Mother Seton, Valiant Woman
Wife, mother, convert, founder, saint. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton had it all, experienced it all: wealth, renown, the fullness of this life; shattering sorrows, persecution, and devastating illness. Through it all her sanctity grew and she became worthy of being named our first American-born saint in 1975.
The story of Elizabeth Seton is the story of a Christian woman who desired to serve God above all else. She went where He led, through the doors He opened, her whole being focused, as she frequently said, on “God alone.”
The steps to sanctity began in Elizabeth’s childhood, according to the book, Mrs. Seton, by Fr. Joseph I. Dirvin, C.M. (Farrar, Straus, an Giroux, New York, 1962). Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born August 28, 1774, and baptized into the Episcopal Church, the accepted religion of the times for those of wealth and stature. She saw her doctor-father sporadically in her early years, for when he wasn’t practicing medicine for long hours, he was gone on overseas trips. When she was only three, her mother died as a result of childbirth. In the next year, the father remarried, her younger sister died, and already Elizabeth had begun to ponder the meaning of eternity.
The habit of introspection and meditating on God developed in Elizabeth’s lonely childhood and sustained her through all her life’s trials. Her father and stepmother began to raise a family together and Elizabeth and her older sister, Mary, always seemed to be on the edge of belonging. These two older Bayley girls spent several years at their uncle’s in New Rochelle. An argument with her stepmother when Elizabeth was 16 caused her to leave her father’s household. She was forced to accept the charity of her sister and various relatives for living quarters over the next four years, but managed to maintain written correspondence with her father, whom she had grown to love dearly in spite of the unsettled years behind them.
Elizabeth Bayley met William Magee Seton and was courted by him during the four years of living with her relatives. He was well-traveled, for learning the ropes of his father’s business in merchanting had taken him to the great ports of Europe. He had the wealth to mingle with the best society of the Continent and America at balls, operas, concerts, and the theater. The social scene of New York of the 1790s and early 1800s was a who’s who of American history and the names of Seton and Bayley were well known in fashionable circles. Will Seton and the beautiful, vivacious Elizabeth Bayley were married January 25, 1794.
The next few years found Elizabeth blissfully happy in her own home, bearing her first two children, Anna Maria (1795) and William (1796) and being the devoted wife and mother. Yet a fear stirred in her heart that “my God, if I enjoy this, I lose you.” During these early years of marriage, another facet of Elizabeth’s character was revealed. She helped in forming the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children in New York, a group of Protestant women who visited, fed, and clothed the poor.
Long years of trial for the Setons began in 1798. Elizabeth was pregnant with her third child and became very ill. Her father-in-law died in June and seven of his children still at home moved in with Will and Elizabeth; Will had to see to the family business with Elizabeth – ill as she was – taking over the added duties of secretary. Richard Seton was born July 20th and both mother and child nearly died. Soon after the birth, the early yellow fever epidemic gripped New York and there was constant worry over this and other illnesses in the family, particularly consumption. At this time, Elizabeth also undertook the instruction of some of the children in her household.
Then, toward the end of 1799, the family business failed. There followed many months of agonizing difficulties and the eventual loss of the Seton home. Into the midst of this situation came the fourth Seton child, Catherine, in 1800.
By the end of the year, only the oldest and youngest of Will’s sisters remained with them, the other brothers and sisters either at school or with another relative. And Elizabeth, with her great faith in God and resignation to His will, had reached a point at which spiritual direction from an outside source would be beneficial to her. This direction came through the Rev. John Henry Hobart, the assistant curate at Trinity Episcopal Church in 1801.
John Henry Hobart inspired his listeners with an ardent zeal which motivated them in their activities. It wasn’t long before Elizabeth and Will’s sister Rebecca were among his followers. They readily incorporated his ideas for aiding the poor and sick into the work of the Widow’s Society. Elizabeth herself observed and urged others to observe a retreat on Sacrament Sunday (when communion was permitted) in order to meditate on the Lord. She also inspired spiritual devotions and exercises which were practiced by her sister-in-law and a friend.
The memory of the last summer (1801) spent with her father near his quarantine station on Staten Island stayed with Elizabeth forever. Sick and starving immigrants were the daily view from the household and Elizabeth ached to be of service to them. She especially worried about the children, to the point of expressing how gladly she would breastfeed the little ones if only permitted to do so. That summer, her father died of the diseases he had fought so long and hard among the immigrants.
A Bleak Future
The fifth Seton child – Rebecca – was born in August of 1802 and by that time, the future was well-known to Elizabeth. Will’s consumption was slowing destroying him. The next months saw a change in Will toward a more spiritual outlook while Elizabeth embraced her home duties fastened on God to give her strength.
In October of 1803, in the hope that a change of climate would prolong Will’s life, the Setons decided to visit the Filicchi brothers, their friends and business associates in Livorno (Leghorn), Italy. Anna accompanied her mother and father.
The improvement in Will’s health wrought by the sea voyage was destroyed in the month they had to spend in the lazaretto, a drafty, damp, quarantine cell. Coughing blood, Will grew weaker and weaker and even the doctor who was permitted to visit admitted there was nothing that could be done for him physically. Elizabeth conducted prayer services for the little family. William Magee Seton died December 27, eight days after his release from the lazaretto.
Antonio and Filippo Filicchi – paragons of Catholicism and Christian charity – immediately came to the aid of the stranded widow and her daughter. But their efforts were not performed simply to help the wife of a friend. They sensed something holy about Elizabeth Seton, something even the neighbors noticed, causing one to comment, “If she was not a heretic, she would be a saint” (p.129).
While awaiting return passage to New York, Elizabeth shared the life of the Filicchi family. Antonio’s wife, Amabilia, took Elizabeth and Anna on trips to view the Italian countryside and, of course, the great Catholic churches in the area were included. Elizabeth marveled at the fact that Catholic churches were always open and at the opportunity to receive the Eucharist daily instead of only on certain Sundays. Amabilia explained Catholic teachings as best she could, particularly the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Elizabeth could not comprehend this wonderful mystery, yet her soul reached out for the grace of such faith.
Elizabeth and Anna Seton left for America on April 8, 1804. Antonio Filicchi decided to make the trip with them, ostensibly to safeguard their journey and attend to business in America, but also to nourish Elizabeth’ soul for the time when she must ultimately choose the direction of her life.
The struggle began upon landing in America. Elizabeth had to provide for herself and her five children and was forced to accept funds from relatives to subsist. But these physical inconveniences and the turnabout of receiving charity instead of being in a position to dispense it were nothing compared to the anguish Elizabeth suffered in her struggle for belief in the Catholic Faith. While her soul groped for faith, relatives and friends, once informed of her inclination, tried their best to talk her out of the idea of conversion.
Time to Choose
God did not hurry Elizabeth Seton along. The Filicchis – Filippo from Italy and Antonio from various business locations in America – wrote their encouragement. They had put her in contact with Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore (the only See in America) who tried to soothe the conflicts of her soul; but these efforts were in vain for Elizabeth seemed fettered between choices and thus made none.
The choice came to be made for two reasons: her prayerbook no longer affirmed the presence of Christ in the Episcopal communion and Elizabeth realized she truly believed Him to be present in the Catholic Eucharist. The second reason for her embracing Catholicism was because she was a mother.
“Now they tell me,” Elizabeth wrote to Amabilia Filicchi, “take care, I am a mother, and my children I must answer for in judgment, whatever faith I lead them to. That being so – and I so unconscious, for I little thought till told by Mr. Hobart that their faith could be so full of consequence to them or me – 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” (p.163).
Elizabeth Seton was accepted into the Catholic Church on March 14, 1805, and received her First Communion on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation.
Becoming a Catholic was punishable by ostracism in the New York of the early 1800s, particularly because Catholicism was associated with immigrants. Elizabeth found her faith ridiculed and mocked almost at every turn. She was firm in her convictions and remained a sterling example of spirituality. The eventual conversion of her sister-in-law, Cecilia Seton, left the family thunderstruck.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth took care of her family. Eventually she was enlisted to board children from a school near her home. In addition, she had come to realize that her boys, William and Richard, needed an education different from one she could provide. Antonio Filicchi explored various boarding school locations for her, including Boston and Montreal, but Elizabeth first felt drawn to the Baltimore area. Eventually, Georgetown, somewhat near Baltimore, was selected for the boys.
Touch of Providence
Baltimore was no accident. Long before Elizabeth converted, she had felt the desire for Religious life. Those priests to whom she confided her desire felt something different about her and encouraged her greatly toward this goal.
By the fall of 1807, the school for which Elizabeth took boarders was in trouble. The number of students declined as did the income, causing Elizabeth to move to smaller quarters. Writing in the spring to her Suplician friend, Fr. Louis Dubourg, about these difficulties brought surprising results. He offered her land to start a girl’s boarding school near his St. Mary’s College in Baltimore. There were no second thoughts in the matter and the Setons arrived in predominantly Catholic Baltimore on June 16, 1808.
That fall, the Baltimore boarding school began as did movement toward achieving Elizabeth’s hope of living in a convent and at least being “useful as an assistant in teaching” (p. 221). The idea that other ladies would want to join in forming a permanent Religious institution seemed a foregone conclusion, but Elizabeth preferred to let her priest friends work out the details. In October, she wrote “It is expected I shall be the mother of many daughters” (p.221).
Fr. Dubourg, who was familiar with St. Vincent de Paul’s Daughters of Charity in France, had wanted for quite some time to see the Order established in America. In Elizabeth Seton, he saw the instrument for achieving this. The thrust of the Religious Order was similar to Elizabeth’s spiritual desires and her family situation could be accommodated by the Order’s structure. When assured of these compatibilities, Elizabeth felt belonging to such an Order, or one similarly structured, would be ideal for her.
By December, Elizabeth was joined by Cecilia O’Conway, who also wished to give her life to God’s service. Both women worked in the boarding school and also provided religious instruction for First Communion for local Catholic children while awaiting the formulation a formal Religious Order.
The problem of finding a location and funding the establishment of the Order came about almost miraculously. On the same day, both Elizabeth Seton and a seminarian friend, Samuel Cooper, approached Fr. Dubourg about the situation without the other’s knowledge. The former said Cooper would assist her; the latter offered money for the project, stipulating that Emmitsburg, about 50 miles from Baltimore, be the location.
The Reality of Sisterhood
With these definite plans underway, Sisterhood became a reality for Elizabeth Seton. On March 25, 1809, Elizabeth made one-year vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to Bishop Carroll. She had dedicated her life, as she described it: “To speak the joy of my soul at the prospect of being able to assist the poor, visit the sick, comfort the sorrowful, clothe little innocents, and teach them to love God!” (p. 234).
One June 1, Elizabeth, Cecilia O’Conway, Maria Murphy, Susan Clossy, and Mary Ann Butler, put on their Religious habits – black dresses with a shoulder cape, cap, and Rosary.Fr. Dubourg was director of the Order, and Elizabeth the superior, with the question of her family involvement to be resolved later. One June 21, 1809, the first group consisting of two nuns with Anna Maria, Harriet, and Cecilia Seton, left for Emmitsburg in their covered wagon.
The Sisters of Charity officially mark July 31, 1809, as the day they began their Religious life together, settled in the “Stone House” on the property Cooper obtained for them. They were named the Sisters of St. Joseph, or Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, probably after the valley and parish boundaries in which they settled. Their numbers had increased to 20 with the coming of the remaining nuns from Baltimore, the Seton boys, and two boarding school students plus the advent of a recruit from Emmitsburg itself.
Death visited Emmitsburg before the young community had spent six months in the Maryland mountains. Harriet Seton, who embraced Catholicism in her stay with her beloved sister-in-law, died in December. Cecilia Seton, who suffered from consumption, was next, in April, 1810. She was the first nun to be buried in the community’s cemetery.
Physical trials were not the only struggles before the Sisters, although Elizabeth, as Mother Superior, bore the brunt of the spiritual tribulations that soon emerged. The Sisters’ spiritual director was arbitrarily changed. The new spiritual director, Fr. David, did not get along with Elizabeth and did not hesitate to impose his own ideas on the new Order. In his two-year tenure, he rushed headlong toward forcing formal union with the French Daughters of Charity and even suggested Elizabeth be replaced as the Emmitsburg superior. His activities created dissension among the Sisters.
Most of the early difficulties – financial considerations aside – eventually were solved in the next few years. Fr. David was replaced; the formal union with the French Order was put off until 1850; the rules and constitutions of the American Sisters of Charity were approved; Elizabeth, who indicated a willingness to give up her role as superior in order to be a mother to her children as well as a nun, was allowed to remain as mother to both community and family. And thus, 17 Sisters pronounced first vows as a formal Religious Order on the Feast of St. Vincent de Paul, July 19, 1813.
And the Trials of Motherhood
Amidst the years of trial with the Religious Order came the problems and cares which all mothers face concerning their children: illness; Anna Maria’s first love never returned to marry her; her sons’ restlessness all contributed to Elizabeth’s travail. Her own health had was problematic, confining her to bed at times, she recognized this as consumption, which would surely end her life.
By far the worst experiences were the deaths of daughters Anna Maria and Rebecca of consumption. Not only were Anna’s lungs destroyed by the disease but also her very bones. She had been admitted to the Sisterhood in January of 1812 and died in March. Rebecca’s death came a few years later.
As the boys grew older, they wanted to make their own way in the world, William in the Navy, Richard in money-making endeavors. Elizabeth prevailed upon friends to place the boys in their businesses. Both spent time, first one, then the other, with the Filicchi’s in Leghorn, but displayed no talent or industry in such work, and, in fact, kept questionable company.
The Community Moves Forward
While emotional and spiritual turmoil in Elizabeth’s life stemming from family and community cares continued on one level, the achievement of the goals of the Sisterhood went rapidly forward on another. It had been a winter’s day in February 1810 when the first children from the local parish began school at Emmitsburg – the beginning of the Catholic parish schools in America! Their number increased rapidly with 60 boarders and several local children within the next several years. By 1814, the Sisters were asked to take over an orphanage in Philadelphia, which soon included a school. Soon the Emmitsburg nuns were invited to New York to staff an orphanage there. Schools in New York and Baltimore followed.
Until she drew her dying breath, Elizabeth Seton exemplified the spiritual direction she gave her Religious Sisters. She had written extensively – hymns, meditations, journals – all stressing following the example of the Savior in doing what God wills, the way He wills it, because it is the will of God. And at the core of her spirituality lay devotion to the Eucharist, the joy of her heart. Mother Seton’s room opened onto the chapel where her soul feasted on His Presence and gave her strength for existence.
Consumption ravaged Elizabeth’s body the last two years of her life, confining her to bed for long periods of time, her life sometimes ebbing to the brink of death only to regain strength and carry on. She met these trials with peace of soul, eager to join her God. Finally that union came, January 4, 1821.
As one of her priest friends had told her many years before, “You are destined, I think, for some great good in the United States…”
Elizabeth Seton’s only surviving daughter, Catherine, became a Sister of Mercy in New York and devoted herself to prison ministry. Son Richard died at sea in 1822, while in the service of the U.S. Navy. Son William also served in the Navy. He and his wife raised 7 children, one of whom was Msgr. Robert Seton of the Newark archdiocese. Msgr. Seton had served as Papal chamberlain to Pope Pius IX.
It wasn’t until 1959 that Elizabeth Seton was declared venerable by Pope John XXIII. From there her cause was investigated further, eventually leading to beatification and canonization. The first miracle approved through her intercession was the recovery of a nun from pancreatic cancer in the 1930s. In 1952, a four-year-old was cured of acute lymphatic leukemia, and in 1963, a young man with meningitis was in a coma and expected to live only a few hours. The Sisters of Charity of New York visited him and place a relic – a piece of Elizabeth Seton’s bone – on him and prayed for a cure. He awoke a few hours later.
This article, Mother Seton, Valiant Woman is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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