This week I faced a dilemma. How could I extract meaning from the terrible events of Wednesday, January 6, and write on a gentle, peace loving woman who became America’s first Roman Catholic saint and whose feast day was celebrated on January 4?
Elizabeth Ann Seton is the foundress of an American congregation of Sisters, now divided into several branches, one of the first being the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati of which I am a happy member! Elizabeth Ann Bayley (her maiden name) was born into a wealthy, Episcopalian family in New York in 1774, as American colonies edged toward revolution. When only a young child, Elizabeth and her sister, lost their mother. Her father, a reputable physician, was named health officer of New York by the mayor. He remarried soon after to a woman who had little interest in her new step daughters. Elizabeth was ingrained in New York. She enjoyed a commendable education, learned French, read European philosophy, and widened her world as did America itself on the unsteady legs of a new triumphalism. At age nineteen she married William Magee Seton and eventually bore five children.
Anti-Catholicism was firmly rooted. So were diseases like yellow fever, tuberculosis, and typhus that rapidly devoured the health of citizens. The center of the main street in New York was lined with trenches that swelled with waste and filthy water. Overcome with the sight of epidemics, Elizabeth once said, “I cannot sleep. The dying and the dead possess my mind.” Her beloved father succumbed to typhus and only dock workers could remove him by boat to another shore for burial where “two wagons full of relatives and friends paid respect from a distance.” Eventually, she would lose her husband, two daughters and a son to an illness through an epidemic.
The American Revolution began when Elizabeth was one year old and ended when she was nine, long enough for her to see Manhattan burn as the British occupied the city through oppression and governed it under martial law. After the war and years later, her husband became a successful merchant and she knew the life of a New York socialite. But tragedy struck and William Seton lost not only his business but his health as well. Elizabeth was a penniless widow with five children at age 29.
All of her life, however, Elizabeth was attracted to meditation and prayer. But she felt something was missing. After the death of William, she seriously began to explore the Catholic religion for its Eucharistic basis: the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated wafer. She converted to Roman Catholicism in 1805. Many in her family and her friends assailed her for this conversion; anti-Catholicism was still rampant.
Finally, while tending to her school, Elizabeth founded a religious community, the first American founded community. But French clergy had settled here as a result of the French Revolution and insisted that Elizabeth’s community follow French spirituality and the Rule of the French Daughters of Charity. Elizabeth would have none of this. Her foundation was uniquely American, attracting American young women and ministering to Americans. She devised her own rule and practices for her sisters and by the time of her death there were 20 religious communities spread throughout the country starting schools, orphanages, and hospitals. She died at age 46!
I have barely scratched the surface of Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life, holiness, and accomplishments. But the real reason why I found her credible for Americans at this time is vested in the three categories mentioned above. First, like many of us, she faced incalculable losses during uncontrollable epidemics. Second, she experienced the angst and economic depravity of war with a lifelong fear of ongoing political upheaval. Third, she ached over the bias and prejudice from those she loved as she deepened the spirituality she had found in her new faith.
I think Elizabeth Ann Seton is the right person to whom we can turn and ask for courage to be good citizens at this time. We need courage to get through this pandemic, to stand up for justice in our government and to address the biases and prejudices which tarnish our nation’s soul. We can appeal to her, our first American saint, through our American conscience and faith. She knows how we feel.
The Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton National Shrine is located in Emmitsburg, Maryland and draws many tourists during the summer. As a summer docent, Sister Patricia Newhouse once caught the attention of Marlin Fitzwater, Press Secretary to Presidents Ronald Regan and George H.W. Bush. Fitzwater said that he wasn’t Catholic but had to see the Shrine and Museum of a great woman who had such influence on American culture and religion.
Let each of us reach out to this American saint at this time and ask for healing for our government and our citizenry.
Pandemics, prejudice, political upheaval must be met with courage, not violence or intractable, uninformed opinion. We must pray for openness to God’s will for our country and the world.
Prayer for Our Country
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, true American, true daughter of the faith, your heart was challenged as you faced illness, death, prejudice, and political unrest much the same as we face today. Please help us to love our country and our faith as we work to heal our wounds and secure liberty and justice for all. Amen.