As America’s troubles intensify, and anger and violence spread, it’s essential for people of good will, especially those who profess faith in Jesus Christ, not to be drawn into the vicious cycle.
Following the attempt on the life of Congressman Steve Scalise, and the tragic death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, many eloquent statements have been made, calling for peace and civility, and an end to racism and hate. But as important as these appeals are, in our current environment they will not, of themselves, bring about needed change. For as Archbishop Chaput said: “If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others.” America’s ongoing crisis is primarily spiritual, not political.
In praying for the spiritual rebirth of our nation, we can also draw strength from the life of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton. For she was a remarkable and gifted woman who lived in the United States during a time of national strife, yet overcame personal tragedies and discrimination to become the first American-born saint.
Elizabeth was born in 1774, the second child of Dr. Richard Bayley and his wife, Catherine, a well-to-do couple whose families were among the earliest settlers in New York. Just three years after Elizabeth’s birth, her mother died from complications following the birth of her youngest child, Catherine—who subsequently died the following year. Left with two surviving daughters, Richard Bayley married Charlotte Barclay, who bore five children, but the marriage faltered, ending in separation.
During the painful breakup, Elizabeth and her older sister, Mary, found themselves rejected by their stepmother. After their father traveled to London for medical studies, the two girls wound up living with an uncle and aunt. Elizabeth later described this period as one of darkness, during which she experienced feelings of acute loss and abandonment. But what sustained her was her profound Christian faith, which she had inherited from her mother, the daughter of a Church of England priest.
Elizabeth regained stability when she was 19, falling in love with and marrying William Seton, a successful businessman with whom she was to have five children. The socially prominent couple lived on Wall Street and attended Trinity Episcopal Church, where Elizabeth’s faith increased, thanks to her spiritual director, the Rev. John Hobart, and her devout sister-in-law, Rebecca Seton, whom she regarded as her “soul-friend” and confidante.
Elizabeth and Rebecca began a social ministry, caring for the poor, orphaned, and sick. Elizabeth and William would be called upon to do the same for their own extended family, taking in six young relatives for a time. But the Setons’ happiness was disrupted when William went into bankruptcy and became gravely ill with tuberculosis. In hopes of saving his life, doctors sent him to Italy with Elizabeth and their eldest daughter, Anna Maria. But upon arriving, the family was quarantined by Italian authorities, who feared (mistakenly) that they had contracted yellow fever in New York. This stress only aggravated William’s health and likely contributed to his death in 1803, leaving Elizabeth a widow with five young children when she was just 29. It was just then, in the midst of her grief and anxiety, that Elizabeth was given the greatest blessing of her life.
While she was still in Italy, mourning and burying her husband, William’s Italian friends, Antonio and Amabilia Filicchi, who had been looking after Elizabeth, introduced her to Roman Catholicism. A biographer recounts:
Elizabeth came upon the text of the Memorare, and began to inquire about Catholic practices, first from her lack of familiarity with the religion. Then her inquisitiveness arose out of sincere interest. She asked about the Sacred Liturgy, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and the Church’s direct unbroken link with Christ and the apostles.
After further study and prayer, Elizabeth resolved: “I will go peaceably and firmly to the Catholic Church: for if faith is so important to our salvation, I will seek it where true Faith first began, seek it among those who received it from God Himself.” It was not an easy decision, for Elizabeth had been enriched by her Episcopalian faith. But her ardent pursuit of truth led to her new commitment.
After returning to America, she began taking instructions to enter the Church, which she formally did, in 1805. It was a challenging time to become a conscientious Catholic, for racism and slavery were still rampant, inequality and injustice was on the increase, and anti-Catholicism was everywhere. Elizabeth felt the sting of the latter when she tried to set up a boarding school for boys, with the help of a kind Episcopalian pastor—who didn’t hold her Catholicism against her—only to have parents angrily withdraw their sons, once they discovered Elizabeth was a Catholic. Some of Elizabeth’s own relatives turned against her. But she believed that God provided opportunities for the faithful, even in the most unfavorable circumstances: “When so rich a harvest is before us why do we not gather it? All is in our hands if we will but use it.” She counseled patience and perspective in dealing with life’s trials: “We must often draw the comparison between time and eternity. This is the remedy of all our troubles. How small will the present moment appear when we enter that great ocean.” And she gently admonished those who thought they could live a genuinely Christian life without suffering: “Can you expect to go to Heaven for nothing? Did not Our Savior track the whole way to it with tears and blood? And yet you stop at every little pain.”
Elizabeth was rewarded in 1809 when, after years of struggling to provide for her children and find her calling, a group of émigré Sulpician priests, with the support of Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, not only took care of her children, but helped Elizabeth establish the first congregation of religious sisters in the United States, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s. Elizabeth led the Sisters after taking vows of chastity and obedience to Bishop Carroll, who gave her the title “Mother Seton.” Dressed alike in black dress, cape, and bonnet, after the widows Elizabeth had met in Italy, the Sisters opened St. Joseph’s Free School in 1810, which educated disadvantaged girls, and soon thereafter began St. Joseph’s Academy, with pupils whose parents could afford tuition, enabling the Sisters to subsidize their mission. Today six separate congregations trace their roots to the Sisters of Charity; Mother Seton School in Emmitsburg, Maryland is a descendant of St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School; and many Catholic schools in America and abroad are patterned on their original work.
Mother Seton’s lessons for today’s American Catholics and other Christians are manifold. When things didn’t go her way, she did not despair, or write in apocalyptic terms, or withdraw from the public square, or ignore the power of faith to move mountains. She didn’t act as if hostile powers would somehow defeat the Holy Spirit, and she never allowed an ungodly culture to shake her: “Truth does not depend on the people around us, or the place we are in.”
Elizabeth never feared death, knowing it could strike at any time, and in fact she did die young, in 1821, at the age of only 46. But she did so much, in so little time, and left behind an extraordinary legacy. At a meeting of the American Catholic hierarchy in 1852, Baltimore Archbishop Francis Patrick Kenrick declared: “Elizabeth Seton did more for the church in America than all of us bishops together.”
In a letter to her friend Julia Scott, Elizabeth explained her vision of life, which proved so productive: “Faith lifts the staggering soul on one side, hope supports it on the other, experience says it must be and love says let it be.”
When Blessed Paul VI canonized Mother Seton in 1975, he not only spoke about her virtues as a saint, but made it a point to mention that she was an American: “All of us say this with spiritual joy, and with the intention of honoring the land and the nation from which she marvellously sprang forth as the first flower in the calendar of the saints. Elizabeth Ann Seton was wholly American! Rejoice, we say to the great nation of the United States of America. Rejoice for your glorious daughter, be proud of her. And know how to preserve her fruitful heritage.”
If American Catholics—and not only they—are looking for a Christian role model during these turbulent times, Mother Seton is a wonderful choice.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.
Photo credit: Nheyob
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