Monday, January 04, 2010
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
Today, January 4th, is the feast day of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
The first American born saint, Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in August 1774 into a prominent New York City Episcopal family. Her mother died when she was three and she was extremely devoted to her father, who was a doctor, and her new stepmother who provided her religious education. At age 19 she married William Magee Seton, the son of a wealthy shipping merchant. In quick succession she gave birth to five children, three daughters and two sons. In spite of her busy life, she managed to find time to engage in work with New York's poor. She and her sister-in-law Rebecca Seton established a society for widows and poor children which led to them being called "the Protestant Sisters of Charity."
Unfortunately, within the first ten years of their marriage, the Setons faced a harsh decline in both William's health and their financial situation. They declared bankruptcy and were encouraged to travel to Italy in the hope of helping William's health. Elizabeth sold their last few possessions in order to pay for the trip. Their intent was to meet up with their friends, the Felicchi family, but due to the yellow fever epidemic in New York, they were quarantined for forty days when they arrived. In the midst of extremely harsh conditions, Elizabeth cared for her husband, whose health was deteriorating rapidly, and her eldest daughter Anna Maria who had joined them on the journey. Despite her efforts, William died two days after Christmas. Elizabeth was finally allowed to meet up with the Felicchis who took in the widow and her daughter for a time. During this period, she was introduced to the Catholic faith. Upon her return to New York, she went ahead with plans to be confirmed a Catholic, even though doing so meant that she would be financially cut off by both her own and her husband's family.
Attempting to support her family on her own, she opened a boarding school for boys, but when the parents discovered that she was Catholic, they withdrew the pupils. She considered moving to Montreal but then the Archbishop of Baltimore asked her to begin a Catholic school for girls in that city.
In 1809, Elizabeth, her three daughters, two of her sisters-in-law, and four other young women began the American foundation of the Sisters of Charity. It was an austere life, but eventually they were able to establish a permanent convent including a school, chapel, and workroom.
Death would once again make its mark in Elizabeth's life, however. She soon lost both of her sisters-in-law, but the deaths of her daughters Anna Maria and Rebecca hit her especially hard. She continued to dote on her sons, one of whom would die at sea. Her youngest daughter, Catherine, became a Daughter of Mercy in New York and lived to be ninety-one. In addition to the loss of so many of her dear family, Elizabeth struggled with the responsibilities of maintaining the quickly growing order, money troubles, and starting additional schools. On the outside, "she seemed to remain cheerful and patient, but her letters to the [spiritual] director revealed the terrible suffering, the aridity, the darkness of soul." 1
Elizabeth herself died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-seven. By that time, there were twenty houses of the religious order. She was canonized in 1975 and is considered the patron saint of widows, parents who have lost children, and those who have difficulties with their in-laws.
1 National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton www.setonshrine.org
Jones, Kathleen. Women Saints: Lives of Faith and Courage. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.
What was the first rule of our dear Savior's life? You know it was to do his Father's will. Well, then, the first purpose of our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner he wills; and thirdly, to do it because it is his will.
We know certainly that God calls us to a holy life. We know that he gives us every grace, every abundant grace, and though we are so weak of ourselves, this grace is able to carry us through every obstacle and difficulty.
from the writings of Elizabeth Ann Seton