The First American Sister of Charity, Elizabeth Bayley Seton, by Father John Clement Reville

A Lady of Old New York

Saint Elizabeth Ann SetonThe year 1774 marks an epoch in the history of the United States scarcely less memorable than the one which gave to the world the Declaration of Independence. The events of 1774 prepared the way for the heroic deeds of 1776. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 had made the English Government realize that the colonies must be cowed or that an appeal to arms was the only outcome. The “Intolerable Acts” of 1774 attempted to accomplish the first purpose. One closed the port of Boston until the town should pay for the tea so summarily thrown overboard from the English ships. A second, the Regulating act, remodeled the charter of Massachusetts and attempted to destroy those free institutions which were so dearly prized by the people. A third, the Administration of Justice act, provided that any British soldier accused of murder in putting down riots or while enforcing the revenue laws might be taken for trial to another colony or to Great Britain. A fourth, the Quartering act, imposed English soldiers as unwelcome guests on American householders, and the fifth, or Quebec act, extended the boundaries of that province southward to the Ohio River, thus, as the colonists claimed, ignoring the rights of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Virginia, and doing away within that territory with such cherished institutions as the popular meeting and the freedom of the press. The “Intolerable Acts” roused the spirit of the people. From Virginia, in reply, came the suggestion for a general congress “to’ deliberate on those measures which the united interests of America may from time to time require.” At the call of Massachusetts, the First Continental Congress assembled at Carpenter’s Hall, Philadelphia, September 5, 1774. Fifty-five delegates from every colony, Georgia excepted, answered the summons. Massachusetts sent John and Samuel Adams; Connecticut, her shoemaker statesman, Roger Sherman; Pennsylvania, John Dickinson; New York, John Jay; South Carolina was represented by Christopher Gadsden and John Rutledge, while Virginia sent Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and the man who was a host and a congress in himself, the incomparable Washington.

The first Continental Congress exercised a powerful influence on the destinies of America. Without it, the work of the second Continental Congress would never have been accomplished. It prepared the way for the crowning act of that body, the protest of an entire nation that it would no longer submit to tyranny. The nation has seen no more stirring times than those in which these great events were taking place. The very spirit of liberty seemed to be borne through the land, everywhere lighting the flame of high resolve in the breasts of its citizens. Great things were being done for that most sacred of all causes, after the cause of God Himself, human freedom and progress.

It was amidst these throes that the American Republic came into being. Only a few days before the first Continental Congress assembled at Philadelphia, a child was born whose life and example were to exercise a large influence on the destines of the Catholic Church in the country which Washington and Jefferson were trying to save from tyranny. That child, Elizabeth Ann Bayley, was born in New York City on the 28th of August, 1774. She is better known as that Mother Seton, whose calm and sweet image appears on the very first pages of the history of the Catholic Church in our country, reminding us of an epic age and epic deeds in both Church and State. She was the second of the three daughters of a distinguished physician, Dr. Richard Bayley and of Catharine Charlton, his first wife. The Bayleys and the Charltons were well-known members of the best society of early New York. In the beginning of the struggle of the colonies with the mother-country, the Bayleys were stanch loyalists, but when the contest was over and the former dependencies of Great Britain became the free, sovereign and independent United States of America, Dr. Bayley threw in his lot with the new Republic and became one of its most loyal citizens. He had left no doubt as to his sympathies with England, during the struggle. The war over, no one ever doubted his loyalty to the United States. His service as first Health Officer of the Port of New York, and his sympathetic and unceasing labors for the sick in the Quarantine Station on Staten Island can never be forgotten.

Stirring times were those in which little Elizabeth Bayley played down by the Battery where the citizens strolled to watch the ships swing up the harbor, or trudged to school with the little misses of the better class, or later on, from the heights of Craigdon, her father-in-law’s country house on a neck of land, that is now Forty-third Street, between Eleventh Avenue and the Hudson, looked down on that beautiful river and watched the ships riding at anchor. She was only two years old when King George’s red-coats marched into the city, which they held from 1776 to 1783. The din of war sounded around her cradle, and if she slumbered peacefully while Howe and Washington were locked in the death struggle of Long Island, others feared and trembled for her. She was nine years old when she saw the British regiments march out from the city they had so long held. From some window along the way, or held perhaps by a friendly hand in some crowded street, she watched other troops marching in, the ragged but indomitable veterans of Washington, and the great Virginian at their head. She saw the British flag hauled down and the Stars and Stripes flung to the breeze. The heart of the little maid must have felt a sensation of genuine pride as it was unfolded before her, and she heard thousands loudly hailing it as the emblem of justice and liberty. That year, 1783, Elizabeth’s fellow New Yorker, Washington Irving, was born.

The child lost her mother when she was three years old. Her stepmother, a member of that Barclay family whose name is perpetuated to this day in New York by a well-known thoroughfare, was strongly attracted to her and to some extent, if that be possible, took the place of the dead Catharine Charlton, the mother so early lost, but whose image still lingered in her daughter’s heart. But good Dr. Bayley was “Bettie’s” idol, while the kindly physician was mother, guide, philosopher and friend to his bright and attractive daughter. If Bettie was sent to the rather formal and unprogressive schools of the metropolis, it was from her father that she learned most. As far as his duties would allow, he presided over her studies. His word was law. The little New Yorker liked neither French nor music, and independent American that she was, flung her music book and her grammar aside, declaring that she would have no such foreign importations. But Dr. Bayley was an old-fashioned father, and even Miss Elizabeth Ann Bayley, loved, petted and idolized though she was, was not to be the mistress in his household. A word of warning soon brought the wayward little rebel back to the hated French and the neglected piano. A man of sterling character, of the highest integrity, of a charity that knew no bounds, fearless in the performance of his duties as an army surgeon, and in the presence of the contagious diseases that too often ravaged the city, Dr. Bayley had but one fault. He had been tainted by the false philosophy of the age, by the Deism of Rousseau and Voltaire. His religion seems to have been that which too often rules the conduct of otherwise high-minded and noble-hearted men, service to humanity. Such a religion is inadequate and unjust, for it looks to the present only, and neglects the Creator.

Dr. Bayley’s daughter seems, for a very brief moment, to have been dazzled by the glittering sophisms of Rousseau and his school, but she was too deeply religious to remain long under that malignant spell. She was reared in an atmosphere of strict Episcopalianism. But her soul was naturally Catholic. In her innocent girlhood and during that painful stage of her married life, when, in a foreign land, she watched like an angel of consolation over the last moments of her dying husband, we can see how deeply attached she was to the religion in which she was brought up. What unconsciously attracted her in it, was that element of Catholicism which it still retained, belief in the Divinity of Christ and attachment to His Sacred Person. Already as a child, and when growing to womanhood, she is strongly drawn to Him. After the Bible, which she reads on the seashore and in the quiet recesses of Craigdon or New Rochelle, she loves the “Imitation of Christ,” and tries to regulate her life according to its lessons. She wears a little crucifix over her heart. The Holy Name has for her an irresistible charm, she bows reverently at its sacred sound. That distinctively Catholic doctrine that tells us that guardian spirits watch over our steps, appeals strongly to her, and she commends her acts and her life to these heavenly protectors. She yearns to be incorporated into Christ by the participation of His Sacred Body and Blood. Although the Episcopal Church can offer her nothing else but the shadow of that life-giving Body, even for that she hungers, and prepares with the greatest fervor for the reception of the empty elements of the bread and wine. How admirably this foreshadows the fervor with which she will approach the Altar later on in life, when, under the Sacramental species she will receive really and truly, and not merely in image and in shadow, the Body and the Blood of her Lord!

But childhood and girlhood passed. With thousands of her fellow-citizens, Elizabeth Bayley, then in her fifteenth year, witnessed the inauguration in New York of George Washington as President of the United States. It was the 30th of April, 1789. The inauguration took place at Federal Hall on the corner of Wall and Broad Streets. It was noon, and the great Virginian, accompanied by Chancellor Livingston, Adams, Hamilton, Knox, Steuben and Saint Clair stepped forth on the balcony. After Livingston had pronounced the oath of office, Washington kissed the Bible and solemnly swore to keep and safeguard the Constitution of the United States.

The official recorder of the proceedings was Thomas Lloyd, a Catholic, a former student at Saint Omer, under the Jesuits Carroll and John Leonard Neale. From the notes taken down by him, the address of our first President was given to the public. Thomas Lloyd is rightly called the Father of American stenography. It was one of his boasts that at Saint Omer he had acquired, not only his ability at shorthand, but his republican principles. The solemnity of the scene must have deeply impressed the susceptible mind of the young girl. A crisis had come in the nation’s life. One was facing her.

It was time for Elizabeth Bayley to decide what her future career should be. Her social position admitted her into the inner circles of fashionable society. Cultured and refined, gentle and singularly affectionate, she united to grace of form and charm of manner unusual strength of character and that easy self-control which she had learned from her father. She was rather small in stature, says one of her biographers, but slenderly and gracefully formed. Her face, with finely cut features, and lit by brilliant black eyes, was framed with masses of dark curling hair. Her presence breathed refinement and innocence. She had lived through stirring and trying times. Under the reserve of her perfect womanliness, there were the warm heart and the sprightliness of a childlike nature unconscious of evil. Admirers and suitors came. Of their going and coming and lingering we have little record. The young girl was waiting for the man to whom, without fear or scruple, she could give her hand and heart, and entrust her happiness and her life. He came at last. It was William Magee Seton, eldest son of William Seton, a wealthy New York merchant, who, in his later years, was cashier of the old Bank of New York, of which President Roosevelt’s grandfather was president. William Magee Seton had all that Elizabeth Bayley’s heart could desire. The name he bore had long been famous in Scottish romance and story. He had wealth and social position. He was a refined and cultured gentleman. Miss Bayley made her choice calmly, deliberately, and if her heart dictated that choice, it was ruled and controlled by her reason and her faith. To William Seton she gave herself entirely in the bloom of her maidenhood and innocence, with a childlike and nobly romantic trust that never faltered. A model daughter, she became a model bride.

The marriage of the youthful couple, for the bride was not yet twenty years old, took place in John Street, New York, the ceremony being performed by Doctor Provost, the Episcopalian Bishop of New York. William Seton carried his young wife to his father’s house and into her new family, Elizabeth Seton came as an angel of comfort and joy. To the shrewd and kindly old merchant, she came as a beloved daughter, an adviser and friend. The younger brothers and sisters of her husband loved her as a second mother, while in the eldest unmarried daughter of the house, Rebecca Seton, the young matron found “the friend of her soul.” In the autumn of 1794, the year that saw John Jay negotiate his famous treaty with England, and Mad Anthony Wayne deal a death-blow to the treacherous Indians at Fallen Timbers, the young couple “moved” to No. 8 State Street, to a house which at present is the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary, for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls. Here in May, 1795, Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter. The child was named Anna Maria. Four other children subsequently blessed the union: William, Richard Bayley, Catharine and Rebecca.

We cannot but admire the Providence of God when we read the truly idyllic pages of this part of Mrs. Seton’s life. God was working wonders in this pure and unselfish soul. Her husband, her children, her household duties, her father, the new family with which she was in daily contact, the poor, her domestics: these absorbed her energies and called upon all her love. The duties of the mother and the wife, the cares of the mistress of a full household, the works of charity she performed among the poor of the city were preparing the heart and the soul of Elizabeth Seton for her nun’s life in the cloistered peace of Emmitsburg. Even now her deep faith, her love of her Redeemer and her longing for His presence and His grace in her soul, her zeal and piety, were foreshadowing the sanctity of future days.

Calmly glided the early years of Elizabeth Seton’s married life. Proud of her young husband, prouder if possible of the happy brood of children that crowded her nursery floor, she saw no cloud on the horizon. Those were sunny days as they sauntered down to the Battery to watch the ever-changeful waters of the changeless sea, or rested under the shade of the Craigdon trees, or sailed up the noble river under the mighty ramparts of the Palisades, the young bride and mother little dreaming that there, on that eminence a few miles from the city of her birth, an eminence then crowned with the banners of a noble forest, a cloistered pile would one day rise, and the voices of the young and of a thousand and more of her spiritual daughters would be lifted up to call her blessed.

But trial comes to all the friends of God. By it He tests the vigor of their faith, the strength of their loyalty and their love. It came -to William Seton’s bride. In June 1798, her loved father-in-lav/ died. Elizabeth mourned over him as over another father, A heavier blow awaited her. In the summer of 1801 yellow fever appeared in New York. Dr. Bayley was at his post of danger. As Health Officer of the Port he was untiring in his labors to stem the disease and to help the fever-stricken. While attending to a band of Irish immigrants, whose marvelous faith and resignation to their wretched fate deeply impressed him, he was himself attacked by the contagion. The anguish of Elizabeth was heart-breaking. She had been her father’s darling. He had been her idol and her playmate, her best friend. He was dying almost without a thought of God or His Blessed Son, the Redeemer of the world. What could she do for him? Gladly would that incomparable daughter have given up her own life that her father might not die without some sign of faith and repentance. Her own life was as nothing to such a gain. But the young mother had something more precious to give. Bending over the cradle, where her little Catharine was sleeping, she lifted the innocent babe in her arms and offered her darling’s life to God for the salvation of her father’s soul. The child was spared, but when he felt the last moment come, Dr. Bayley repeated with every sign of faith and love the Sacred Name which Elizabeth, kneeling at his side, was murmuring in his ear.

But still another blow was to fall. The death of the elder Seton, had deprived his son of a wise and prudent guide. Young Seton “had many ventures forth.” But they that carry on their-business in ships on the treacherous seas are seldom safe from the bitter jests of fortune. The ordinary vicissitudes of commerce and the war or rather threat of war between France and the United States caused a suspension of trade with French ports. The Seton firm was threatened with financial failure. The anxieties and worries which were the natural results of these reverses grievously affected the health of Mr. Seton. In all his troubles Elizabeth stood courageously at his side. Her husband’s trials were hers. With him, if necessary, she would share the most trying lot. Poverty, loss of social position and prestige, what was all that, while they had their mutual love and the affection of their children? Never was the mother and the wife more heroic, more unselfish. Every social pleasure she gave up, every absolutely unnecessary expense was gradually curtailed. They had lived in something like luxury. They now were satisfied with the lot of the poor. Not once did the affection, the tenderness, the buoyancy, the soul-deep loyalty of this admirable woman fail. Her trust in God was the trust of the great Saints, of Teresa of Jesus, and the Little Flower, of Frances de Chantal and Margaret Mary, and the great Saint, of whom, unconsciously she was already the spiritual daughter, Vincent de Paul.

But William Seton’s health was shattered. To regain it was absolutely necessary if he were to make good the heavy losses of the last year. In his early youth he had visited Haly, and in the course of business had become acquainted with a family of merchant princes, the Filiechis of Leghorn. His physician had told the sufferer that a sea voyage might restore his waning health. Time and again the Filicchis had offered him the hospitality of their home. It was now a duty for the patient to accept the generous offer. He resolved to make the journey. Elizabeth could not think for a moment of abandoning him. Whatever his fate, she would share it, sickness or stormy sea, loneliness or death. When she had plighted her troth to William Seton, it had been no idle word nor empty ceremony. She meant to fulfill it to the letter. She had made the promise before God. He would give her the courage and strength to carry it through. On! Him she relied and on her love. Neither was to fail her. She thought it wise to let her eldest child, Anna Maria, now nine years old, accompany her. To her, Anna Maria would be a help, to the suffering husband a companion and a source of joy. The preparations were made. On October 2, 1803, the little party boarded the “Shepherdess”, bound for Leghorn. A sturdy and kindly Irish seaman, Captain O’Brien, name of happy omen, as we shall see, for Elizabeth Seton, commanded the little vessel. The voyage was uneventful. Six weeks after, the “Shepherdess” dropped anchor in the harbor of Leghorn.

The Angel of the Lazaretto

To the stranger who for the first time sets foot upon her shores, Italy is a land of enchantment. Her sunny skies, the music and the laughter of her children, the treasures of art found in her great cities and the humblest of her hamlets, the monuments of bygone ages that everywhere meet the eye, the ruins of her pagan shrines, the splendor of the temples she has raised to the worship of the true God, her sufferings, her victories, the glory of her mountains helmeted with snow, the wizardry of her valleys, weave an irresistible spell over the imagination and the heart. To those magic shores, the “Shepherdess” had carried William Seton and his beloved wife and child. In the words of the Trojan exiles well might they have exclaimed: “To Italy we sail, where Providence points out to us a peaceful, a blessed home!” Yet, Elizabeth may have heard something like the echo of those words that sounded in the hero’s ears of old, bidding him fly from an inhospitable shore. “Fly, Lady, fly from those cruel, those deadly shores!” For beautiful and kindly to others, to her that enchanting land was at first to be an abode of sorrow and death. Yet the hand of God seemed to guide her thither almost in spite of herself.

To Leghorn the “Shepherdess” brought the news that yellow fever had again ravaged New York. The very mention of the disease smote like a funeral knell on the officials of the port. To make matters worse, the little American vessel anchored in the roads could produce no health certificate. Its passengers therefore were forbidden to land and condemned to the lazaretto or detention hospital for a well-nigh interminable quarantine. On the ears of William Seton, worn out by the long sea-journey, weaker even than when he had left New York, shattered in spirit, the sentence was a sentence of death. Elizabeth and Anna Maria could scarcely check their tears. But the heroic mother and the brave little daughter did not think of themselves. For that dear one’s sake, they endeavored to hide their cruel disappointment. They had come, they thought, to the land of sunshine and flowers and balmy breezes. They were doomed to a prison and a tomb. For such it looked, when after being rowed in a barge from the ship, the three ill-fated voyagers reached a canal from which they heard the grinding of the lifted chains, and then passing between high stone walls and frowning piers, came to the damp and cheerless quarantine station. They were treated kindly by the warden and the health officers. But the nature of the mysterious disease of which they might perhaps be carrying the deadly germs, prevented anything like familiar intercourse between the exiles and their guardians.

The lives of some of the greatest servants of God might be well summarized in these words: heroism in suffering. But in the splendid record these great men and women have left us, it might be difficult to find anything to surpass the heroic constancy, magnanimity, tenderness and love which were now displayed by Elizabeth Seton, this magnificent type of American and Christian womanhood. She was not yet the Foundress of the Sisters of Charity of Emmitsburg. But she was the Sister of Charity and the Angel of the Lazaretto. She had not as yet the full light of the Truth for which she longed. But there can be no doubt that one of the reasons why later on she was given to see the plentitude of the Truth, was that she had never been rebellious to the light and that, as far as she knew, arid as far as her feeble strength would allow, she had never failed in her duties as wife and mother. Devoted wife, gentlest of mothers! If God gave the infant Church of America great models and leaders in saintly prelates like Carroll and Cheverus and Brute and Dubois and Dubourg, it was also by a special Providence that He gave it a model for the womanhood of the great Republic in this gentle but indomitable spirit.

The record which Mrs. Seton wrote of the tragic days spent with her dying husband and suffering daughter in the lazaretto of Leghorn is one of the most touching and soul-affecting ever written by a woman’s hand. It is the story of a great sorrow, and a great love. Simple, artless, but poignant in its very simplicity, it unconsciously reveals the nobility of her soul, the depth of her Christian faith and the strength of her woman’s heart.

On entering the lazaretto, the three prisoners, for such they were, had caught a hasty glimpse of Antonio Filicchi, one of that merchant family with which William Seton had long been bound by the ties of the closest friendship. Antonio Filicchi and his brother Filippo deserve the gratitude of every American Catholic. To them Mrs. Seton owed, first, whatever alleviation was allowed her, her suffering husband and child in the lazaretto. Noble-hearted gentlemen, merchant princes, they used their wealth for no sordid or selfish aims. They used it now for the relief of three exiles, a dying husband, an agonizing wife, a little child, all longing for the sunshine and the flowers, and locked in a sunless tomb. Good Samaritans, they did not look merely to the wine, the oil and the lodging for the welfare of the body, they thought more of the soul of their suffering friends. To Antonio Filicchi, Mrs. Seton owed the beginning of her conversion. His example and his words were decisive influences in her acceptance of the Faith of which he was such a splendid example.

The Angel of the Lazaretto soon realized that God asked of her the sacrifice of her husband’s life. The chills, the fever, the racking cough, the sleepless nights, the wasting frame and sunken eyes of the patient told her that the end was near. Even with all the kindness of Antonio Filicchi to help her, she could do but little to relieve Seton’s pain. Even if her gentle ministrations could for a moment relieve the sufferer, the gloomy walls of their prison, the brick floor, the wind that swept through every crevice of their cell, the beating of the waves against the rocks on the shore not far away, created an atmosphere of fear and terror against which it seemed impossible to fight.

William Seton had been a model husband, a man of spotless honor and life. But, like Dr. Bayley, he had been but little influenced by religion. One of the blessings of suffering is that it turns the soul to God. The prisoner of the lazaretto, moved undoubtedly more than ever by the gentleness, the love and patience of the angel that knelt by his side, murmuring his name in her prayers that God might spare him to her love, must have asked himself what was the source of her fortitude and her love. It could be none other than the religion she so conscientiously obeyed and which as a boy he had practiced with unhesitating faith and then forgotten. With Elizabeth and the innocent Anna Maria, poor little lamb, already exposed to the cruel winds of suffering, he prayed again, and the Sacred Name fell from his lips. In his suffering he recognized the hand of God, and submitted to His holy will. Taught by that guardian angel whom God had given him for his consolation and joy, he sincerely and humbly turned to Him, begging pardon for his sins with filial trust in His mercy and goodness.

It was almost Christmas and memories of home and the loved ones left beyond the seas crowded upon the exiles. Only for the devotion of the Filicchis, the great feast would have been passed in the dreary cell of the hospital. Thanks no doubt to these good Samaritans, the days of quarantine were slightly abridged and though barely able to move, so weak was he and so near to death, William Seton was carried to Pisa followed by his heroic wife and child. It was the 19th of December. Christmas day dawned, and the bells were ringing their merry peal from every steeple along the Arno. When Seton opened his eyes after a feverish night’s rest, the watchful and unresting angel-wife was at his side announcing tidings of great joy, for it was the day, she told him, of their dear Redeemer’s birth, the day that opened to them the gates of everlasting life. Husband, wife and child prayed together. Two days after, early in the morning of December 27, his hand in the grasp of wife and child, William Seton quietly passed away. His last words were: “My dear wife and little ones! My Jesus, have mercy and receive me!”

The trial had been severe. But fortified by her unquestioning faith, her never-faltering trust in God, her wifely devotion, the sufferer had borne her slow martyrdom without a murmur. If she trembled under the blow, her brave spirit was not broken. She lifted her tear-dimmed eyes to Heaven. One day she would rejoin the husband of her youth. He had not entirely forsaken her, for Anna and the little babes he had left her, still remained. For them she would live and toil, and in living for them, she was but carrying out his wishes and cherishing his memory.

In her hour of sorrow, the exiled American lady realized that she had more friends in this strange land than she had ever suspected. The kindly warden, or captain of the lazaretto, the officers of the hospital, and the attendants who had helped her in her seclusion, gave her unmistakable signs of their delicate sympathy. But the generous and kind-hearted Filicchis especially proved her staunchest friends. Under their hospitable roof in Leghorn, the sorrowing widow and her daughter found at last that rest and comfort which after their tragic experience they so sadly needed. Elizabeth found more. Here for the first time practically, she was brought into intimate contact with a genuine Catholic family. That noble Catholic household deserves a place of honor in the memory and the heart of every Catholic in the United States. It was the deeply spiritual atmosphere, the genuine Catholic piety, simple, sincere, tender, which reigned in the home of Antonio Filicchi and his brother Filippo, which first opened the eyes of Mrs. Seton to the beauty, the worth, the real meaning of the Catholic religion. Their good example was one of the deciding factors in her conversion. Later on in life when asked why she had become a Catholic, she answered that “She had seen in Italy the practical workings of the Catholic Church.” It was her commentary on the words of Our Lord: “By their fruits you shall know them.”

During the few months they stayed in Leghorn and in Florence with their friends, Anna fell grievously ill, and then the devoted mother who tended her caught the same disease. The charity, the tenderness and watchful care of the Filicchis never failed. Mrs. Seton realized more and more every day that her noble-hearted hosts drew their charity from some supernatural source. That hidden source she discovered, when with them in some quiet little shrine, or in the wonderful churches of Florence, where men and women were not ashamed to pray before their Sacramental God, she attended Mass, or saw them receive Holy Communion. Her soul was naturally Catholic, and it is not astonishing that when she heard the sound of the little bell under her window that told the passers-by that the Viaticum was borne to the dying, she knelt and prayed that, if her Lord and God was really present under the white round of the Host, He might bless and guide her. When Antonio Filicchi taught her how to make the Sign of the Cross, she trembled with a sacred awe. In these few months her soul made rapid strides in the knowledge of God and in holiness. To Antonio Filicchi and a learned and zealous Irish priest, the Abbe Plunkett, she exposed her doubts. Merchant and priest solved them, but above all things told her to pray.

But from across the waters the voices of her little ones seemed to be calling to her. She longed to press them to her heart. For the last time she knelt at her “dear Seton’s grave,” and a Catholic already in instinct, prayed for that loved one’s soul. At the last moment Antonio Filicchi, who had for some time intended to visit the United States in the interest of his business affairs, decided to sail with her. To their dear Filicchis then, mother and daughter bade a loving farewell. Then the sailors’ cry that Mrs. Seton loved, the long and hearty “Yo ho, Yo ho” of sturdy men straining at the capstan bars, sounded from the “Flamingo’s” crew as the ship spread wings to the breeze and turned her prow to the west. Fifty-six days after, on the third of June, the “Flamingo” brought the voyagers safely home. A little more than a month after, tragic news spread dismay through New York and the entire country. Alexander Hamilton, victim to the absurd and sinful code of honor of the duelist, had fallen mortally wounded under the murderous pistol fire of Aaron Burr, on the rocky heights of Weehawken.

The Cross in Barclay Street

Sorely tried and wounded, but victorious, Elizabeth Seton had returned from one battlefield. Another and a fiercer conflict awaited her at home. A few days after she had clasped her children to her heart, the “friend of her soul” Rebecca Seton, her sister-in-law, died in her arms. The blows of adversity and sorrow were falling heavily upon this valiant woman. Five children whom she loved with all the tenderness of a mother were to be educated, provided for, and God had taken away father, husband, the elder Seton her second father, and that prudent and unselfish Rebecca so dearly loved of her little ones, so true and kind to her. Her present burdens were heavy, the future was dark and uncertain. But great was her trust in God. We hear of no idle complaints, of no empty murmurings. Her children absorbed her time and care and on them she lavished all the treasures of her motherly affection. Now that the fortune which she hoped to leave them was greatly reduced, if not entirely impaired by her husband’s death, she realized more than ever that they could never face the world and fight the battles of life unless their minds and their hearts were trained to the highest ideals of virtue. With these they might still successfully wage their battles, without them they were already defeated before the battle began. Elizabeth Seton, the angel of the Lazaretto, is a tragic figure. Elizabeth Seton, widowed of the husband of her youth, as dignified in her poverty as she had been fascinating in the hour of her prosperity and social triumph, teaching her little ones, toiling and watching for them, sharing their pains and joys, is a still more appealing picture.

Yet all the while a fierce struggle was going on in her soul. A voice seemed to be calling to her. In that voice there sounded echoes of the consecrated bells she had heard along the banks of the Arno calling the people to Mass, echoes of the prayers she had joined in under the hospitable roof of the Filicchis, faint reminders of the words heard from Antonio Filicchi’s lips as they sat on the deck of the “Flamingo” and that true Christian gentleman explained to her the doctrines of the Catholic Church. At times she heard the sound of the little bell of Saint Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, a stone’s throw from Trinity and Saint Paul’s Church, where she went to the Protestant service. That bell was calling the few faithful Catholics, the poor, despised but noble children of Erin to Mass, the same Mass which she had heard with such deep emotion in the Old World. And over Saint Peter’s there rose the Cross, silent monitor and apostle lifting up its message for all to hear, far above the crowded streets of already busy and bustling New York. The Cross she had long borne on her heart. But the Cross over that humble church where a handful of Catholics gathered at the Altar, seemed to mean much more to her now. It had a special message for her. She knew it. It was too insistent not to be heard.

All her life, as maid and wife, in the peace of her father’s house, at the bedside of her dying husband, this noble woman had made God the center of her being. That explains the depth and the tenderness, the strength and the purity of her love and affection for all those with whom God had linked her fate. God she meant to serve above all. Ever she had had the most intimate sense of His presence, the most compelling realization of His rights over her love. She meant to serve Him now, no matter what the cost. But, where was He to be truly found? In the Church of her Baptism, in that Episcopal Church so dignified, so serene, so orderly, but so cold, so unable to give her a sense of nearness to God and His Blessed Son, or in that Church, represented by the cross-crowned edifice in Barclay Street, which she had seen in Italy so strong and so tender and so happy in the possession of that very God whom it worshiped? Elizabeth had read her Bible over and over. From its pages she realized what the Church Christ had founded must be. Was the Church of her Baptism the true and only Church of Christ?

We know from the pages of another illustrious convert, the soul-stirring pages of Newman’s “Apologia”, that no conflict equals in poignant agony, the struggle of the seeker after religious truth asking himself where that truth is to be found, and facing the difficulties and the sacrifices that must be made to follow that truth, no matter over what thorny path or frowning heights it projects its beams. That terrible fight raged for some time in the soul of Elizabeth Seton. Writing to a Protestant friend, who had alluded to her conversion, she says:

I assure you my becoming a Catholic was a very simple consequence of going to a Catholic country, where it was impossible for anyone interested in religion, not to see the wide difference between the first established Faith, given and founded by Our Lord and His Apostles, and the various forms it has since taken; and as I had always delighted in reading the Scriptures, I had so deep an impression of the mysteries of Divine revelation, that, though full of the sweet thought that every good and well-meaning soul was right, I was determined when I came home, both in duty to my children and my own soul, to learn all I was capable of understanding on the subject. If ever a soul did make a fair inquiry, our God knows that mine did, and every day of life increases more and more my gratitude to Him for having made me what I am. . . . . It was the knowledge of the Protestant doctrine with regard to faith that made me a Catholic; for as soon as on inquiry I found that Episcopalians did not think everybody right, I was convinced that the safe plan was to unite with the Church in which, at all events, they admitted that I would find salvation, and where also I would be sure of the Apostolic succession, as well as of the many consolations which no other religion but the Catholic can afford.

This passage and similar ones to be found in the correspondence of Mrs. Seton show that her strength and nobility of character were equaled by her clear and logical intellect. She needed now all the aid that it could give. And well might she thank good Dr. Bayley for the rather stern training under which she was brought up. She fought the battle of truth with her own heart, with her own immediate friends and family, who were soon made aware that a change was taking place in her convictions. With a dear friend of her earlier years, one who had been a spiritual guide, and to whom she was genuinely attached, an Episcopalian minister of unusual attainments, the Rev. M. Hobart, who tried to keep her in the Church of her Baptism, she quietly but boldly fought the battle of truth. She was, it must be confessed in some respects not well equipped for the task. Serious in thought and clear-visioned, she had after all but little formal Catholic teaching, nor had she read many Catholic books. But her heart was instinctively Catholic. She wanted the truth. She prayed. She was willing, nay nobly anxious to do whatever God willed. Then she had seen Catholicism at work. Even from the capitano of the lazaretto, she had learnt a lesson of kindness. The example of the Filicchis had spoken more eloquently to her of the beauty and the nobility of the Faith, than learned treatises could do. At this very moment Filippo Filicchi was writing to her to encourage her in the struggle and to solve her doubts, while Antonio, during the time which he could spare from his trips to other parts of the country, was at her side with his cheering words, his generous aid, his ever-open purse. And ever the Cross on Saint Peter’s in Barclay Street was pointing skyward. Silent apostle! Stern-spoken herald of the Truth! How eloquent its warning! And in that church, in the tabernacle to which, as she tells us, her eyes unconsciously turned as she sat in her pew at Trinity or in Saint Paul’s, the God she loved dwelt, not in shadow, not as some vague energy, but really, truly and substantially. The poor worshipers of Saint Peter’s, the humble laborers of the docks and mills and warehouses along the riverside, possessed Him. They could hold Him in their hearts. She, too, must share their joy and their happiness. Encouraging words from the saintly Cheverus in Boston, to whom she had exposed her doubts, from Bishop Carroll of Baltimore, whom Antonio Filicchi had interested in his friend, showed her the path she must inevitably follow, if she wished to please God’. On the Feast of the Epiphany, 1805, she happened to read a passage from one of the sermons of the saintly Bourdaloue, the great Jesuit preacher who had died just a hundred years before. Speaking of the disappearance of the star that had led the Wise Men on their way, and addressing those who had lost the star of faith, this great master of the spiritual life says:

When light has been vouchsafed and then withdrawn, the memory of the light must take the place of the light. It suffices for us to be able to say “We have seen the star”. . . . There are in the Church doctors and priests as there were then; men appointed to conduct you whom you have only to listen to. Inquire of them as to your course and they will tell you what to do.

The words were as a flash of heavenly light. Some days after, she had in all likelihood some short conferences with the Rev. Matthew O’Brien, then pastor of Saint Peter’s, who found her well grounded in the truths of Faith. On Ash Wednesday, 1805, in the presence of Antonio Filicchi, the seeker after truth had reached the go al. For the first time she entered Saint Peter’s. It was home at last and the peace of God. The altar rails were crowded and the Faithful were receiving the ashes. The first words she heard told her of human frailty and the grave: “Remember man, that thou art dust, and into dust thou shalt return.” Elizabeth heard, and was not afraid. She had faced death once for a husband’s love. She would face it now a hundred times for the love of God. And as she lifted her eyes above the tabernacle, she saw Vallejo’s painting of the Crucifixion. Her God had died for her! As they rested on the tabernacle, she knew that her God was living there for her and wanted her love. She gave it to Him without reserve. A few moments later, she had made her profession of faith in the hands of the pastor and in the presence of Antonio Filicchi. On the Feast of the Annunciation, after her first Confession, she made her first Communion, and a peace beyond telling flooded her soul. No other comment can be made on this solemn event than the one which Elizabeth herself makes in a letter to Amabilia Filicchi, Antonio’s wife: “I am His, and He is mine.”

Elizabeth needed these heavenly consolations. Once a Catholic, she lost caste with her relations. Doors hitherto open to her were now closed. For the moment, social standing and prestige were lost. Poverty was facing her. To ward it off from her children—for herself she cared little, she had to open a little school in “Stuyvesant’s Lane, Bowery, near Saint Mark’s Church.” But at a time when anti-Catholic riots were taking place in Augustus Street, now City Hall Place, and Mayor De Witt Clinton was obliged to issue a proclamation to protect the lives and property of Catholics, it is not astonishing that the venture should be a failure. But God never leaves His servants quite helpless before the storm. Generous friends Elizabeth found in the family of James Barry, a rich and noble-hearted Irish merchant, in Bishop Carroll, the champion of every form of helplessness, and in those saintly priests who laid the foundation of the Catholic Church in the United States: Tisserant, Sibourd, Matignon, Cheverus, Dubois and Dubourg. The Filicchis never failed her and thanks to an annuity of $600.00, which they had settled upon her, Mrs. Seton was enabled to face the crisis. The noble brothers of Leghorn wished even that she should make her home with them, but she had gratefully to decline. The future might be dark, but with her trust in God, she knew that her paths would be made smooth. When she knelt before Bishop Carroll to receive the soldier’s Sacrament of Confirmation, and then listened to his words of advice and comfort, it was as if a great burden had been lifted from her shoulders. Another sturdy pioneer of the Faith in the newly-born Republic, Father Dubourg, Superior of Saint Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore, realizing that for the present New York was barren ground for the task which God intended, told her of a work calling for generous hearts and sturdy hands. Baltimore had no school for Catholic girls. Why would she not attempt to open one? The words were a revelation. Elizabeth did not hesitate, especially when the plan had received the emphatic endorsement of Bishop Carroll, of Fathers Matignon and Cheverus. With her two boys safely placed in Georgetown College, the dauntless woman bade farewell to the city she loved, to the friends of childhood, to the house in which she had spent so many happy days with her father, her husband, and her beloved Rebecca. The parting must have been painful. For hers was an affectionate and loving nature.

In June, 1808, in company with her daughters, Anna, the little fairy of the lazaretto, with Rebecca and Catharine, she sailed on the packet, “Grand Sachem” for Baltimore. After a seven days’ journey in the year that followed the record-making voyage from New York to Albany, of Robert Fulton’s steam-driven “Clermont”, they arrived in the metropolis of Maryland. It was June 16, 1808, the Feast of Corpus Christi. That day marks an epoch in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.

The Lilies of the Valley

The house on Paca Street, where Mrs. Seton opened her school, may well be compared to one of those resting places mentioned in the history of the Hebrew people on their long journey from the house of bondage to the Promised Land. Like the chosen people, she was not to tarry long, for it was but a halt on the journey towards the goal. Yet great things were done there. It was her novitiate both as a religious and as a teacher. The atmosphere of the city, where John Carroll was undoubtedly the most important figure, and where Catholics were numerous and prominent in every walk of life, was quite different from that of New York, where Catholics were few and where they did not have the prestige of possessing among them such a commanding figure as the illustrious shepherd of Baltimore. The exile was welcomed by Catholics and Protestants alike with true Southern hospitality. The little school soon had all that its narrow limits could hold, and its teachers supervise. These were Mrs. Seton herself, her bright and faithful Anna, and Miss Cecilia O’Conway, the daughter of an eccentric but learned Irish schoolmaster, Mathias James O’Conway, “philologist, lexicographer, and interpreter of languages” as he styled himself, who was well known in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The brave father himself brought his daughter to Baltimore and offered her to Elizabeth.

Providence had despoiled the schoolmistress of Paca Street, of money and wealth. It made her rich in friends who never forgot her. Even now Antonio and Filippo Filicchi were watching over their American sister’s temporal welfare, just as they had formerly been so solicitous for her spiritual good. At this moment God sent Elizabeth the generous help of one whose name should also be remembered by American Catholics, Mr. Samuel Cooper, a convert from an old Virginia family, and then studying for the priesthood in Saint Mary’s Seminary. Mr. Cooper had some fortune, and was anxious to spend it in behalf of Christian education. The valiant woman of Paca Street asked herself in the silence of her heart whether the fervent convert might not be willing to help in the work she yearned to begin. Without any previous arrangement, both spoke of the matter to Father Dubourg. After a month during which the zealous priest and the two souls whom he directed had commended their plans to God, it was decided that a larger field should be found for the work. Yielding to Mr. Cooper’s wise advice, the house on Paca Street was to be abandoned, and the community over which Mrs. Seton presided, for her household really deserved that name, was to be transferred to a piece of property known as the Fleming Farm, bought by Mr. Cooper, at Emmitsburg, a village about fifty miles northwest of Baltimore. The words of Wisdom were being fulfilled in our heroine and in those through whom she was accomplishing her task. “She hath considered a field and bought it.” (Wisdom 21:16) Verily in the words of the same Holy Book which follow, her traffic was good: “Her lamp shall not be put out in the night.”

The ladies in the house on Paca Street were religious in all but the name. Their number had been increased by the arrival of Maria Murphy, niece of the illustrious Matthew Carey, first publisher of the Douai Bible in the United States, champion of Irish rights and one of the ablest publicists of the time. Then Mary Ann Butler and Susan Clossy arrived from New York and joined the little band. They were soon followed by Rose White and Catharine Mullen. Then, some time before the departure for Emmitsburg, came Cecilia and Harriet Seton, sisters of William Magee Seton, and dearer to the heart of Elizabeth than words can tell, the first already a Catholic, the second soon to follow her sister into the Fold.

The first American Sister of Charity had made her novitiate. The dress she and her companions wore marked them off as consecrated to God. The life she led, a life of prayer, abnegation, often of downright suffering and want, but always of deepest trust and union with God, had more and more cleansed her heart, already purified by the sufferings of the lazaretto, by the estrangement showed her by her loved ones in the hour of her conversion, by the death of her nearest and dearest. It made her ready for the sacrifice she was now going to offer to God. A more formal consecration of herself seemed to be needed. So in the presence of Bishop Carroll and a few priests, she was admitted to pronounce the simple vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. These vows bound her only for the space of one year, but could be renewed when that term expired. Her heart overflowed with joy, but she could not look upon the honor thus conferred upon her without a sentiment of deep humility and almost of fear. Her vows made her in a still more formal manner than before the Superior of her little community. The task terrified her. On the very evening of the day when she had pronounced them, she fell upon her knees in the presence of her Sisters, openly acknowledged her sins and exclaimed: “How can I teach others, who know so little of myself and am so miserable and imperfect.” Her Sisters mingled their tears with hers, but they were tears of admiration and love.

The time for the exodus to Emmitsburg had come. The noble-hearted Father Dubois, Superior of Mount Saint Mary’s College, close to the Sisters’ new home, had a house ready for their coming, although they lacked every comfort, almost every necessity. In this apostle, one day to become Bishop of New York, Mother Seton and her children found a father and a guide. He was the friend of Lafayette. A future President of the United States, James Monroe, had given him hospitality in his Virginia home, and Patrick Henry, the American Demosthenes, had taught him English. The aristocratic society of Virginia pronounced John Dubois the most cultured and refined gentleman in the United States. The poor and the suffering as well as great men like Cheverus and Carroll reverenced and loved him as a priest after God’s own heart. Mother Seton could find no better spiritual director for her household. Divided into groups, Mother Seton, her beloved Anna, Harriet and Cecilia Seton and Cecilia O’Conway pioneering the way, the community had made the long journey of fifty miles from Baltimore to the valley which was to be their permanent home. The exodus began on June 21, 1809, The “Stone House” on the Fleming farm soon had its first Mass, said by Father Dubourg on the 31 of July, the Feast of Saint Ignatius. There were by this time ten Sisters in the community. The names of these dauntless pioneers and brides of Christ, among the first of our American womanhood to give themselves to God in religion, deserve to be remembered: Elizabeth Bayley Seton, Cecilia O’Conway, Maria Murphy, Maria Burke, Suzanne Clossy, Mary Anne Butler, Rose White, Catharine Mullen, Sara Thompson and Helen Thompson. The fairest lilies were they that grew in Saint Joseph’s Valley, “green-walled by the hills of Maryland.”

Nature had prepared them a dwelling place. The little village near which their convent home was slowly growing, slumbered quietly between the upper stream of the Monocacy and the Catocktin ridge of the South Mountain. In her beautiful life of Mother Seton, Madame de Barberey has well described the scene. The travelers had come to the valley, when nature wore its loveliest hues, when the freshness of spring still lingered and blended with summer’s early bloom. The delicate pink and snowy blossoms of the apple and cherry trees had vanished, but the boughs of the cherry trees were loaded with fruit that glowed like rubies. Beneath, flamed the scarlet Virginia strawberry growing in riotous profusion amid the moss and the sworded ferns. The hedges were bright with roses. The superb beauty of the rhododendron, the white and yellow azaleas, the trailing clusters of the jasmine’s scarlet flowers, the white trumpet-shaped blooms of the convolvulus, the sassafras, whose tiny fruit dangled like a ball of jet from a coral thread, smilax and phlox and begonia everywhere dazzled the eye and made Elizabeth think of the gardens of Florence. For over them bent a sky as blue as Italy’s, while through thicket and wood darted like a flame the cardinal bird, and the mocking bird’s deceptive and polyglot symphonies fell upon the ear.

This was home! This was sacred ground! To this cloistered solitude, God had called Elizabeth and her spiritual children. Here would they rest and find peace. For twelve years she was to be the Lady of the Valley, the mistress of this calm abode, the guide, the mother of all who dwelt in this oasis far from the turmoil and passions of the world. Of that world and its doings little filtered into the solitude of Saint Joseph’s Valley. When the school was ready, children came and at the end of 1810 the boarders alone numbered over fifty. Between their scholastic duties and their religious exercises, the Sisters’ life was divided. They heard of great wars desolating Europe, of the power and conquests of Napoleon, of the captivity of the saintly Pius VII, and they prayed for the return of peace and the triumph of justice. Such events as the inauguration of James Madison as President, our disasters and successes in the War of 1812, the burning of Washington, our skill and gallantry on the seas and on the lakes, the victory of Andrew Jackson at New Orleans, after which, at the entrance of the Cathedral, Father Dubourg crowned the victor’s brow with laurel, the election of James Monroe to the Presidency: these tidings reached of course the secluded valley of Saint Joseph, and filled the heart of Mother Seton and her community with joy for our triumphs, with sorrow for our disasters. They were Sisters of Charity, and they loved the great country where in freedom and peace, and honored of all they were trying to serve God and help their neighbor. But the world and its ways little affected their lives. Indirectly, though most efficaciously, they were toiling for its betterment in the cause of sound and Christian education, and by their sanctity and unselfishness. In their secluded dell, the lilies lifted their white flowers to the sunshine and the dews of heaven, little disturbed by the storm that in other parts of the world swept by, bending the proudest heads beneath the gale.

In the spring of 1810, the Apostle of Kentucky, Benedict Flaget, Bishop-elect of Bardstown, sailed from Bordeaux for the United States. Twice the ship that bore him was stopped by English cruisers. When their commanders learned who the distinguished Frenchman was, they courteously let him pass. It is quite likely that it was only to men like him, to Cheverus or Dubois or Dubourg, the fame of whose apostolic labors had gone abroad, that England, then impressing our seamen, would have accorded that honor. Bishop Flaget bore a precious document, a copy of the Constitution of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. This Constitution Mother Seton and her daughters were anxious to know and understand. For they thought that the spirit of Vincent de Paul, so broad, so human, so kindly, so Christ-like, so full of the simplicity of the Gospel, would suit the needs and ideals of the young Republic of the West and satisfy the head and the heart of the daughters of the sturdy democracy of the United States. They were not mistaken. With some slight changes, endorsed and approved by the prudent and far-seeing Archbishop Carroll, the Constitution was adopted by the community. It was an inspiration which the Daughters of Saint Vincent have never regretted, and for which the Catholics of America must ever be profoundly grateful. The finger of God was evident in its adoption. His grace has for one hundred years been everywhere manifest in the fidelity and the love with which the Daughters of Mother Seton have followed Saint Vincent’s Constitution.

There was a Constitution then to observe. It was not hard to find a leader. In spite of some difficulties connected with the necessary care which Mother Seton had to bestow on her children, at the election of officers of the new community and Congregation held in 1812, she was unanimously chosen Superioress. She kept that post for three terms until her death in 1821. While she lived, her daughters could think of no other Mother. The same election made Rose White, Assistant Mother, Catharine Mullen, Treasurer – a splendid sinecure, for the money-box was empty – and Anna Gruber, Procuratrix. A year was fixed for a trial of the new Constitution. The limit prescribed passed, eighteen Sisters pronounced the simple vows of religion. To the names already familiar to us we must now add those of Elizabeth Boyle, Angela Brady, Adele, Salva, Louise Roger, Margaret George, Martina Quinn, Fanny Jordan, Theresa Conway, and Julia Shirk. Their vow-day was the nineteenth of July, 1813, the Feast of their Patron and Patriarch, Saint Vincent de Paul. A week later, a regular novitiate was established, with Sister Catharine Mullen as Mistress of Novices. The Lilies of the Valley were in full bloom.

No, not at all. For like flowers bending under heavy showers, Harriet Seton, her sister Cecilia, both so dearly loved of Mother Seton, and lastly her darling Anna, now by her vows doubly her child, had dropped to earth and were sleeping quietly in their humble graves. Over Harriet and Cecilia, Elizabeth deeply mourned. But when Anna, whose exquisite beauty was but the outward sign of the angelic purity of her soul, her mother’s pride and joy, her helpmeet and comforter in the dark days of the lazaretto, was taken away, she was like Rachel mourning over her dead. But the saintly Simon Gabriel Brute had prepared Anna for that eternity with God for which she longed. He comforted the mother. Anna’s sisters, Rebecca and Catharine, had joined their innocent voices when, on her death-bed, Anna had asked them to sing her favorite hymn. Mother Seton had knelt near them and pressed the Crucifix to the lips of her dying child, while Father Brute’s priestly hand was lifted in a parting blessing over what seemed to be the form of some celestial being that had strayed from Paradise. At her darling’s grave, the Mother had but the strength to murmur the words: “Father, Thy will be done.”

The Fruit of Her Hands

It is no difficult task to analyze the character and sanctity of Mother Seton. Her character was as transparent as crystal, marked by directness, simplicity, tenderness, nobility and strength. It was frank, open, cordial, sincere, and sealed by a refinement and charm of manner that won all hearts: those of her husband and children, of the little ones under her care, the Sisters of her community, the Filicchis, and saintly men like Carroll, Dubois, Cheverus and Brute, whom God gave her as directors and guides. She was a woman well fitted to become the model of Catholic American womanhood. Made perfect in many things, she can be proposed as a pattern to maid, mother, wife and widow, to teacher and religious. She knew what it is to be tenderly loved. She felt the heavy burden of her friends* forgetfulness and disdain. To her children, her husband and her friends she was devotedly attached, for her affections were as strong as they were pure. Though she walked through life by her loved ones* open graves, she never lost her trust and faith in God. In every stage of her life, she had made duty her watchword; in that duty she never failed.

Her naturally beautiful character was spiritualized and supernaturalized by prayer and union with God. As an Episcopalian she had longed to be united with Christ. As a Catholic and a religious she centered her life around the Altar of her Eucharistic God. In Holy Communion, in Holy Mass, she found her strength and her greatest happiness. When those patriarchs of the Catholic Church in America, Brute or Dubourg or Dubois offered the Great Sacrifice in the little chapel in the Valley, and Mother Seton with Cecilia and Harriet and Anna at her side, followed by her spiritual daughters, approached the Holy Table, the beholder, forgot that they were living in the New World, and imagined they were summoned back to the early days of Christianity, so fervent and so pure did the Sisters appear. Deeply pious, she was thoroughly mortified. The Cross, she knew, was both the symbol and the summary of the Gospel. Self-abnegation was its first law. So she was mistress of herself, of her heart and its affections. Unselfishness had been her distinguishing mark in the world. It stamped still more distinctly her whole life in religion. Had Elizabeth Seton died as the wife of William Magee Seton, she well might have uttered the words which the world’s greatest dramatist puts on the lips of the dying Catharine of Aragon: “Cover me with maiden flowers, that all the world may know I died a chaste wife.” What might not be said of the innocence and purity of her life in the cloister? Guide of others and invested with authority over them, she had first learnt to obey. Not once in her life as a Catholic do we find her judgment or her will in opposition to the commands or suggestions of her superiors or spiritual guides. With a childlike simplicity she yielded herself to their wise direction. Yet she was a woman of unusual strength of character.

Like the valiant woman of the Proverbs, she put out her hand to strong things, and her fingers took hold of the spindle. Elizabeth was an indefatigable worker in the cause of education, in the cause of the poor, in the interests of God. Under the guidance of the far-seeing men whom Providence sent her with such clearly-marked design, she realized that a Christian education was the chief need of her times. Of formal pedagogy, she knew little, perhaps. But she had known the joys and the responsibilities of motherhood. She understood children and loved them. Sympathy, kindness, gentleness marked her dealing with them. Like her own children, all children loved her and knew that in her they had a second mother. She had once known the stress of poverty. The poor were her friends. Her daughters, whether they wear the white cornette of Emmitsburg or the darker head-dress of Mount Saint Vincent-on-Hudson, or its fair daughters, Mount Saint Vincent, Halifax, and Madison, New Jersey, whether they belong to the Cincinnati or the Greensburg, Pennsylvania, foundations, are ever welcome and honored visitors among the lowly and the poor in the homes of suffering and want.

Like the valiant woman described by the sacred writer, Mother Seton opened her hand to the needy and stretched out her hands to the poor. In 1814 almost at the very moment in that year when Washington was sacked, the capital burnt by the British, and an English fleet under Admiral Cockburn was ruthlessly harrying the shores of the Chesapeake, while mid the rockets’ red glare, Francis Scott Key was writing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” on the request of Bishop Egan of Philadelphia, she sent Sister Rose White to take charge of the orphan asylum in that city. It was the first mission of the Sisters of Charity in the United States. Their first labors were for the outcast. In 1817 Bishop Connolly of New York, hearing of the noble work done by the little Philadelphia community, earnestly begged the Superior of Emmitsburg to come to the help of the abandoned children of her own native city. It was a request that could not be denied. The zealous Sister White, whose executive ability was remarkable, was detailed for the work. She and her two companions, Sister Cecilia O’Conway and Sister Felicite Brady, arrived in New York on June 23, 1817, and immediately began their work in a humble frame house in Mott Street. Here they laid the cornerstone of a mighty edifice, the splendor and beauty of which these humble workers did not dare foresee. A hundred years ago Mother Seton’s daughters had but one house in her native city. They now count there thirty-five convents, forty-nine parochial schools, fourteen academies and high schools, one vocational school, six child-caring institutions, four hospitals, one home for the aged and one college. They are seen in the magic city on the Hudson, doing God’s work, whatever it be, from the streets through which Elizabeth strolled as a child, almost from the Battery she knew so well, to the woods fifteen miles away, where the gray Norman towers of Fonthill and the massive pile of Mount Saint Vincent-on-Hudson overlook the river and eloquently speak of the magnitude and the growth of a work which was evidently the work of God, for He has singularly blessed its every stage.

Another pen, we hope, will describe more fully the growth of the work of the Sisters of Charity in New York. That work received an extraordinary impulse in 1846 at the time when the Emmitsburg community was making plans to be affiliated to the French Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, to adopt their dress and their rule. On the request of Bishop Hughes of New York, who wanted the Sisters in his diocese to take charge of schools and asylums for boys, the New York Sisters, with full ecclesiastical sanction, formed a second Mother House, that now known as Mount Saint Vincent-on-Hudson. Its first Superior was Elizabeth Doyle, in whom the spirit of the Foundress lived anew.

The fruit of Mother Seton’s hands had now grown to maturity. The hands themselves were drooping with fatigue. They had toiled unselfishly and unremittingly at every task God had confided to them. Great joy had come to the foundress in the success of her work in the Valley and in the missions of New York and Philadelphia. Sorrow was not wanting now. Her beloved friend Rebecca was taken away from her by a premature death. Filippo Filicchi had gone to his reward, while all Baltimore, the Catholic Church in the United States, and the Holy Father in Rome, had mourned over the death of Archbishop Carroll. She could never dream that her nephew, James Roosevelt Bayley, born in 1814, the year before John Carroll’s death, would be one of his successors in his archiepiscopal see.

Never strong, worn out by her austerities and labor, Mother Seton became so ill in the autumn of 1820 that it was thought she would die. Of death she was not afraid and she calmly prepared for the last summons. Her days of sickness were one long meditation and prayer. Her memory was a storehouse of holy and pious thoughts. It was not difficult for her to commune with God, then, for she had ever been most fervent in meditation and prayer. Her children who now realized that they would soon lose her, showed her how deeply they loved her. Every care and attention that affection could lavish was given to the patient. They read to her the books she prized, passages from the Life of Saint Vincent de Paul, and Mademoiselle Le Gras, now known as Blessed Louise de Marillac, his spiritual daughter, from the “Meditations” of Father Da Ponte, works which she herself had translated with unusual care and elegance from the French. They prayed with her. With her they were preparing for death, for the last lesson this valiant woman taught her children, was how a Christian and a religious should die. Her daughter Catharine, one day to become a holy Sister of Mercy, never left her mother’s side. The last scenes that took place between them were marked by such pathos, such faith and resignation to God’s holy will, as to cause all that witnessed them the holiest emotions. To William Seton, then at sea as an officer on the U. S. S. “Macedonian” returning from a lengthy cruise, her mother’s heart turned with yearning for she knew that she would never again press him in her arms.

Winter came and the patient grew weaker every day. The long nights reminded her of eternity. She yearned to pass it with God, but, with her deep humility she feared the judgment seat of an all-just Judge. But her friends and spiritual guides, Fathers Brute and Dubois, reminded her of God’s mercy. She had known it too well to doubt their words. Her heart thanked Him once more, for all His fatherly tenderness, and above all, for having brought her, in spite of her unworthiness, into the bosom of the true Church. On December 31, 1920, she was able to receive Holy Communion. It was the last time she was privileged to receive her Eucharistic Lord. On the second of January Father Dubois administered Extreme Unction. Through their blinding tears, her beloved Catharine and her spiritual daughters could only see her face transfigured with faith and love. Too weak to address her children, she begged Father Dubois, who was deeply moved, to ask her Sisters to forgive her the scandal she might have caused and begged them to be true children of the Church, and to love and keep their rules and holy vows. It was a simple but a sublime testament. She asked one of her Sisters to recite her favorite prayer, the Anima Christi. Two days after, early in the morning of Thursday, January 4, with her Crucifix pressed to her lips and murmuring the Sacred Names of Jesus and Mary, she quietly passed away.

In the presence of such a scene, our thoughts are those of her friend, Father Brute, who reached the death-bed a few moments after Mother Seton had expired. The next day he jotted down the following words:

O mother! O Elizabeth! O Faith profound! O tender piety! . . . Her eminent character; her indulgence to others; her charity so careful to spare others! . . . Her attachment and gratitude to friends! Her deep respect for the ministers of God and the least things of religion! Heart so loving, so compassionate, so religious, so generous. Excellent Mother! We lose you and mourn for you! But you are happy.

But Mother Seton is not lost to us. She lives in the memory of her saintly life and virtues. She lives in her works and in the thousands of her daughters who follow her rule and reproduce her virtues. On the first centennial of her saintly death, we thank God for His gift of Mother Seton and of the American Sisters of Charity to the Catholic Church in the United States.

About This EBook

The text of this file is taken from the booklet The First American Sister of Charity, Elizabeth Bayley Seton, by Father John Clement Reville, S.J., Ph.D. The edition used was published by The America Press in New York, New York in 1921.