Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
By Janice Fortin
Elizabeth Ann Was born into a prominent Anglican family on August 28, 1774. Her parents, Dr. Richard Bayley and Catherine Charlton, well-to-do Episcopalians, were among the earliest colonial settlers in the New York area. When she was three her mother died. She missed her greatly and when told that she was in heaven, Elizabeth Ann wanted to become holy so that she could be with her. Her father remarried and although she had someone to care for her, her stepmother pushed Elizabeth and her older sister Mary aside when more children were born into the family. Her father and stepmother, however, did teach her to have concern for the sick poor of the area, and her father sometimes took her along with him when he made his visits to their homes.
Elizabeth was a bookworm longing for knowledge and, although she was a girl, her father provided her with an excellent education. Due to difficulties within the marriage, her father and stepmother separated. Because of his demanding responsibilities (he did much traveling in his capacity of being the first health officer in New York) he had little time to spend with her. She became despondent and even contemplated suicide at the age of sixteen. She and Mary moved in with their paternal uncle for a time and she became a popular socialite who loved partying but at the same time seemed to be drawn to prayer.
At twenty years of age, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, a merchant in business with his father. They led a life of prominence (even hosting a birthday party for George Washington) and lived next door to Alexander Hamilton. They eventually had five children. Although she was totally devoted to her family, she still wanted to assist those who were less fortunate. She and her sister-in-law, Rebecca, enlisted the help of other prominent women such as themselves who were active in the Episcopalian Church and they became informally known as the “Ladies of Charity.” Inspired by the works of St. Vincent de Paul, they would visit the sick poor to render whatever assistance they could to make their lives better.
Before Elizabeth’s last child was born, her father-in-law passed away and she and William took in his seven brothers and sisters and cared for them along with their own children. The business was failing and although they worked long hours and tried to cut corners to make ends meet, the burdens became too difficult and they had to look for smaller and less comfortable accommodations. Her father died and William’s health was failing. After a diagnosis of tuberculosis, his doctor suggested that they travel to sunny Italy where the weather was warmer. Mr. Fillicci, William’s business partner, asked them to stay with him and his family, but when Elizabeth, William, and their eldest daughter, Anna, arrived in Italy, they were quarantined to a cold, damp, dungeon-like room due to an outbreak of yellow fever. It took several days for the Fillicci’s to obtain their release. During that time Elizabeth turned to prayer and nursing to try to keep up their morale. However, William’s condition grew worse and he died in her arms on December 27, 1803.
She was a grieving widow in a strange country suffering the painful separation from her other children whom she had left in the care of relatives, but again she turned to prayer. The Fillicci’s were devout Catholics and were moved every time the Blessed Sacrament passed by their window during a procession; Elizabeth Ann wanted to believe as they did. She returned to the United States and when she expressed her religious doubts and spoke of her attraction to the Catholic Church her friends and family were horrified.
Elizabeth had to find a way to support her family on her own. She started an academy for young girls. But after news of her conversion to Catholicism, most of the parents withdrew their daughters from the school due to the anti-Catholic sentiment. Around this time she met a visiting priest, Abbe Louis William Valentine Dubourg, S.S. who was a member of the community of Sulpician Fathers. He had envisioned a religious school that would meet the needs of the small Catholic community in the United States. With the invitation and support of the Sulpicians she moved her family to Emmitsburg, Maryland, and in one year had established the Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School, both of which were dedicated to the education of Catholic girls. Before long she also established a religious community in Emmitsburg dedicated to the care of the children of the poor. It was the first congregation of religious sisters to be founded in the United States and its school was the first free Catholic school in America. The order was initially called the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. From that point on she became known as “Mother Seton”.
Elizabeth had a deep devotion to the Eucharist, Sacred Scripture, and to the Virgin Mary. The 23rd Psalm was her favorite prayer throughout her life. But through the years things became difficult. Tuberculosis struck many members of her family: first her daughter Anna, then her sister-in-law and kindred soul Rebecca, and her 14-year-old daughter. Eventually, more and more women were being drawn to Elizabeth’s work. In 1812 seventeen of Elizabeth’s Daughters of Charity were allowed to pronounce vows.
Elizabeth died at age 46 when the disease that had taken so many other loved ones attacked her too. As she wasted away with tuberculosis, her sick bed was placed so she could see the tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament. Her daughter Christine and her Sisters were with her when she died. Her last words to them were, “Be children of the Church. Be children of the Church”.
Elizabeth Ann Seton wore many hats. She was born into prominence and yet met the needs of the less fortunate became her life’s work. She sometimes had a very harsh life, and at times was lonely, scared, and rejected, but always kept the faith. She knew what it was to be sick, broke, and homeless, but she studied her Bible and knelt in prayer and her faith was her strength.
Elizabeth Ann Seton was beatified by Pope John XXlll on March 17, 1963, and canonized by Pope Paul Vl on September 14, 1975, making her the first native-born United States citizen to be canonized. She is also considered to be the patron saint of Catholic schools and a shrine is located on the site of her former home in Manhattan, N.Y. Seton Hall University was also founded in her name.
As we look back on the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, one has to realize that there is nothing stronger than the power of prayer. Through times of strife and hardships we should emulate the works of Mother Seton and help our fellow man as best we can so that through her intercession we can be worthy of entering through the gates of heaven and seeing the face of God.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us!