Last week, on January 4, we celebrated the Church’s feast day of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. My, what a great day that is for us who live her charism and her direct lineage touching schools, hospitals, child centers (originally orphanages), and just about anything her long line of daughters would found and administer world wide.
Elizabeth was born in New York in 1774, two years before the American Revolution. Thus, she is the first American-born saint. She was canonized in 1975. During her short life (she died at age 47), she managed to marry the love of her life, William Seton, a wealthy businessman in the shipping industry, bear five children, be with her beloved William as he died, convert to Catholicism-against the counsel of family and friends-and open a school in Baltimore for children of all means. She also listened to the advice of her spiritual directors and began a religious community based in the nascent American culture to serve the expanding needs involved in opening schools and places where children could be cared for. To that end, she made vows in 1809 and became Mother Seton to the fledgling community in Emmitsburg, Maryland.A museum and shrine now serve to instruct American tourists of the beginnings of our Catholic faith on this soil, and the history of the Sisters of Charity. I highly encourage a visit there. You will learn how the Catholic faith took root in America and how, with the ministry of Elizabeth and her community, the Catholic School System began and flourished. You will also learn of the tremendous involvement of Sisters of Charity on the battlefields of the Civil War. Formed by the charism of Elizabeth, these women served both sides of the conflict risking disease and death to minister to our suffering warrior-brothers. In our motherhouse cemetery in Cincinnati, the graves of Sisters who served in any war as nurses are marked with an additional headstone. The Civil War nurses far outnumber the others.
A prolific letter-writer, Elizabeth has left us hundreds, maybe thousands of letters, notes, diaries, etc. which not only establish the early history of American Catholicism, but also shed light on how early American history itself developed. She made friends with influential Catholic families who worked hard to confront the anti-Catholicism rampant at the time. She knew and befriended the Catholic hierarchy in their efforts to build up and expand the Church in America. By the time of her death, Elizabeth had founded twenty institutions, mostly schools, in America.
There are several comprehensive biographies of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. The most recent is a scholarly, well-written, and historically interesting book titled, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint by Catherine O’Donnell, Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University. Every work published about her emphasizes her profound intention to be generous and kind to others whether starting the first American Catholic school for girls in Baltimore to sending sisters to establish orphanages in New York and Philadelphia. She wanted nothing more than to demonstrate that “the poor were cared for by her and Sister of Charity companions.”
Elizabeth is a saint for all of us in some way. She was a parent, widow, teacher, administrator, convert, vowed religious woman. Though in the beginning, educated and well-off, she knew what it was like to lose everything when her husband’s business went bankrupt. Of her five children, she buried two daughters and suffered the challenges of a wandering, adventurous son.But she never lost her loving magnetism in reaching out to embracing each child of her own and others who struggled with pain in life. She once wrote to her son William who protested a job she had secured for him saying, “(I) shall never bind you to any course of life you do not willingly embrace.” If I am a person charged with children, how do I make them feel loved? If I have children, how do I support their choice of career? How do I give support or guidance to their lifestyle?
Getting to know Elizabeth is like finding one treasure after another in a canyon of natural goodness and holiness. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be her daughters in the faith, find it exciting and inspiring to learn more about her and to be devoted to her, asking her continued guidance for us. Our many schools, hospitals, social services, children’s agencies,throughout the world in her name, are testaments to the far-sighted vision she lived in the quest of being kind and loving to others. Some of you, my Anonymous Angels, will find her totally uplifting in her sanctity of parenthood. Look into it and let us know what you think. God bless you all. Pray for us, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton!