Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, by Father Hugh Francis Blunt

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton(17741821)

The Catholic Church is comparatively young in this country. Her history here is but as the story of a day in her long life. But it is a story to thrill the heart of her children. We have had our martyrs for the truth, many of them; we have had our confessors of the faith, confessors without number. The same spirit of religion which has made saints of God in the Old World has made them in the New. From every quarter of the globe our people have come, and in every quarter of the globe has flourished that faith that makes saints. The old countries have their national litany of saints. It is the growth of the ages. But are we to be less blessed than they? Are we to have no special litany of our own? We cannot think that. The ages of faith are not to be confined to one people or one period. The Litany of the Saints is not a sealed book of the dead past. It is a never-ending scroll to be written on until the day of judgment. “A great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands.” (Apocalypse 7:9.)

We have scarcely begun to make our own national litany. The Church, which knows herself to be of and for all time, is never in a hurry. She thinks in centuries, rather in eternity, not in days. Sometimes she has canonized her saints almost before the body was cold in death; sometimes she has waited for centuries to pass before raising them to her altars. In God’s own good time it is all done. It is not for us to anticipate the judgment of the Church. The making of a saint is a wonderful thing. No human power, no admiration even for service done to the Church, can place man or woman on that Church’s calendar. Even the great Constantine, who was so blessed with heavenly vision and heavenly aid, to whom the Church owed so much, is still but Constantine the Great, not Saint Constantine.

But we may hope – we have, indeed, every reason to hope, judging from the past – that America, too, will have its saints. And surely we may hope and pray that one day we may, after Holy Church, give the glorious name of saint to that noble woman of our own land, wife and mother and religious, Elizabeth Bayley Seton.

Her maiden name was Elizabeth Bayley, and she was born in New York City on August 28, 1774, at a time when New York was still an English colony, a short time, as the date shows, before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

Her grandfather had come as a young man of good English family to make a tour of the American colonies some years before, at a time when the colonies were deeply attached to the mother country. He met his fate on that tour in the person of a young lady of New Rochelle named Lecomte, descended from one of the Huguenot families which had settled that place.

One of his sons was Richard Bayley, who became a doctor, and was later the first professor of anatomy at Columbia (then King’s) College. After the war, during which he had been a staunch royalist, he was appointed health officer of the port of New York, and filled that office in an admirable manner. It was a tribute to his character that in spite of his former political affiliations he was deemed worthy of the appointment. In 1781, when Sir Guy Carleton succeeded Clinton as commander-in-chief of the British forces in America, he had joined his army as surgeon. And so close was his friendship with Carleton that he called one of his sons Guy Carleton Bayley, who became the father of James Roosevelt Bayley, who at Rome in 1842 became a convert from the Episcopal Church, and was later noted as Archbishop of Baltimore.

Young Dr. Bayley married Catharine Charlton, daughter of an Episcopalian clergyman of Staten Island. Three daughters were born to them, Mary, Elizabeth Ann, and Catharine, and then in 1777 the young wife died. Dr. Bayley was devoted to his little ones, and for that reason, perhaps, more than any other, he married again, taking for his second wife a Miss Barclay of a well-known New York family. She was a good mother to the two stepchildren – little Catharine had died at the age of two – and Elizabeth especially loved her.

We get a charming picture of the little Elizabeth when she was nine years old, after the dread days of the war had passed. She tells us herself of the visits she used to make to her mother’s people in the country. “I delighted to sit alone by the waterside,” she writes, “or to wander for hours on the shore, singing and gathering shells. Every little leaf and flower, or insect, animal, shades of clouds, or waving trees, were objects of vacant, unconnected thoughts of God and heaven.”

Even in those young days the grace of God was working in the soul of her who later on was to do such great work in His kingdom. She was her father’s favorite, and much of her strong character was due to his loving interest in her, and withal his firmness in the manner of educating her. Even in her childhood it is said that she edified her elders by her recollection and fervor in the services of the Episcopal Church, of which her stepmother was a devout member. It was this good woman who gave Elizabeth a taste for the Bible, a book she loved and read daily, together with the Imitation of Christ. And even as a child, she tells us, the crucifix was especially dear to her. One is surprised at the Catholic spirit of the child, seeing her writing out every night her examination of conscience, a practice she kept up even when she was grown and had taken her place in the brilliant New York society of those days.

It was a time when little attention was paid to the education of girls, but Elizabeth managed to get more than her share by browsing in her father’s excellent library, a course which had its dangers, too, considering that the Doctor’s library contained many infidel books. But God kept innocent and religious the soul of this little girl who was trying so hard to do His will.

Elizabeth at an early age took her place in society. New York even then had its very exclusive circle, wealthy, brilliant, and refined. The beauty and smartness of Elizabeth Bayley made her a favorite at once. One of her biographers describes her as she looked at that time. She was small in stature, with finely cut features, slenderly and gracefully formed. Her face, lit by brilliant black eyes, inherited no doubt from her Huguenot grandmother, was framed in masses of dark, curling hair, arranged in the simple, graceful fashion of the close of the eighteenth century. Combined with this youthful loveliness was the charm imparted by intelligence of mind, perfect womanliness, and vivacity, which was no doubt also a heritage from her French ancestry.

It is not strange that this beautiful young woman of fine family, vivacious, educated, ready to take her part in everything, an accomplished horsewoman even, soon attracted the attention of men. But of all the suitors young William Seton, son of a wealthy merchant of New York, won the prize. He had spent several years abroad, had served in the business house of the Filicchis in Leghorn, Catholic gentlemen of wonderfully great faith, who were to be the cause, under God, of Elizabeth’s conversion, and besides that, he had traveled extensively, and was therefore well equipped to win his way into the heart of such a girl as Elizabeth Bayley.

They were married in January, 1794, when Elizabeth was a few months over nineteen years of age. It was a happy marriage. William Seton was an excellent man. He adored his wife, and she responded with a like adoration. The young husband took his wife to live with his own family in the big New York mansion which was like a patriarchal establishment. Elizabeth was at once a favorite with all, from her father-in-law, who made her his confidante, to her husband’s many brothers and sisters. The oldest of the unmarried ones became “the friend of her soul.” She was deeply spiritual like Elizabeth, and devoted to charity. Often the two were to be seen making visits to the poor, until at last they came to be lovingly called “the Protestant Sisters of Charity.”

In the fall after the marriage the young couple went to live in a house of their own, and here in the following May, 1795, their first child, little Anna Maria, was born. Their cup of joy was now full.

But the happy marriage did not remain long unclouded; for in the summer of 1796 the husband’s health began to fail. To this affliction was added the fear of business troubles, threatening the ruin of the house of Seton, so long prosperous. And meanwhile a second child, William, was born. The elder Seton died under the strain of financial difficulties, and William Seton and his wife took charge of the family mansion and assumed the burden of caring for the many little ones whom the elder Seton – he had been married twice – had left. It was a heavy task for them, but they did not complain. It was their duty, nothing more. Who knows what great graces were given to Elizabeth Seton for this work of mothering the orphans? It was here that, in 1798, their third child, Richard, was born.

The young mother had no easy life in those days. Not only did she have her own little ones to mother, but she had also to care for those that were not her own. So devoted was she even to those who were not her own flesh and blood that she inspired a devoted love in them. Her husband’s little sisters, Harriet, then eleven, and Cecelia, seven, were particularly fond of her, the beginning of that attachment to her which ended in both of them later on becoming Catholics, following her example, and moved to it, under the grace of God, by their complete confidence that what she did was always right.

In June, 1800, the fourth child, Catharine, was born, and at the same time William Seton was financially overwhelmed by new disasters at sea. It was a time of worry for the young mother, a time of sorrow increased by the death of her own father, whom she so deeply loved. He had been a man of little religion, and the devout daughter feared for his eternal future, a fear so great that she often raised the new-born infant from the cradle and offered its life to God for the salvation of her father’s soul. Before his death, she tells us, he spoke several times the Holy Name of Jesus, which he had never before done, and so passed away, a man of upright life and of wonderful charity to the afflicted, having projected and conducted for five years a Lazaretto on Staten Island. Somehow his death brought Elizabeth nearer to God, and she sought more and more to know and do God’s will. In 1802 the fifth and last child was born, whom she named Rebecca, after her beloved sister-in-law and companion in charity.

Meanwhile William Seton, worn out by business troubles, decided to take a trip to Italy for his health, and Elizabeth, knowing that he was not fit to go alone, prepared to go with him. And so, in October, 1800, after dismantling their home, they took passage for Leghorn, facing a long, hazardous voyage in a sailing- vessel of the period, and bringing with them their eldest child, little Anna, then eight years of age.

Yellow fever had been prevalent in New York, and when the vessel arrived at Leghorn the Setons, who were the only passengers, were obliged to go into quarantine in the Lazaretto for forty days. It was a time of severe trial for the young wife, in a foreign country, virtually in prison, and seeing her husband very ill as a result of the voyage and the confinement in the cold, cheerless Lazaretto.

When the quarantine was over they were removed to an apartment which their friend, Antonio Filicchi, had obtained for them; but the poor invalid did not rally, and two days after Christmas, praying to God to look after his dear wife and little ones, and calling, “My Christ Jesus, have mercy on me and receive me,” he died, a stranger in a strange land. Elizabeth herself had to perform the last offices of love to the dear dead body, so afraid were the people of the tuberculosis of which he had died. Then they proceeded to Leghorn, where, in the Protestant cemetery, William Seton was laid to rest far from his native land.

The young widow then went to live with the Filicchis. It was the beginning of her grace. The Filicchis, of an excellent Catholic family, were wealthy merchants who were forever performing works of charity. One of the brothers, Filippo, had married a Miss Cooper of Boston, and as representative of the chief banking-house of Leghorn had been to America to discuss commercial questions for the new government after the Revolution, and was well known to Washington and to all the other noted men of the time. Washington had appointed him consul- general for the United States at Leghorn.

It was then, while living with this fine Catholic family, that Elizabeth Seton got her first insight into the faith and practice of the Catholic Church. She accompanied the Filicchis to Florence, and was thrilled by the beautiful churches, the magnificent ceremonies of worship, and the simple devotion of the people. Yet during that month in the Filicchi household, piously Catholic as it was, she had no doubts about her own faith. Zealous for the truth, her hosts sought to convert her, giving her good books to read, and even having her meet the pious Father Plunkett, a Jesuit, then in Leghorn. But it all seemed in vain. “Keep on praying,” was the advice of the good Antonio Filicchi to her.

But Elizabeth, with her little daughter Anna, set sail for home, and apparently nothing had been done towards bringing her any nearer to the Catholic Church. But the grace of God intervened in a simple manner. Scarcely had the vessel set sail than it collided with another and was obliged to put back for repairs. Little Anna was suddenly stricken with scarlet fever, and when she recovered Elizabeth herself fell ill with the same sickness. It was but another grace to her soul, as she felt the wonderful charity of the good Catholic family in which God had placed her in order that she might witness their unstinted devotion to their faith. Even at that time, writing to her sister-in-law about the Catholic privilege of assisting at daily Mass, she said, “Why, they must be as happy as angels, almost;”

At length the travelers sailed for home, Antonio Filicchi accompanying them to protect them and also> to continue the work of conversion he had begun. It was a long voyage, lasting fifty-six days, and many an hour of it was employed by Antonio in explaining Catholic doctrine and practice to the young widow, the salvation of whose soul he so desired.

Scarcely was Elizabeth back home when a new sorrow came to her in the death of her sister-in-law, the devout Rebecca. In the midst of that grief, Elizabeth made up her mind to enter the Catholic Church at once. But Antonio advised her first of all to tell her family of her intention. It was hardly good advice. It raised a storm of indignation. It was a time when everything Catholic was despised, and the Setons and the Bayleys, high in New York society, deemed the contemplated action of Elizabeth an insult to their position in society. This opposition, however, had no effect upon her. The greatest obstacle, the thing that delayed her embracing the faith immediately, was her consideration for the Rev. Mr. Hobart, the minister of Trinity Church, who had ever been kind to her, and for whom she had a great reverence. If a good man like him was satisfied that he had the true faith, why should she worry about her position? she asked herself. So she wrote to him of the sufferings of her soul, drawn as it was to the despised Catholic Church, yet held also to the faith of her childhood.

He pleaded with her to put the design out of her mind, and finally she agreed to read the books he would give her, hoping to satisfy her that her duty was to remain in the Episcopal faith. It was for her a time of groping in darkness, a time of wavering, moved as she was by the dread of breaking the family ties always so dear to her. She did not know what to do. Mixed with this spiritual unrest was the worry about the support of her little ones. There was nothing left of her husband’s business. She and her children would have to depend on the charity of her own and her husband’s family. These were willing to care for them, but only on condition that Elizabeth would not disgrace them by joining the Catholic Church. If she took that step, she and her children must take the consequences of her folly.

She was now living in a little cottage a mile outside the city. Mr. Hobart still corresponded with her and satisfied her conscience that she should remain an Episcopalian. Meanwhile her good friend, Antonio Filicchi, who had been visiting other cities, returned to New York. She showed him Mr. Hobart’s manuscript, and Antonio persuaded her to let him show it to Father William O’Brien, then pastor of Saint Peter’s Church on Barclay Street. She owed her conversion, under God, to the same Antonio. He kept writing to her, and got Bishop Carroll to write to her, convinced that she should become a Catholic.

Finally she stopped going to the Protestant church, but her soul was unhappy, in spiritual darkness and misery. So it continued for several months, but at last the grace of God triumphed. Despite all opposition, notwithstanding the bitterness of her relatives, and the fact that she was facing destitution not only for herself but for her five children as well, she made up her mind to enter the Catholic Church. She was baptized into the Church at Saint Peter’s, in Barclay Street, New York, by Father O’Brien, on March 14, 1805, Antonio Filicchi being present; and on the Feast of the Annunciation she made her first Holy Communion. Her soul had found its peace at last.

But with the new peace came worldly troubles. How was she to support her little ones? Most of her friends had deserted her. Filicchi, ever kind, had placed a sum of money at her disposal, but she did not wish to be a subject of charity without first trying to help herself.

Everything looked promising in the establishment at this time of a school for boys by a Catholic gentleman, an Englishman named White. She was to have charge of the younger boys and in return receive education for her own children. But the bigots killed the school. It was rumored about that the object of the school was to proselytize, and this, together with the presence of the “renegade” Mrs. Seton, sealed its fate after a few months. Then she took in boy boarders from another school, and was happy at being able to earn her own living, until her persecutors destroyed this work, too. God was making her suffer for her loyalty to her conscience, and yet He was using these sufferings to bring her to the work for which He had chosen her.

What renewed this persecution was the announcement made by young Cecelia Seton, her husband’s sister, that she wished also to become a Catholic. She went for instruction to Father O’Brien, and again the storm of bigotry broke forth. Elizabeth, who a short time before had nursed Cecelia through sickness, was now denounced as a corrupter, and the Seton family threatened to obtain her expulsion from the State by the Legislature as a dangerous character. Cecelia was kept in close confinement, and was even threatened with deportation to the West Indies if she did not give up the outrageous idea of becoming a Catholic. It seems almost incredible that good people could descend to such persecution. What made the persecution harder for Cecelia was that Elizabeth was not permitted to write to her.

About that time Bishop Carroll made a visit to New York. Elizabeth met him, and derived much consolation from the wise advice of the old man, besides receiving Confirmation from him. He also met Cecelia, and perhaps as a result of his priestly counsel she soon entered the Church, though in doing so she had to leave her home, where she had been persecuted, and seek an asylum with Elizabeth.

Elizabeth at this time thought of taking her loved ones to Italy, where her staunch friend Filicchi offered her a home. He again showed his practical kindness by putting another sum of money in the bank for her to draw on. But Father Cheverus, afterwards Cardinal, and Father Matignon persuaded her to remain in America. The hand of God was directing things.

The decision to remain at home in America brought hard days for the converts. The bitterness of the Seton family was simply the prejudice general at the time against the Catholic Church. On Christmas eve of that year a mob attempted to tear down Saint Peter’s Church, Barclay Street, or to set it on fire. One constable was killed and others were wounded while dispersing the rioters. However, the animosity of the Setons wore away somewhat, and when one of the family was taken ill they gladly accepted the offer of Elizabeth and Cecelia to do the nursing.

After that Cecelia went to keep house for her brother, whose wife had died, but soon it was said that she was trying to pervert his children. It was the talk of New York society, and Elizabeth received all the blame. Her opponents were determined to break her; all the pupils she was boarding were taken away from her, and again she was dependent upon the charity of Filicchi. She thought of going to Canada to teach in some religious community, yet cultured and educated though she was, she dreaded her inefficiency. Bishop Carroll, too, advised her against the plan. God had other designs, and soon it was arranged that she should come to Baltimore, where a two-story brick house was rented for her with the purpose of opening a school for young ladies. There she found an asylum for herself and her girls, the two boys being taken into Georgetown College through the kindness of Father Dubourg, who had been instrumental in getting her away from New York. It was a relief of soul for her to escape from the persecution she had suffered in her native city and at the hands of her own people.

It was soon made possible for Mrs. Seton to start her plans for the establishment of the religious community upon which she had set her heart. A Mr. Cooper, a convert to the Catholic Church, and at that time a student at Mount Saint Mary’s, where he was preparing for the priesthood, desired to give his wealth to some worthy cause, especially for the instruction of poor children. By his generosity it was made possible to purchase a farm at Emmittsburg, fifty miles from Baltimore, and soon work was begun on the house for the new community. Several young women had joined Mrs. Seton, thus making the beginning of what was soon to be a most flourishing institution. To start the work, Mrs. Seton, in the presence of Bishop Car- roll, took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and while waiting for the drawing up of a permanent rule the new sisters called themselves the Sisters of Saint Joseph.

The cup of spiritual joy was now filled for Mother Seton, and especially so when she had the happiness of welcoming to the Baltimore house the beloved Cecelia, who had been nigh to death’s door. With her came her sister Harriet, still a Protestant, however, but allowed to take the trip in order to care for Cecelia. It was a happy reunion.

Soon the house at Emmittsburg was ready, and Mrs. Seton, accompanied by Cecelia, Harriet, her daughter Anna, and another sister of the community, went there to prepare the place for the coming of the other sisters. In those days it was a long, hard, uphill journey, but their hearts were light as they thought of the Holy Land to which they were going. The accommodations in the new house were primitive, but the determined women did not mind the inconveniences. They were missionaries in a new work. Mrs. Seton was of course the happiest one of the lot. Founder of a religious community, she knew now what her life’s work was to be, and she had the blessed privilege of keeping her children with her.

One of the most touching incidents in the life of Mother Seton is the story of Harriet Seton, her sister- in-law. When Harriet came down to Emmittsburg to accompany the delicate Cecelia, she had left the centre of New York’s most fashionable circle. She was indeed the belle of that city. Many had sought her in marriage, but for several years now she had been engaged to Barclay Bayley, Mrs. Seton’s half-brother, a man who hardly seemed worthy of such a woman as Harriet.

The zeal and patience of Mrs. Seton and Cecelia in the Catholic faith had impressed her, and she, too, had the longing to embrace the faith. But family ties held her back. And even when she was allowed to go south with Cecelia she had been warned not to go into the Catholic church for fear of the machinations of Elizabeth. So for a long time at Emmittsburg she would accompany the others to the door of the little church, and then spend her time in the fields and woods until the services were ended and the others rejoined her. One evening, when Mother Seton came from the church, she found Harriet on her knees at the foot of a tree, sobbing her heart out because she could not enter the church. It was the coming of grace. Soon the young woman made her decision, a decision that caused her much pain. She was willing even to give up the man she loved to follow the will of God.

But she was not long for this world. In the December of that year, after nursing the sick, she was taken ill herself and died a most edifying death, a true child of the Church, the first one of the little community to be laid at rest in the new cemetery. She had given up a luxurious home, the love of the man to whom she was engaged, all that this world prizes, for suffering and sacrifice; but she had received in return the pearl of great price. There is no sweeter character in all history than Harriet Seton, once the belle of New York.

It is not my purpose to detail the religious life of the new community. It was for the ten sisters a life of hardship, but with never a murmur. They suffered from the cold, their habits were coarse and patched, they had not enough to eat. On the Sunday before Christmas they feasted on a herring; their coffee was made from carrots and molasses, but they laughed at all the discomforts, for their souls were at peace. They went about their work, teaching the poor, spinning, knitting, praying, grateful to God, who had been so good to them.

And thus in poverty and lowliness was established that great work of the Sisters of Charity which was to be a tower of strength to the Catholic Church in America.

Death again came soon, this time for the saintly Cecelia, and she was laid away in the grave next to Harriet’s. As Mother Seton said of her: “She was innocence and peace itself.”

These deaths were sore trials to Mother Seton, but God required a greater sacrifice still. Elizabeth was to be wounded in her great mother-love. Anna Seton, or Annina, as the mother called her, was her pride and consolation. She had been with her in the days of sorrow in Italy, and had never been separated from her. She had grown into a girl of great beauty, and as good as she was beautiful. She sought admission into the community, but even before that, while a pupil, she arose every morning at five and passed an hour in meditation on her knees before Mass. But her health failed. She showed her father’s weak constitution, but in spite of that went out in all weathers to nurse the sick. Drenched with rain one day, she caught cold, and soon the dread consumption claimed her as a victim. She made her vows on her deathbed, and while the little Catharine and Rebecca, her sisters, knelt at the foot of her bed and sang her favorite hymn at her request, she went to her reward. The following day she was buried beside Harriet and Cecelia.

Mother Seton’s heart was broken at the death of the beloved daughter, but she bore the grief with sweet resignation to the will of God. Her mother-love had been purified. She knew that she could procure for her darling Annina nothing more glorious than the death of a saint. “O mother, mother,” she wrote in her journal, “give a thousand thanks all your life, every day of your life, until you meet with her again.”

A few years more, years of hard labor for the new community, years of prayer and sacrifice, and again God afflicted the mother’s heart by taking from her the little Rebecca. She had fallen one day and had become a hopeless cripple. But she never complained. All medical skill had been tried in vain. For six months before her death she knew no ease from pain. One day she said, “If the doctors were to say to me, ‘Rebecca, you are cured,’ I would not rejoice. My dearest Saviour, I know too well the happiness of dying young and . sinning no more.” Sometimes she would worry over the sorrow her death would bring her mother. “You will return alone, dear mamma, and there will be no little Bee behind the bed-curtains. But that is only one side; when I look at the other side I forget all else. You will have consolation, for you hope that my salvation is assured.”

It was a long death-agony for the young girl. “Think only of your Blessed Saviour now, my darling,” said Mother Seton as she held her in her arms. “To be sure,” she answered, and dropped her head for the last time on her mother’s breast.

As her daughters had gone, so was Mother Seton soon to go. She did not complain; indeed, she was glad to go. Her two boys had been provided for, and she felt that little Catharine would enter a religious community. The same little Catharine died, at the age of ninety, as Mother Catharine of the Sisters of Mercy in New York. Mother Seton knew that her work was done, and she longed to go to Rebecca and Annina and to God. During those days of her last illness and decline she would visit every day the graveyard and gaze at the resting-place of Annina. Many graves were there now, the graves of her children, of Harriet and Cecelia, and of many of her sisters in religion. And she knew that she herself would soon be lying beside them. It was not long. She died on January 4, 1821, and was laid to rest beside the dear Annina.

So passed the great Mother Seton, one of the most beautiful characters that ever lived. Her cause has already been taken up, and one day we may have the privilege of calling her Saint Elizabeth Seton, one of the greatest glories of the Church in America.

Mother Seton is she called on account of her office in the community which she established. But it is a title that belongs to her in another sense. She was the mother of children, and as such shines forth, a glorious example to all mothers.

Elizabeth Seton loved her children. But she loved them with a holy love. She considered little their worldly advancement. She knew the real value of things, and sought first of all the welfare of their souls. What was death, even, so long as it meant the going of her little ones to God? When she embraced the Catholic faith she knew that it would mean suffering, not only for herself, but for her children. But she chose for herself and them the way of the Cross.

Better to serve God and save one’s soul than to gain the whole world and lose heaven.

Surely our Catholic mothers have a glorious patroness, a shining example, in Elizabeth Bayley Seton.

– text taken from the book Great Wives and Mothers by Father Hugh Francis Blunt, 1917