In the winter of 1816, a 14-year-old Catholic girl, living with her widowed mother at Emmitsburg, Maryland, fell on the ice, breaking her hip. Inadequately cared for by the primitive medical science of her day, she suffered weeks of pain and died in her mother’s arms, having told her the day before: "I have just been handing Our Lord my little cup. It is now quite full. He will come for me." She was referring to the cup of suffering about which Jesus spoke to his two brother-apostles, James and John, who had asked for places on his right and left hand (Mk 10:28).
Four years previously the girl’s older sister, Anna, had died of tuberculosis shortly before her 17th birthday, having been permitted to profess vows as a Sister of Charity on her deathbed. Her mother wrote a friend two months later: "Eternity was Anna’s darling word. I find it written in everything that belonged to her: music, books, copies, the walls of her little chamber, everywhere that word." Where can these two teenagers have got such faith, when not from their mother?
The mother’s name was Elizabeth Ann Seton. She was born in New York City on August 28, 1774, the second daughter of the socially prominent Dr. Richard Bayley, later Health Officer for the city, and his wife Catherine Charlton, whose father was rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Staten Island for 30 years. From childhood, Elizabeth was a devout communicant of the Episcopal Church. At age 20, she was married by the Episcopal bishop of New York, Samuel Provoost, to the son of another socially prominent New York Family, William Magee Seton. Their firstborn, Anna Maria, was born a year later. Two sons and two more daughters would follow over the next seven years: William, Richard, Catherine, and Rebecca (the one who died at age 14).
Within eight years of his marriage to Elizabeth, William Seton contracted tuberculosis, for which there was then no treatment other than fresh air. Seeking relief, William and Elizabeth, with the eight-year-old Anna, embarked in October 1803 for Livorno, on the northwest coast of Italy, where they were to stay with the Filicchi family, whom William had previously visited in connection with his family’s shipping business. When William died at Livorno within weeks of their arrival, the Filicchis insisted that Elizabeth and Anna stay with them as long as they liked.
They were Elizabeth’s first Catholic friends, devout people of culture like herself. Visiting Catholic churches with them, attending Mass and other religious services, Elizabeth became fascinated with a world she had never known in New York, where Catholics were of a wholly different social class.
Elizabeth was especially struck with the reverence shown by Catholics to the Blessed Sacrament. When Elizabeth returned to New York in June 1804, she had discovered that Catholicism had a different face from the one she had encountered at home. After nine months of agonizing reflection and prayer, she was received into the Catholic Church in St. Peter’s Church in what is now downtown Manhattan, with Antonio Filicchi at her side as sponsor. There is no evidence that she was re-baptized, even conditionally. Her Episcopalian baptism, with water in the name of the Trinity, was accepted as valid.
Despite this, her relatives and friends were outraged. Her married older sister, Mary Post, upbraided Elizabeth for joining people who were "dirty, filthy, red-faced and [their] church a horrid place of spits and pushing, ragged." Two wealthy friends in New York who had promised Elizabeth generous legacies in their wills immediately disinherited her.
With five children to support, Elizabeth’s financial situation was desperate. She tried to earn money by starting a school for children and taking in boarders, only to be stymied when her erstwhile spiritual mentor, Rev. John Henry Hobart, warned parents not to entrust their offspring to a person of unsound religious views. Antonio Filicchi helped her financially and arranged for her two sons, William and Richard, to attend Georgetown College in Washington at his expense — but these were temporary measures at best.
Rescue came from a Sulpician priest, Rev. Louis William DuBourg, founder in 1803 of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore and later bishop, successively, of New Orleans and St. Louis. On a visit to New York in the fall of 1806, Father DuBourg met Elizabeth and invited her to come to Baltimore to start a school for girls and, if God so willed, found a religious community to staff it. Elizabeth asked advice from John Carroll, soon to be Baltimore’s first archbishop, who encouraged Elizabeth to accept Father DuBourg’s proposal.
It was June 1808 before she could do so. Arriving in Baltimore by ship with her three daughters (her two sons were already at Georgetown) on June 16, 1808, the feast of Corpus Christi that year, she was met at the pier by a carriage sent by Father DuBourg to bring her to the chapel of St. Mary’s College, which was being consecrated that day. Elizabeth and her three girls arrived just as the Mass was starting. She felt in her heart that she was finally in the place to which God had called her. When she learned that the house provided for her was adjacent to the chapel, with daily Mass each morning and Vespers and Benediction in the evening, her cup of joy was full.
The school that Father DuBourg envisaged was soon thriving. Elizabeth loved children; had she been born into a different social station, she might well have been a nanny. And she was a born pedagogue: "Tenderness," she used to say, "is the language children best understand." To those under her care, she would say: "Love God, children, and you can forget hell" — a striking contrast to Catholic preaching in her day.
On March 25, 1809, Elizabeth pronounced private religious vows of chastity and obedience before John Carroll, who gave her the title by which she has been known ever since: Mother Seton. Responsibility for her children made the vow of poverty impossible until their future was secure. About this time, a wealthy Catholic convert in his early 40s, Samuel Sutherland Cooper, invited Mother Seton to transfer her school to the extensive property he had purchased at Emmitsburg, Maryland, in the mountains some 50 miles northwest of Baltimore. With her children and several other women who had joined her to become Sisters of Charity, Mother Seton moved to Emmitsburg in June 1809. It would remain her home for the rest of her life.
In the years following,Mother Seton’s Sisters of Charity grew steadily. At times lack of space forced her turn away young women who wished to join the community. By 1818 they numbered 61, with houses for the care of orphans and other children in Philadelphia and New York.
From youth, Mother Seton had a keen sense of the presence of God. Nurtured spiritually for the first 30 years of her life by a vernacular liturgy of singular literary beauty, she was offended by the formalistic prayer of so many Catholics. "How pitiful it is," she told her religious sisters, "to put our devotion in a multitude of prayers too often repeated, without attention to what we say, and scarcely thinking to whom we are speaking . . . without listening to God, who would receive so much more glory from even the shortest adorations proceeding from the heart."
Necessary for such prayer of adoration, she told her sisters, was silence. "The love of talk distracts all the powers of our soul from God, and fills them with earthly objects and impressions, like a vessel of water which cannot be clear and settled while you are continually stirring the earthy particles from the bottom." In a striking phrase, she spoke of "this tumultuous silence [that], when proceeding from our impressions of his perfections and greatness, is the most suitable homage we can offer him, losing ourselves in his divine presence, in our deep abasement having no desire or wish but to be conformed to his will and wholly sacrificed to him."
Mother Seton was seriously ill in 1818 and thought to be dying. She recovered, only to contract tuberculosis two years later.To a sister who asked how she felt, Mother Seton answered:
I do not suffer, dear one. I am weak, it is true, but how happy and quiet my day passes. If this be the way of death, nothing can be more peaceful and happy, and if I am to recover, still how sweet to rest in the arms of our Lord. I never felt more sensibly his presence since I have been sick. In the weary and tedious hours of pain sometimes he comforts, cheers and encourages me. I imagine Mary, his mother, too gently coaxing me.
To her sisters gathered round her deathbed on January 2, 1821, Mother Seton repeated twice over: "Be children of the Church. Be children of the Church!" Two hours past midnight on January 4, 1821, aged 46, she went home to God. Her assistant superior, who was with her, said later: "I do not know if you will give the name of superstition to that which I felt at that moment. It seemed to me that our Lord was there, near to her, very close, awaiting this good soul."
On September 14, 1975, Pope Paul VI enrolled Mother Seton in the Church’s official list of saints. She is commemorated on January 4, the day of her death, considered by the Church her heavenly birthday. Because that day falls this year on a Sunday, American Catholics will not hear about her until 2010. All the more reason to thank God for the spiritual courage and strength of this woman, the first native-born American to be canonized, and to invoke her prayers.
Rev. John Jay Hughes is a priest of the Saint Louis archdiocese and the author, most recently, of the memoir No Ordinary Fool and of Columns of Light: 30 Remarkable Saints, available both in print and as a recorded book from Now You Know Media.
Photo: Life Magazine