miracle has to be examined in the light of the background from which she came.
It was as if the Lord was stripping her of everything so that He could remove the scales from her eyes and she could see clearly where she was going and what she was to do. There’s an expression, “When there doesn’t seem to be any other option, the Lord must be pointing you in the right direction.” There is a lot of truth in that. We recall some years ago having gone into Louisiana and Texas to give talks at Church Missions. This was right after most of the people had suffered tremendous financial losses, the oil industry having shut down in those states. We recall hearing people on line, waiting for us to sign books, talking to each other.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it tonight. I ran out of gas, and I don’t have enough money to fill up the tank. But I had to be here.”
“I just lost my job today on the oil rigs. Praise God, I feel free.”
“I thought I was going to lose my marriage when we were in that country club. Thank God He took all that away from us. We’re free in the Lord.”
It was hard to understand what those people were saying, how they could be happy in the midst of tragedy. But we hadn’t walked in their shoes. We didn’t know they were on the brink of despair with all the possessions money could buy. We didn’t realize how they were losing their souls through the country clubs and the flirtations with the tennis pro or the lifeguards or the girls at the restaurant or cocktail lounge at the 18th hole, the permissiveness and wife-swapping, drugs and alcoholism and on and on. The Lord had given them the gift of stripping them of their excesses, and freed them of their dependence on things and people. He focused them on the treasures that had true value. “Where your treasure is, that’s where your heart lies.”
We see in the biography of Elizabeth Bayley Seton how her thoughts went from the frivolous to the spiritual. God had always been an equation in her life, but He was very vague to her. In a happier time, when she had first moved into the house on Wall Street, she wrote: “My own home at 20 - the world - that and heaven too - quite impossible. My God, if I enjoy this, I lose You - yet no true thought of Who I lose, rather fear of hell and (of being) shut out from Heaven.”
Elizabeth’s gradual but steady walk towards the Lord was almost as if she knew how much she would need him in the years to come.
Soon on the heels of the death of her father, came the downfall and destruction of her own husband, her Will, friend and lover of her young years. He was completely crushed when his business fell apart. Even then he was showing signs of consumption, a precursor to Tuberculosis, from which his father had died. Will’s illness took a few years before it completely incapacitated him.
“On the morning of December 27, 1803, two days after Christmas, eight days after being released from confinement, Will Seton, husband and best friend of Elizabeth, father of their children, went to his reward. The Lord had prepared him through his wife. Elizabeth was twenty-nine.
Thus begins Elizabeth's walk to the Catholic Church. At the death of her husband, Elizabeth symbolically shed her former life and began to don the cloak of the Sisters of Charity, although it would be a little over five years before that would become a reality. We believe that everything Elizabeth Seton did in her life was a preamble to the time she would begin the first free Catholic school in the United States and her community of sisters in Emmitsburg, Maryland. We believe that Elizabeth Seton’s life was packed full, because the Lord had so much to accomplish in such a little time. The next few years would be as joyful and sorrowful as her previous twenty-nine. It began with her mourning period. Actually, the Lord did not allow her a period of mourning. That time in quarantine and the eight days following were as much mourning time as Elizabeth could be allowed. The Lord had too much work for her to do.
Quotes from Elizabeth revealing her walk towards becoming a Catholic.
“Would you believe, in a desperation of heart I went last Sunday to St. George’s (Catholic) Church.
“I looked straight up to God and I told Him: `Since I cannot see the way to please You whom alone I wish to please, everything is indifferent to me; and until You do show me the way You mean me to walk in, I will trudge on in the path You suffered me to be born in, and go even to the very Sacrament where I once used to find you.’
“But if I left the house a Protestant, I returned to it a Catholic, I think, since I determined to go no more to the Protestants...
“it finished calmly at last - abandoning all to God - and a renewed confidence in the blessed Virgin...
“Now they tell me: take care, I am a mother, and my children I must answer for in judgment, whatever faith I lead them to.
“That being so - I will go peaceably and firmly to the Catholic Church...”
On March 14, 1805, she made her profession of Faith to the Catholic Church, accepting all the doctrines of the Council of Trent.
On March 20, 1805, Elizabeth made her First Confession. She stated it to be one of the greatest experiences in her life. She exclaimed “It is done! Easy enough: the kindest, most respectable confessor is this Mr. O(Father O’Brien) with the compassion and yet firmness in this work of mercy which I would have expected from Our Lord Himself.”
On March 25, 1805, Feast of the Annunciation, she received First Holy Communion. This is the date given as the date of her entrance into the Catholic Church. She said of this occasion for which she had waited for over a year, “At last, at last, God is mine and I am His! Now let all go it round – I have received Him.”
Now what? Elizabeth had in effect married the Catholic Church. She had embraced everything Mother Church taught, and accepted the articles of Faith as handed down by the Council of Trent and all the Councils over the last 1800 years. She prayed the Nicene Creed as we would say the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States when we were a patriotic country. Everything should have been wonderful. All her troubles should have ended. She had made the right decision. But they weren't. As a matter of fact, things could not have been worse for Elizabeth Seton, Catholic. She had lowered her social status. Catholicism was the Faith of the maids and servants, street people, immigrants, God yes, so many immigrants.
The End of the Beginning
ˆMay, 1806. Elizabeth shared with the Archbishop her “secret,” a longing she had for years which she never stated openly to anyone; she wanted to live the life of a religious in a convent where she could teach. The archbishop gave her a special gift; he gave her a week’s instruction in preparation for her reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation. She was thrilled with this, not only the honor of having the archbishop give her this personal attention, but to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. On May 26, 1806, she was confirmed, taking the name Mary as her Confirmation name. From that time forward, she asked to be called Mary Elizabeth Ann Seton. She had it all, the Mother of God, the cousin of God and the grandmother of God, the mother of Mary. Archbishop Carroll addressed all her correspondence from that time on to Mary Elizabeth Ann Seton.
In November of that year, 1806, the Lord sent a special “can-do” priest to Elizabeth, Fr. William Dubourg. Elizabeth shared her “secret” with Fr. Dubourg, her desire to live the religious life and teach young girls. The priest, who was one to make up his mind immediately, agreed that she should do that, but did not think she should wait until her boys had graduated school. He suggested that she begin immediately. He took her by surprise, but she felt he was speaking the Word of the Lord to her. We get the impression that he was ready to ship her off within an hour. However, he was not that impulsive. She had spoken of the possibility of going to Montreal in Canada, where there was a larger population of Catholics than New York, and where she would probably be well-received. He went to Boston to confer with other priests who knew of Elizabeth, Fr. Cheverus and Fr. Matignon.
Two weeks later, he returned and suggested Baltimore rather than Montreal. Fr. Matignon told her the following: “You are destined, I think, for some great good in the United States, and here you should remain in preference to any other location.”. That has proven to be a major prophecy.
When the Lord wants something done, He moves quickly. Her responsibility to the school was resolved in short order. The number of boarders dwindled, first to half, then to a handful. Elizabeth had to get a smaller house, which upset the parents. It was just a matter of time before that venture would be finished. Rather than be concerned about what she would do, she contacted Fr. Dubourg, who put the plan into motion which would prove to be the beginning of a major movement in the Catholic School system in this country, and the first religious order in the United States. All the pieces fell into place. The property was procured. Fr. Dubourg was able to get a group of girls, whom Elizabeth could board; the tuition of the boys at Georgetown would be taken over by Fr. Dubourg somehow, so that Elizabeth could use the funds that the Filicchi family had made available to her, for her new venture. Within an extremely short period of time after having made the decision, three weeks to be exact, on June 9, 1808, she boarded a ship to take her on her new adventure. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton became Mother Seton. She never looked back.
The Lord’s plan went into action immediately. We must just comment on one breath of fresh air to which the Seton family was made recipients, when they first arrived in Baltimore. Everybody they met liked them! They were all friendly! When they went from the ship on a long carriage ride to their new home and chapel, the chapel was lit brightly. The bishop, all her priest friends, Fr. Hurley, Fr. Dubourg, his sister, and many well-wishers were there to welcome her and the children. The word had gone out all over Baltimore about the widow Seton and her family coming to open a school. The greatest effect was on the children. They felt wanted! These people were like they were! They were Catholic!
Elizabeth put herself completely in the hands of the Lord, who would decide what and when anything should happen. However, we believe the Lord turned most of it over to Fr. Dubourg, who determined that this was going to be an operational convent before the end of the year. To that end, he made up a set of preliminary rules. He advised Elizabeth to begin accepting young ladies into the community. He received her vows of religion, permitted her to adopt a habit, and gave her the title of Mother. The girls began arriving on December 8, 1808, but Elizabeth did not take her vows and receive her habit and title until March 25, 1809, Feast of the Annunciation, and exactly four years to the day from her entrance into the Catholic Church.
Mother Seton and the first group of sisters left Baltimore the beginning of June and arrived at their temporary home, Fr. Dubois’ home, at the parish of St. Joseph in Emmitsburg. It took a month before their little home was completed. Just prior to that time, the second group of Sisters of Charity came out, arriving towards the end of July. The official date of the move-in to their new home was the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, July 31. Cecilia Seton, Elizabeth’s step-sister, came and joined the community. Her sister, Harriet Magdalen Seton also joined. Many, many people came. The Lord was building community!
The Lord’s other plan in the Elizabeth Seton, Sisters of Charity agenda was the creation of the Parochial School System in the United States. As the community of Sisters was being developed, on a parallel course, the Parochial School System was evolving. From the meager beginnings of widow Seton in New York, as mistress to a lot of boisterous children, to her teaching in the first school in Baltimore, the plan was developing and maturing. On February 22, 1810, the first three students from the parish of Emmitsburg, entered the Catholic school there, run by the Sisters of Charity. This was in effect, the beginning of the Parochial School System in the Untied States. Under the direction of Archbishop Carroll and Mother Seton, the Catholic Parochial school system soared and blossomed, bringing quality education to all Catholics in the country.
Mary Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton died on January 4, 1821. She was forty-six years old. Her life was non-stop movement.
She was a faithful daughter - a loving wife - a loving mother.
She was an obedient nun - a strong mother superior.
She was a lover of Jesus in the Eucharist - a lover of Mary.
She is a powerful woman in our Church - a role model for today.
She gave us the formula of her life:
“I am sick, but not dying;
troubled on every side, but not distressed;
afflicted, but not forsaken;
cast down, but not destroyed;
knowing the affliction of this life is but for a moment,
while the glory in the life to come will be eternal.”
Thank you Mother Seton, for giving yourself to us. We love you!