St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
Today is the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. This first native-born American saint was born on August 28, 1774 in New York to a wealthy and distinguished Episcopalian family. Elizabeth Ann Seton was born Elizabeth Ann Bailey, the daughter of Dr. Richard Bayley, the first professor of anatomy at Columbia College, and Catherine Charlton, daughter of an Anglican minister. By birth and marriage, she was linked to the prominent families of New York and enjoyed the luxuries of high society.
However, tragedies early on in her life made her acutely aware of the temporariness of life here on earth. Elizabeth’s birth mother died when Elizabeth was only three years old and her younger sister died a year later. Elizabeth became a fervently religious Episcopalian — she read the Bible frequently and often wore a crucifix around her neck.
Beautiful, vivacious, fluent in French, a fine musician, and an accomplished horsewoman, she grew up and became a popular guest at parties and balls. Later in life, 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 when she was 19 years old, they were married.
Their marriage started out, in a gracious home on Wall Street, William busy at his family’s shipping business. Elizabeth was very happy in her marriage and the couple had five children. She developed a close friendship with her sister-in-law Rebecca Seton. Together, they went about on missions of mercy and became known as the “Protestant Sisters of Charity.”
Elizabeth was content — her family was financially secure and healthy, her marriage was going well, and she was doing the Lord’s work. Then, everything began to change after 1800. About ten years into their marriage, the family shipping business failed, reducing them to near poverty. Then William contracted tuberculosis. 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.
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 on a cane outside the city because of the yellow fever epidemic in New York. William’s health deteriorated and he died a month later — two days after Christmas in Pisa, at the age of thirty-seven. The Filicchi family, former business associates, welcomed Elizabeth warmly. They introduced her to Catholicism and she began attending Mass with them. She quickly fell in love with the Church and realized that this is where she belonged. When she returned to New York, Elizabeth converted to Catholicism, entering the Church on March 14, 1805.
Her family disapproved of her conversion, shunning her socially and financially. She started a boarding house and a school to serve poor Catholic immigrants and to support herself and her five small children. It soon failed when her friends would not help her. Undaunted, she sought other ways on continue her work.
Elizabeth soon met a priest, Fr. William Dubourg, and solicited his help so that she could continue her ministry of teaching. He introduced her to Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore. Her belief in the need for schools was so convincing and she was so persistent that they invited her to come to Baltimore and open a small school.
She also founded a religious order, the Sisters of Charity, and moved to Emmitsburg, MD where she lived with her five children, ten sisters and two students in a spartan, four room house. They had little income, but the work prospered. They began a parish school considered the beginning of the Catholic school system in the U.S.
Their lives, balanced between work, prayer, and recreation were hard and the winters were grueling. Two of Elizabeth’s daughters and some of the sisters died, but she continued her work until she died on January 4, 1821. By the time of Elizabeth’s death, there were some 20 communities established. She was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975.
Patron: Death of children; in-law problems; loss of parents; opposition of Church authorities; people ridiculed for their piety; Diocese of Shreveport, Louisiana; widows.
“We must pray without ceasing, in every occurrence and employment of our lives – that prayer which is rather a habit of lifting up the heart to God as in a constant communication with Him.”
“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. “
“The accidents of life separate us from our dearest friends, but let us not despair. God is like a looking glass in which souls see each other. The more we are united to Him by love, the nearer we are to those who belong to Him.”
“And in every disappointment, great or small, let your heart fly directly to your dear Savior, throwing yourself in those arms for refuge against every pain and sorrow. Jesus will never leave you or forsake you.”
“God is everywhere, in the very air I breathe, yes everywhere, but in His Sacrament of the Altar He is as present actually and really as my soul within my body; in His Sacrifice daily offered as really as once offered on the Cross.”
“The heart preparing to receive the Holy Eucharist should be like a crystal vase.”