St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: Woman of Charity, Courage, and Perseverance
January 4th is the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a single woman, a wife, a mother, a widow, a lay woman and a religious sister. She was the foundress of the first American Catholic parish school, the first American community of women religious (the Sisters of Charity), and the first American orphanage.
This first native-born American saint was born on August 28, 1774 in New York to a wealthy and illustrious 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. A daughter of the American Revolution, she was linked by birth and marriage to famous families in New York and enjoyed the luxuries of the upper class.
Sufferings which occurred early in her life made her realize that life on earth is only temporary. Elizabeth’s biological mother died when Elizabeth was only three years old; her younger sister died a year later.
Following the death of his first wife, Richard Bayley married Charlotte Amelia Barclay, but the marriage ended in separation due to a marital disagreement. Elizabeth and her sister were scorned by their stepmother. Due to her father’s travel abroad for medical studies, Elizabeth and her sister lived briefly in New Rochelle, New York, with their paternal uncle and his wife. She experienced dark days during this time, but dealt with it by writing her feelings and religious goals down in her journal.
As a young woman, Elizabeth was stunningly beautiful, vibrant, and refined. She was fluent in French, a skilled pianist, and an accomplished equestrian. As such, she became an admired and frequent guest at parties and balls. Soon after their meeting, William Seton, who was twenty-five, fell deeply in love with her. She returned his love and when she was nineteen, they were married.
Their marriage began in an elegant home on Wall Street. William worked hard at his family’s shipping business. Elizabeth was happy in the marriage and the couple had five children. The family was financially secure and healthy, her marriage was untroubled, and Elizabeth was doing the Lord’s work. She had developed a close friendship with her sister-in-law Rebecca Seton. Together, they went about on missions of mercy caring for the sick, the elderly, widows, and the poor.
About ten years into their marriage, the family shipping business failed, reducing them to near poverty. Then William contracted tuberculosis. After William’s father died, the family fortune declined. Two and a half years later, they were bankrupt and the Setons lost their home and their possessions. In 1803, Elizabeth, William, and their oldest daughter Anna Maria made a sea journey to the warm climate of Italy to visit their friends, the Felicchi family, in a frantic attempt to restore William’s health.
To pay for the voyage, Elizabeth sold the last of her family possessions. The voyage was enjoyable, but arriving at Leghorn they were quarantined in a stone tower 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. Elizabeth was now a twenty-nine year old widow with five young children.
Conversion to Catholicism
The Filicchi family, former business acquaintances welcomed Elizabeth into their home. They introduced her to Catholicism and she began attending Mass with them. She soon fell in love with the Church and realized this was where she belonged. When she returned to New York, Elizabeth converted to Catholicism, entering the Church in 1805.
Elizabeth’s relatives strongly disapproved of her conversion, ostracizing her socially and financially. She started a boarding house and a school to serve underprivileged Catholic immigrants and to support herself and her five young children. When it failed, neither her family nor friends would help her.
Then Elizabeth met a priest, Fr. William Dubourg, and asked for his help so that she could continue teaching. He introduced her to Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore. Her belief in the need for Catholic schools was so strong and she was so determined that they asked her to come to Baltimore and open a small parish 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 simple four room house. It was here that they founded the first Catholic parish school in the United States.
They worked and prayed hard and the winters in their austere home were exhausting. 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 at the age of 46, there were twenty communities established. She was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975.
Nourishment from the Eucharist and Scripture
Elizabeth’s love for God and for others was a natural outpouring of the graces she received from her commitment to the Eucharist and to sacred scripture. These graces enabled her to perform many works of love and mercy throughout her. They enabled her to care for orphans, widows, and the poor. They strengthened her to care for her family as well as others through her teaching ministry.
She prayed her way through life’s delights and trials using sacred scripture. Thus, she lived peacefully. One of her favorite passages in the bible was Psalm 23, which provided her with much consolation during difficult times.
Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary
Elizabeth demonstrated a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She consulted the Blessed Virgin Mary when she was discerning God’s will for her future. She also chose the name “Mary” for her Confirmation name. After making her Confirmation, she added the name to her own and often signed “MEAS,” which was her abbreviation for Mary Elizabeth Ann Seton.
God’s Will and Confidence in Divine Providence
Elizabeth Ann Seton was a courageous, selfless woman who trusted in God completely and was determined to do His will in all things. Although she lived in poverty after her husband died, she entrusted her heart to God, gratefully accepting all that He provided.
~copyright Jean M. Heimann 2016