Elizabeth Ann Seton’s deep love for Christ directly shaped our culture to an extent that few Americans have ever have approached. Her extraordinary combination of charity and effectiveness led Pope Paul VI in 1975 to make her the first native-born American to be canonized. She deserves recognition as the first flower of an American Church that was burgeoning with life as hers came to an end in 1821.
Seton bore the standard of Christ heroically throughout her life. As a daughter, and then as a wife and mother, she dutifully served her family. Later, she erected the first pillars of the parochial school system in America and founded a community of religious sisters to serve it. Her achievements as an educator and foundress suffice to make her at home among a list of most-influential American Catholics. Yet, Seton should be remembered as much for her devotion to Christ and His Church as for her eminence in American history and society.
Elizabeth Bayley, born in New York City, was married to William Magee Seton, also from New York, before her twentieth birthday in 1794. Her early twenties were years of trial and anxiety caused by deaths in the family and grave financial struggles in business. Still, Elizabeth Seton’s keen mind and the virtue of prudence allowed her to assist her husband in the business affairs until his own illness necessitated a trans-Atlantic voyage for recovery. He passed away in 1803, just nine short years into their marriage.
Seton entered the Catholic Church in 1805, after her husband died, thanks to the witness provided by family friends. Her conversion was met with great ire from her Protestant relatives and friends, who shared the suspicion of the Catholic faith that was then common in the United States. Many of her familial relations became estranged, and she even faced an accusation of proselytizing. In 1806, as a young convert, she was nearly expelled from the state of New York by its legislature. Nevertheless, she knew that full communion with Christ’s Mystical Body allowed her to encounter her Lord more deeply, and it gave greater impetus to the works of mercy that she undertook even as a non-Catholic.
Her career in teaching, which she came to understand as an integral expression of her answer to Christ’s call to holiness, garnered an invitation from the Sulpician Fathers to relocate to Baltimore, Maryland just as she was discerning whether she could continue to live in hostile New York. In a journal entry penned during the time of transition between New York and Baltimore, this saint-in-progress intimated the clarity and consolation that God had granted to her:
When hope has ventured to step forward she has never been separate from fears, apprehension, sighs, and the tremblings of nature—today she exalting exclaims, ‘Thou has drawn me from the mire and clay and set me upon a rock. Thou hast put a new song in my mouth, the song of salvation to my God.’ (Ps. 40) O order my goings in Thy way that my footsteps slip not.
A year after arriving in Baltimore, 1809, she responded to an invitation from Bishop John Carroll to establish a school for poor children in Emmitsburg, Maryland. For this mission she also became the founding mother of the Sisters of Charity. Amidst these momentous changes, Mother Seton exhibited extraordinary trust that the Lord was guiding her steps and her progress even through times of bewilderment and fear.
Chapter ten of the Gospel of Mark resonates within Elizabeth Ann Seton’s biography. Like the first apostles and saints throughout the history of the Church, this young widow and mother could truly have said to Christ, “I have left everything and followed you” (cf. Mk. 10:28). On the other hand, there is ample evidence to claim that she also received the “hundredfold” promised by Christ (Mk 10:30), both in her earthly life and in Heaven. In his decree of canonization, Paul VI referred to these “new and authentic riches” that she received from the Lord and in turn bequeathed to God’s beloved children. Surely, the good works that came in her subsequent years were the result of her radical trust in Christ.
One of Mother Seton’s works stands above all others in America’s historical memory: the establishment of the Catholic parochial school system. By this development, the woman who founded the Sisters of Charity stamped her imprint on American education forever. Any student of the history of education in America, even the most novice, is aware that the Catholic parochial system was the first to provide holistic education to broad segments of America’s population. This included education for those who found themselves outside of socially acceptable norms for education, such as children from poor families and those from ethnic and racial minorities. The holy woman’s work reflected the Church’s constant commitment to making education as a universally accessible as possible, rather than a privilege based on social status or the ability to pay.
Again, the words of Jesus Christ ring in our ears. “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them” (Mk. 10:14), the Lord said to those who would have stopped them. There can be no doubt that Elizabeth Seton wanted boys and girls in her own era of history to have the same opportunity. In her schools, they could be blessed by Christ, regardless of their social or economic conditions. Thus, she arrived at a deep understanding of her primary vocation in life, a spiritual mother to Catholic schools and the children who attended them.
The balance of her life, the years from 1809-1821, was spent devoted solely to the Sisters of Charity. She served as mother superior until the end of her life, and her total devotion to this apostolate is marked, moreover, by her burial in Emmitsburg, the place to which Christ called her to begin and extend her work on His behalf. During these years, the community spread both in geography and in influence. Within half a century, the order consisted of roughly 6000 sisters working in schools and orphanages in New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and elsewhere.
Mother Seton labored to hand on a proper spirituality of Catholic teachers to her sisters. “Imitate the patience of him we adore…. Persevere with yet more earnestness, and rejoice to bear your share in the cross which is our passport and seal to the kingdom of our Redeemed,” she wrote. Surely, she knew that true authority comes from service (cf. Mk. 10:42-43), and she worked to imitate the Lord’s service. Moreover, she fully understood that Jesus is the “Good Teacher” who leads His students to the Father (cf. Mk. 10:17-18). Therefore, she knew that the most important mission for a teacher was (and is) to serve pupils by introducing them to Christ the Divine Teacher.
Although she lived only 46 short years, Mother Seton left a legacy that far exceeds the ordinary. One of the Sisters of Charity wrote that the order’s foundress set an example for her sisters to follow, cultivating a deep love of Scripture and liturgy; that she would implore them to walk with Christ “as he journeys through the Gospels, and sit at his feet”; that she would want them to become mystics within the world around them, intimately connected to the Father and His desires for their lives. St. Elizabeth’s example is one by which Catholic teachers know that the most effective way to lead others to an encounter with Christ is to have encountered Him deeply for oneself.
In his canonization decree, Paul VI exhorted Catholics, especially American Catholics, to remember the words pronounced by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton upon her deathbed: “Be children of the Church.” Indeed, that simple statement summed up the life’s work of this humble and determined woman. From the first moment of receiving her vocation as mother, teacher, and foundress, she always was concerned with children who needed to be educated and brought to Christ. Most importantly, she knew that the Catholic Church would provide the best education to enable these children to come into contact with the Divine Word.