Mrs Seton, by Father Robert Seton

Saint Elizabeth Ann SetonElizabeth Ann Bayley, the foundress of the Sisterhood of Charity in the United States, was born in the city of New York, on the 28th of August, 1774. Her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, was a physician of good family and distinguished position, a member of the Church of England, and a man of many natural virtues; but he cared very little about religion, and wherever his daughter may have got the pious inclinations which distinguished her in girlhood, she certainly did not get them from him. Her mother, whose maiden name was Charlton, died while Elizabeth was a child. Under the care of her father, however, Miss Bayley was well educated and trained in domestic duties. At the age of nineteen she married Mr. William Magee Seton, eldest son of a prosperous New York merchant, and descendant of an ancient Scottish patrician family, whose head is the Earl of Winton. Their married life was eminently happy, and for six or seven years fortune smiled upon them. Commercial disasters at last swept away their property. Dr. Bayley died suddenly of a malignant fever contracted in the discharge of his duty as health officer of the port; Mr. Seton’s health failed, and in 1803 the husband and wife determined to make a voyage to Italy. They suffered a long and painful quarantine at Leghorn, and a week after their release Mr. Seton died, leaving his wife in a strange land with her eldest child, a girl of nine years. Mrs. Seton was not, however, without comfort and protection. Two estimable Italian gentlemen, Philip and Anthony Filicchi, personal friends and business correspondents of the Setons, took her to their home and treated her with most brotherly kindness. Under the influence of the devout household of which they were the heads, the religious sentiments of the young widow were gradually developed into a strong attraction toward the Catholic Church. She went with the Filicchis to mass; she visited the chapels; she learned devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Early in February, 1804, about six weeks after Mr. Seton’s death, she sailed for home. But it was not the purpose of Providence that she should be withdrawn so soon from associations which were to influence remarkably her future life. In a severe storm the vessel in which she had taken passage was so much injured as to be driven back to port. Before another was ready to sail, Mrs. Seton’s child was taken sick. Close upon the recovery of the child, followed the sickness of the mother; and when, in April, they were ready again to embark, one of the Filicchi brothers, Anthony, offered to bear them company. During the long voyage of nearly two months, Mrs. Seton made frequent opportunities to talk with her friend upon religion, and before the vessel reached New York she was virtually a convert. The last step cost her much suffering and perplexity. It is a step which hardly ever is taken without pain. In her case there was not only the dread of estrangement from affectionate relatives, but she could not face with composure the inevitable rupture with a clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal Church who had exercised a great deal of influence upon her character and her earlier life. This was the amiable John Henry Hobart, afterward Bishop of New York, a man who was deeply and deservedly beloved, and for whom Mrs. Seton in particular cherished a filial regard. By Mr. Filicchi’s advice, she exposed her difficulties to Mr. Hobart. He made an elaborate reply to them. He talked with her frequently. He used all his talent, all his scholarship, all his personal influence to keep her in the denomination in which she had been born. Between Mr. Hobart and her family, on the one hand, and the letters of Philip Filicchi arid personal interviews with Anthony, on the other, her perplexity became painful to the last degree. At last, on Ash Wednesday, 1805, she was received into the church by Father O’Brien, at Saint Peter’s, in Barclay street. Her soul was now at peace, but her temporal troubles had only begun. Old friends and nearest relatives turned away horrified and angry, and when soon afterward her sister-in-law Cecilia was likewise baptized a Catholic, the indignation of the family knew no bounds. She was without fortune, and when she tried to earn a support by teaching, she found the good Protestants of New York afraid to intrust the education of their children to an emissary of the pope, perhaps a female Jesuit in disguise. The kindness of her excellent Italian friends again came to her relief. They charged themselves with the education of her children, placed the two sons at Georgetown College, gave her an allowance of $400 a year, and begged Mrs. Seton to draw upon them for whatever money she wanted. We believe she was not obliged, however, to avail herself of this generous offer.

Mrs. Seton seems to have formed, at an early period of her widowhood, the project of devoting herself to God in the service of a religious order, and her first plan was to go to Canada and join some sisterhood there. It was a part of this scheme, however, that her children should enter a house of education at Montreal, where she could still give them the maternal care which their tender years required. Providential obstacles defeated this design, and thus she was reserved for the establishment in her own country of the noble institute with which her name will always be connected. We shall quote from Dr. White’s Life the story of how she began the great work of her career:

“Her thoughts were more practically directed to it by the Rev. William Valentine Dubourg, president of Saint Mary’s College in Baltimore. He became acquainted with her in the following way: Having visited the city of New York in the autumn of 1806, he was one morning offering up the holy sacrifice of mass in Saint Peter’s Church, when a lady presented herself at the communion rail, and, bathed in tears, received the Blessed Sacrament at his hands. He was struck with the uncommon deportment and piety of the communicant, and when afterward seated at the breakfast-table with the Rev. Mr. Sibourd, one of the pastors of the church, he inquired who she was, rightly judging in his mind that it was Mrs. Seton, of whose conversion and edifying life he had been informed. Before Mr. Sibourd had time to answer his question, a gentle tap at the door was heard, and the next moment Mrs. Seton was introduced, and knelt before the priest of God to receive his blessing. Entering into conversation with her respecting her sons and her intentions in their regard, he learned from her the views and wishes of Mr. Filicchi, as stated above, and the remote expectation she had of removing herself, with her daughters, to Canada. Mr. Dubourg, who was a man of enlarged views and remarkable enterprise, no sooner became acquainted with the design which she entertained of retiring at some future period into a religious community, for the welfare of herself and her children, than he suggested the practicability of the scheme within the limits of the United States. Mrs. Seton immediately wrote to Bishop Carroll, informing him of what had passed between her and Mr. Dubourge, and requesting his advice in the matter. ‘I could not venture,’ she says, ‘to take a further step in so interesting a situation without your concurrence and direction, which also, I am assured, will the more readily obtain for me the blessing of Him whose will alone it is my earnest desire to accomplish.’ After mentioning the particular trials she had to contend with in New York, and assuring Dr. Carroll that she had yielded in condescension to her opponents every point possible consistently with her peace for the hour of death, she continues, ‘And for that hour, my dear sir, I now beg you to consider, while you direct me how to act for my dear little children, who in that hour, if they remain in their present situation, would be snatched from our dear faith as from an accumulation of error as well as misfortune to them. For myself, certainly the only fear I can have is that there is too much of self-seeking in pleading for the accomplishment of this object, which, however, I joyfully yield to the will of the Almighty, confident that, as he has disposed my heart to wish above all things to please him, it will not be disappointed in the desire, whatever may be his appointed means. The embracing a religious life has been, from the time I was in Leghorn, so much my hope and consolation, that I would at any moment have embraced all the difficulties of again crossing the ocean to attain it, little imagining it could be accomplished here. But now my children are so circumstanced that I could not die in peace (and you know, dear sir, we must make every preparation) except I felt the full conviction I had done all in my power to shield them from it; in that case, it would be easy to commit them to God.’

“While Mrs. Seton was consulting Bishop Carroll in regard to the important arrangement suggested by Mr. Dubourg, this gentleman was conferring with the Rev. Messrs. Matignon and Cheverus, of Boston, upon the same subject. After having weighed the matter attentively, they came to the conclusion that her Canada scheme should be abandoned, and that it would be preferable to exert her talents in the Avay proposed by Mr. Dubourg. Mr. Cheverus wrote to her, ‘hoping that this project would do better for her family, and being sure it would be very conducive to the progress of religion in this country.’ It was the opinion, however, of these distinguished clergymen that the execution of the design should not be precipitate; and they therefore advised her, through Mr. Dubourg, to wait the manifestation of the divine will the will of a Father most tender, who will not let go the child afraid to step alone.’ The wise forethought of Dr. Matignon led him to believe that Mrs. Seton was called, in the designs of God’s providence, to be the instrument of some special mercies that he wished to dispense to the church in this country. ‘I have only to pray to God,’ he wrote to her, ‘to bless your views and his, and to give you the grace to fulfil them for his greater glory. You are destined, I think, for some great good in the United States, and here you should remain in preference to any other location. For the rest, God has his moments, which we must not seek to anticipate, and a prudent delay only brings to maturity the good desires which he awakens within us.’ Bishop Carroll, in answer to Mrs. Seton’s inquiries, informed her that, although he was entirely ignorant of all particulars, yet, to approve the plan of Mr. Dubourg, it was enough for him to know that it had the concurrence of Dr. Matignon and Mr. Cheverus.”

She did wait patiently nearly two years. At the end of that time her pecuniary affairs became so embarrassing, and the inconveniences of her situation in New York pressed upon her so severely, that she was again driven to turn her thoughts toward Canada, not so much as a refuge from her own troubles, but as an asylum where her children might be saved from the dangers which threatened their faith in the Protestant society of New York. But about this time she met Mr. Dubourg again, and, in answer to his inquiries, gave him an exact account of her situation. He contemplated the establishment of a Catholic school for girls in Baltimore, and invited her to come and take charge of it. Her two boys he offered to admit into Saint Mary’s College, free of expense. The school was to be started in a small way, in a two-story hired house; and afterward, if God prospered the undertaking, a proper building for the institution was to be erected on ground belonging to the college. Of course, Mrs. Seton accepted the proposition with joy. On the 9th of June, 1808, she embarked for Baltimore in a packet, accompanied by her three daughters. It was a voyage, in those times, of between six and seven days. She landed on the morning of the 16th, the feast of Corpus Christi, and drove at once from the wharf to Saint Mary’s chapel to hear mass.

It is almost impossible to describe the happiness which beams from her letters written in her new home to her friends in Italy, her favorite sisters-in-law, Cecilia and Harriet Seton, (the latter of whom was, at this time, strongly attracted toward the church, while the other, as we have already mentioned, was a fervent convert,) and her spiritual advisers. United with her children, in a comfortable little home close to the seminary and college, where she found in the chapel services an unfailing source of delight, she had all that her domestic affections and pious desires could wish. The relatives of Mr. Dubourg and other Catholics of the city treated her with great cordiality, and from many distinguished Protestant families she received marked social attentions. The school was opened in September. Mrs. Seton had not thought, so far, of adopting any thing like a conventual rule of life, except perhaps at some remote period; but her daily life was regulated with reference to the consecration of all her powers to God, and she mingled no further in society than a regard for good breeding and gratitude to her friends absolutely required. The development of her religious schemes was gradual, and the foundation of the new sisterhood appears, from a human point of view, the result of accident and curious coincidence, rather than the fruit of direct labor. The first step toward it was the arrival at Mrs. Seton’s Baltimore establishment of a young lady from Philadelphia, named Cecilia O’Conway. The Rev. Mr. Babade, the spiritual director of the school, found this young lady on the point of going to Europe to enter a convent. He told her of Mrs. Seton’s plans, and she determined to go to Baltimore instead. In December, 1808, Miss O’Conway accordingly became an assistant in the school.

Mr. Filicchi had made an offering of one thousand dollars toward the realization of Mrs. Seton’s plans; but now came, in a most unexpected manner, a new benefactor, whose liberality gave the enterprise a different character and vastly enlarged scope. Among the students of theology at Saint Mary’s Seminary, was Mr. Samuel Cooper, a gentleman of fortune, a Virginian, and formerly well known in fashionable society. His conversion from Protestantism and determination to study for the priesthood had caused quite as great a sensation as the conversion of Mrs. Seton. He now purposed distributing his property among the poor, (before his death, we may here add, that he literally gave away all he possessed,) and one morning he spoke to Mr. Dubourg about doing something for the instruction of poor children. He had never spoken upon the subject with Mrs. Seton, but he suggested at this interview that possibly she might undertake the work, if he gave the money. It is a very remarkable fact that at this same moment Mrs. Seton was thinking of the same thing. That morning after communion she felt a strong desire arise within her to dedicate herself to the care and instruction of poor girls. She went at once to Mr. Dubourg. “This morning,” she said, “in my communion, I thought, ‘Dearest Saviour, if you would but give me the care of poor little children, no matter how poor!’ and Mr. Cooper being directly before me at his thanksgiving, I thought, ‘He has money: if he would but give it for the bringing up of poor little children to know and love you!'” The result of this extraordinary, or we ought rather to say, providential coincidence, was, that Mr. Cooper gave eight thousand dollars for the establishment of the proposed institution, and fixed upon Emmettsburg as the place; and there a farm with a very small stone house upon it was bought, in the names of the Rev. William V. Dubourg, Mr. Samuel Cooper, and the Rev. John Dubois, who was then pastor of several congregations in that part of Maryland, and director at the same time of the small school near Emmettsburg, out of which soon afterward grew Mount Saint Mary’s College. With the college and its illustrious founder the fortunes of Mrs. Seton’s institute became intimately connected.

While these arrangements were in progress, the new community was gradually and quietly forming at the little house in Baltimore. A second associate, Miss Maria Murphy, of Philadelphia, joined Mrs. Seton in April, 1809. In May, two more presented themselves, Miss Mary Ann Butler, of Philadelphia, and Miss Susan Clossy, of New York. It was not without a painful sense of unfitness that, in obedience to the directions of her bishop and spiritual advisers, Mrs. Seton undertook the government of this religious household. On the evening of the day when the task was definitely laid upon her “she was seized,” says Dr. White,

“with a transport of mingled love and humility in reflecting upon the subject. Being with two or three of her sisters, and the discourse turning upon the probable designs of providence in their regard, Mother Seton became so penetrated with the awful responsibility, and sense of her own incapacity, that she was almost inconsolable. For some moments she wept bitterly in silence; then, throwing herself upon her knees, she confessed aloud the most frail and humiliating actions of her life from her childhood upward; after which she exclaimed in the most affecting manner, her hands and eyes raised toward heaven and the tears gushing down her cheeks, ‘My gracious God! You know my unfitness for this task. I who by my sins have so often crucified you, I blush with shame and confusion! How can I teach others who know so little myself, and am so miserable and imperfect?’ The sisters who were present were overwhelmed by the scene before them, and, falling on their knees, gave vent to their tears and painful emotions.”

On the 1st of June they assumed a religious habit, and the next day Corpus Christi appeared in it for the first time at church. It was not a regular nun’s garb, but an imitation of the dress which Mrs. Seton had worn ever since the death of her husband. It consisted of a black gown with a short cape, similar to a costume she had seen in some Italian sisterhood, a white muslin cap with a crimped border, and a black band around the head, fastened under the chin. A regular order of daily life was established, and Mrs. Seton privately, in the presence of Bishop Carroll, took the ordinary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for the period of one year. Her associates, however, did not as yet make any vows, nor was any special religious institute adopted for their organization. They merely styled themselves “Sisters of Saint Joseph.” Mr. Dubourg was appointed their ecclesiastical superior.

About this time Miss Cecilia Seton fell dangerously ill, and was advised by her physicians to make a visit to Baltimore. Harriet accompanied her, and with these two beloved relatives, one of her daughters, and one member of the sisterhood, Mrs. Seton removed to Emmettsburg on the 21st of June, finding shelter at first in a little log hut on the mountain, as their own house on the farm was not yet ready for use. Her happy union with Cecilia and Harriet was for a few months only. Harriet became a Catholic; but in the first fervor of her devotion was seized with a fever, and died on the 22d of December. Cecilia grew better for a short time, and even joined the community; but she failed gradually, and died in Baltimore in April. During the first autumn and winter at Emmettsburg the institution was little better than a hospital. The farm-house, into which the whole community, then numbering ten, moved in the course of the summer, consisted of nothing but two rooms on the ground floor and two in the attic, and these had to afford accommodations not only for the ten sisters, but for Mrs. Seton’s three daughters, her sister-in-law Harriet, and two pupils who followed her from Baltimore. Added to the discomfort of their narrow quarters was a state of poverty so extreme that they sometimes knew not where to look for their next meal. For coffee they substituted a beverage made of carrots and sweetened with molasses. Their bread was of rye and of the coarsest description. At Christmas they thought themselves fortunate in having for dinner smoked herrings and a spoonful of molasses apiece. In the course of the winter, however, a two-story log house of convenient size was put up for their use, and now they were able to open a day-school and take more boarding-pupils, and so provide at least for their daily expenses. The debt incurred in making these improvements was, nevertheless, a severe burden for them, and at one time it seemed inevitable that they should sell out and disperse; but charitable friends came to their relief at the last moment, and, little by little, with many fluctuations of fortune, they got out of their difficulties.

When they determined, about the time of coming to Emmettsburg, to adopt the rule of Saint Vincent of Paul, they sent to France and begged some of the sisters of the society to come over and place themselves at the head of the new American community. The invitation was accepted; but the French government would not allow the sisters to sail, so the most that Mrs. Seton could get was a copy of the rules and a kind letter of encouragement. These rules, modified to meet the peculiar wants of the new institution, by permitting it to receive pay-scholars in connection with its labors of charity, and with special provisions to allow Mrs. Seton to devote the necessary care to her young children, were approved by Bishop Carroll as the rule for the “Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph,” and so the community which has done such a noble work in the United States came into existence with Mrs. Seton for its first mother superior.

We have no intention of sketching in this brief paper the rise and development of that sisterhood. The log house in “Saint Joseph’s Valley,” at the foot of Mount Saint Mary, has a renown in the history of the American church upon which many able pens have enlarged, and branch communities have gone out from it, filling remote parts of the United States with good works and pious example. Our purpose has been merely to sketch the foundation of the illustrious community, and tell our readers something of the trials and sorrows under which Mrs. Seton achieved her great work. The rest of her life, though it was blessed with the consolation of success in her undertaking, was torn with afflictions not less severe than those she had suffered already. Her eldest and her youngest daughters were both taken from her as they were just entering upon a beautiful womanhood, the eldest, Anna, being already a member of the community. The deaths among her earliest associates were many, and she had also to mourn the loss of one of the excellent Italian friends who contributed so much to the success of her enterprise. But in all her sorrows she preserved the calmness of divine resignation, the charm of her personal presence, and the kind, unselfish interest in others which made her so generally beloved. She died on the 4th of January, 1821; and on the wall of the humble chamber where she expired, the following memento is now shown:

“Here, near this door, by this fireplace, on a poor, lowly couch, died our cherished and saintly Mother Seton, on the 4th of January, 1821. She died in poverty, but rich in faith and good works. May we, her children, walk in her footsteps and share one day in her happiness! Amen!”

The two works whose titles we have placed at the head of this article are very much alike in the general character of their contents, having both been prepared from the same materials. Dr. White’s Life has been many years before the public, and has been much commended for its devotional spirit and appreciative judgment of Mrs. Seton’s labors. The larger work, just issued in two handsome volumes, and printed and bound with considerable elegance, has been prepared by Mrs. Seton’s grandson. It has apparently been for the editor a labor of love. He has drawn freely from the family records which Dr. White used before him, and has quoted much more of Mrs. Seton’s letters than his predecessor did, so that the work is almost equivalent to an autobiography of the foundress of Saint Joseph’s, illustrated with abundant explanatory notes, and with only so much narrative as seemed necessary to bind the whole together. It is not only an interesting memorial of a very interesting woman, but an important contribution to the materials which we hope the coming historian will some day reduce into a comprehensive history of the American church.