The Life Story of Mother Seton, by Louise Malloy

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton


Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton is a shining example of what a beautiful and wealthy society-girl can accomplish with immeasurable faith in God. By birth and marriage her family is a notable one. Forsaking an atmosphere of luxury and ease, she devoted herself to an humble work, became a devout religious and founded in the United States the great order of the Sisters of Charity.

The canonization process which will ultimately make her the First Canonized Saint of North America and the second on the Western Continent, is an event that has attracted widespread interest throughout the United States as well as in Europe.

In the steps which were undertaken by the late Cardinal Gibbons and are now being furthered by his successor, Archbishop Curley, interest is keen, not alone among the Catholics, but also among other denominations owing to the family connections of the Setons.

In presenting the life, the work and the intimate details of the family of this remarkable woman, together with the complicated process of the canonization itself, it is felt, that this little volume has a place in the library of every home.

Her Life

Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in New York city, August 28, 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence. In the early part of the Eighteenth Century, in the reign of George II, William Bayley, the younger son of a Norfolk family, came to New York in the course of his travels, but falling in love with the beautiful daughter of William Le Compte, the descendant of French Huguenot emigrants, married her and settled in New Rochelle, New York. Their son Richard married Catherine, daughter of the Rev. Richard Charlton, of Staten Island, and Elizabeth, our Saint-to-be, was their younger daughter. Mrs. Bayley died about ten years later, and her husband married again, and his son by this second marriage married in his turn Miss Grace Roosevelt, the mother of Archbishop Bayley of Baltimore.

Elizabeth was only about three years old when her mother died, and her affections were thenceforward centered in her father, whom she loved with an ardor which ended only with his life. When but four she showed a devout spirit very unusual in so young a child, and she tells in her “remembrances” of this spirit on the occasion of her little sister’s death at the age of two. “I sat alone on the step of the doorway, looking at the clouds, while my little sister Catherine lay in her coffin; they asked me, ‘Did I not cry when little Kitty was dead?’ ‘No, because Kitty was gone up to Heaven; I wish I could go too, with Mama.'”

The troubles between the colonies and the mother country were now beginning. The larger schools were closed, but the small schools remained open, and Elizabeth was sent to one near her home, kept by an elderly dame who occasionally slumbered during school hours. Dr. Bayley passed frequently, attending to his patients, and the devoted little daughter would take advantage of her preceptress’ naps to run out and give her father a fond hug, running back before her absence was discovered. The facilities for the education of girls were not great, but Dr. Bayley took charge of his daughter’s education himself, giving her the advantage of his large library. She was his darling, but he was firm and judicious in the development of what he saw was more than an ordinary character. He was especially careful in guiding the sensitive, ardent and vivacious temperament she had inherited from her French ancestors, for she was naturally gay and lively and fond of pleasure. She was docile, however, and in after life was heard to say she had never once disobeyed her father. In spite of the liveliness of her disposition, she in early life showed an unusual spirituality for that age, a love of prayer, delighted in the study of the Scriptures, and was sincerely attached to the Episcopal church, in which she was reared. Every night before retiring she went rigorously over the events of the day, especially after she entered society, a rare habit for a lively and courted young girl.

In one way she was exposed to great danger. Dr. Bayley, while a good man and of high principles, was inclined to irreligious philosophy, and she read unchecked the infidel literature in his library; while she did not care so much for Voltaire, she was captivated by the style of Rousseau. Yet these influences on her impressionable and imaginative mind seemed to be transient.

Dr. Bayley, who held high rank in his profession, and was a staunch royalist, joined the Army as surgeon when Sir Guy Carleton succeeded Sir Henry Clinton as commander-in-chief of the British forces in New York. It was after Sir Guy he named his son, destined in later years to be the father of Archbishop Bayley. The high repute of Dr. Bayley caused him to be appointed health officer of the port of New York after the treaty of peace was signed between Great Britain and the United States, his treatment by the new government being an exception to that accorded the majority of the royalists. He was professor of anatomy in Columbia College, and inaugurated the New York quarantine system.

Elizabeth was introduced to society at an early age, and made a pronounced success. With youth, beauty, position and charm, life for her held out a rosy prospect. She was a beautiful girl, rather small, but slender and graceful, with finely-cut regular features, almost classical in their outline, her French blood showing in her sparkling black eyes, her dark curling hair and the vivacity of her manner. She was an accomplished horsewoman and delighted in the activities of country life. Yet she read with avidity tales and histories of cloistered life, and oddly enough, at one time entertained a design of running away in disguise and entering a convent.

But such thoughts soon vanished. Shortly after her entrance in society, she met William Seton, who had the reputation of being the handsomest man in New York, was well educated, heir to a rich father and had traveled extensively, a combination of attractions well calculated to strike the fancy of a lively impressionable girl. Before his tour in Europe, he had spent some years in the business house of the Filicchi Brothers in Leghorn, a fact destined to influence the best part of Elizabeth’s future life. He showed admiration for the lovely Miss Bayley from the time of their meeting, but that he had some of the superciliousness of the average courted young man, well aware of his own attractions, is suggested by the letter he wrote his brother, then in the West Indies: “It is currently reported and generally believed that I am to be married to Miss Bayley, but I shall think twice before I commit myself in any direction. Though I must confess I admire her mental accomplishments very much, and were I inclined to matrimony, not at all impossible, but I might fall in love with her; and I have no doubt but she will make an excellent wife, and happy the man who gets her.”

The girlish pride of Elizabeth might have taken fire at this condescending estimate, but happily she knew nothing of it, and the young man’s prudence soon vanished in the charm of her company, while she, passionately devoted to the desire to travel, found a pleasure she did not try to check in the conversation of one who had travelled so much and could describe his adventures so interestingly. Three years after their meeting the two young people, with life exceptionally bright before them, were married on January 25, 1794, by the Rev. Samuel Provost, first Episcopalian Bishop of New York, and went to live with the bridegroom’s parents.

The first years of their married life were ideally happy. Elizabeth had the rare experience for a young wife, of winning the devoted affection of her relatives-in-law. Her father-in-law, especially, loved her as his own daughter, and even sent her letters of the most intimate kind written by him to his mother, assuring her she was “the only one of his children allowed to read them.” Her eldest sister-in-law, Rebecca Seton, “my soul’s sister,” as she calls her in her letters, became her most intimate friend, and the love between them was deep and fervent to the end. In the fall, the young pair went to live in their own home near the Battery, then regarded as the most beautiful part of the city. The following year their first child, a daughter, Anna Maria, was born, and their happiness was complete. While leading the ordinary life of a young married woman of wealth, with its incidental pleasures and luxuries, Mrs. Seton did not relax in her religious fervor nor in charitable acts. With Miss Seton she went every day to visit the poor, and so zealously did they pursue this work that they acquired among their friends the name of “the Protestant Sisters of Charity.” In November, 1797, Mrs. Seton with a few other society ladies, founded the first charity organization in New York and probably in the United States. The one hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children was celebrated in New York in 1897 with much eclat.

Mrs. Seton’s perfect married happiness lasted two years; then the first blow fell in the ill health of her husband. Her mingled love and anxiety show in a letter to a close friend in which she says the depression of her mind she “attributes to the state of my William’s health. Oh, that health on which my every hope of happiness depends, and which either continues me the most perfect human felicity or sinks me in the lowest depths of sorrow!” Other troubles followed. Financial embarrassments and the suspension of commerce with French ports, gave a fatal blow” to the Seton fortunes. The elder Seton succumbed in 1789, and with him, says Elizabeth, “passed every hope of fortune, prosperity and comfort.” The burden of repairing the shattered fortunes and of taking care of the large family left by the father fell on her husband, and he strove bravely to prove equal to it, but he had not his father’s business ability, and his struggles were fruitless. In this dark hour, Elizabeth was like an angel of light and comfort to him, making every sacrifice to aid him. But the strain was a hard one, and the birth of her third child at this time of trial nearly cost her her life.

Things had begun to brighten a little, when fresh losses at sea completed the financial wreck. Their beautiful summer home was sold, and Elizabeth went with her family to her father, when a new sorrow, dwarfing all financial losses, befell her. Dr. Bayley was battling with an outbreak of yellow fever, working heroically at all hours of the night and day among the dead and dying, when he himself was stricken, and died literally on the firing line, as one writer expresses it, “with his face to the foe.” This loss nearly crushed Elizabeth, her anguish being intensified by her fear of his future. But his last words were prayers, and this helped to console her when he died with her hand clasped in his.

As Mr. Seton could do little toward bettering money matters until a certain partnership had expired, he decided while waiting, to take a trip to Italy to repair his shattered health. His wife felt he was not in condition to go alone, so she resolved to accompany him with her eldest child, then eight, leaving her other children to the care of her relatives. A sea voyage in those days was something of an undertaking, both from poor accommodations, dangers to the vessels of the times from storms, and from the privateers which then infested the seas. But while all her friends and relations said it was folly to undertake the voyage, Mr. Seton persevered in his intention, and the trip proved uneventful and safe until they landed in Leghorn.

Then real trouble faced them. The ship was the first to reach Leghorn with the news of the yellow fever outbreak in New York, and the pilot had entered the port without a health certificate. The Setons were the only passengers, and were ordered by the city authorities to the Lazaretto for a 40 days’ quarantine. It seems impossible at this late day to believe such conditions could exist in a civilized community as now confronted the unfortunate travellers. They were locked up in a big high room with a brick floor and blank walls, damp and cold, without adequate heat (it was in the middle of November) , the wind blowing through crevices and down the chimney on the poor invalid who had nothing but a ship’s mattress to lie on and no comforts of any kind. The Filicchis did what they could in the way of bringing comforts, food, and in endeavors to shorten the term of confinement, but their efforts and those of Elizabeth’s brother Carlton, who was in Leghorn at the time, could avail the poor prisoners but little. Even the doctor called to attend Mr. Seton was not allowed to feel his pulse or even approach within a certain distance of him. The cold, the strong winds blowing upon him, the dampness and the smoke from the stove furnishing their insufficient heat, all worked havoc with the vitality of the practically dying man who had come to this land of sunshine and flowers only to have his end hastened in a cold bleak prison. The officer in charge of the place said to Mrs. Seton by way of being Job’s comforter, “In this room what sufferings have I seen! There lay an Armenian begging a knife to end the struggles of death; there where the Signora’s bed is, in the frenzy of fever a Frenchman insisted on shooting himself, and died in agonies.”

Mrs. Seton’s only comfort in this harrowing situation was the fact that her husband’s mind, influenced by her patience, sweetness and resignation, turned for the first time to religion, which, while all his life a right-living man, he had never seriously considered. When at last release came, it was too late. He revived somewhat under the tender care of those invaluable friends, the Filicchis, who took him immediately to their home, surrounding him with every care, but in sunny Italy where he had gone to seek life and health, he died in the arms of his devoted wife, leaving her widowed and sorrowful in a strange land.

Her Conversion

Mrs. Seton had always been religiously inclined, but her real spiritual life did not begin until her sojourn in Italy following her bereavement.

In the time of the first freshness of her grief, the Filicchis and their wives treated her like a tenderly loved sister, putting everything they had at her disposal. Themselves devout Catholics, they naturally wished the conversion of their dear friend, who so impressed all around her that while passing in the street she overheard one person say, with more zeal than discretion, “if she were not a heretic, she would be a saint.” Influenced by their example, she began to look into their faith, and they supplied her with books and instructors. But before she made any decision, the time came for her to return to America.

Now fresh troubles arose. After the ship started, she was compelled by adverse winds to return to port, and before she sailed again, little Anna was stricken down with scarlet fever. On her recovery, her mother caught the infection, and was nursed in the home of Antonio Filicchi, who crowned his care of her by resolving to accompany her himself to the United States. This voyage gave more opportunity for religious conversation and inclined her still more to Catholicity. On her arrival home, a new sorrow awaited her in the death of her beloved sister-in-law, Rebecca Seton, and this loss, she says, took with it all her further interest in life.

On his leaving her, Mr. Filicchi gave her a letter of introduction to Bishop Carroll of Baltimore, and she determined to apply to him for further instruction. Finally convinced, she was received into the Catholic Church in 1805, in Saint Peter’s Church in New York, by the Rev. Matthew O’Brien in the presence of her constant friend, Mr. Filicchi. More trials followed this act in the opposition she met with from near relatives and dear friends, for in those days, prejudice against Catholicity was very strong, and conversion to its ranks was attended with loss of social prestige. She found she would have to sacrifice fortune and affections for her new faith, but, once convinced, she never faltered. It now became necessary for her to exert herself in some way for the support of her children and herself, and though the generous Filicchis offered her with her family a comfortable home in Italy and directed their New York agents to honor demands from her to any extent, her self-respect would not allow her thus to depend entirely on their bounty, dear friends as they were, while she had strength and health to work for herself. The only help she would accept was the placing by Antonio Filicchi of her two sons, William and Richard, at Georgetown College.

She was consoled in the midst of her trials by the conversion of her young sister-in-law, Cecelia Seton, who had taken the place of Rebecca in her heart, she looking on the young girl as at once child and sister. Cecelia’s conversion angered her relatives so much that she was not allowed to re-enter their houses, and she came to live with her sister-in-law, who eagerly received her with open arms. Before this virtual expulsion, her relatives finding persuasion useless, had tried threats, declaring that she should be sent away to the West Indies to be kept from “the corrupter of her mind (Mrs. Seton), and that if no other way availed, they would petition the Legislature to compel Mrs. Seton to leave the State.” This seems unbelievable now, but the feeling against Catholicity was so strong as to amount to virtual persecution. The godmother of Mrs. Seton, a wealthy and childless widow, destroyed the will which left her godchild her heiress when the latter became a Catholic, and the fortune was given to another.

On the advice of a friend, Mrs. Seton opened a boarding house for boys who attended an academy in the city, and for some time supported her family in this way. But the trials she had to pass through made a suggestion that with her daughters she might be admitted to a convent in Montreal and utilize her talents in teaching, a particularly pleasing one, for from the time she had lost her husband, in Leghorn, only a strong sense of duty to her children who needed her care, kept her from embracing a religious life, to which she was strongly inclined. The Rev. William Valentine Dubourg, president of Saint Mary’s College in Baltimore, who had become acquainted with her, advised her that her idea of entering a religious community with her daughters would be better carried out in the United States than in Canada. For various reasons her boarding house scheme, at first moderately successful, failed, and by the advice of Mr. Dubourg and Bishop Carroll, she resolved to move to Baltimore, and there establish a small school for children, Mr. Dubourg offering to take and educate her two sons at Saint Mary’s, now known as Mount Saint Mary’s at Emmitsburg, Maryland.

It was in 1808 that Mrs. Seton with her three daughters left New York in a sailing packet for Baltimore on June 9, but did not arrive in the latter city until June 15. The day after her arrival, she assisted at the mass which was said to dedicate the chapel of Saint Mary’s Seminary. A few days after her arrival, she went to Georgetown to remove her sons to Saint Mary’s. Her arrival in Baltimore created something of a stir, both from her conversion and from her announced intention of starting an academy for young girls. As the same prejudices did not exist in Baltimore as in New York, many persons of family and social standing called upon her to welcome her; among these was Colonel John Eager Howard, the “hero of Cowpens,” former Governor of Maryland and one of the wealthiest citizens of Baltimore. Colonel Howard, who was well acquainted with her family, for whom he had a particular regard, invited her to make his home hers, offering to educate her sons and daughters as his own children. While appreciating this generous and friendly offer, Mrs. Seton gracefully declined it, saying she had not left the world to enter it again. She applied for a loan to begin her project to her unfailing friend, Antonio Filicchi, and he promptly replied by instructing her to draw on his American bankers for $1000, and to “place the same to the account in the world to come of himself and his brother,” adding that they owed the increase of their prosperity in this world to her prayers. If this sum was not sufficient, she was to draw on them for what more she needed.

Encouraged and hopeful, she opened her boarding school for young ladies about the first of September in a small house on Paca street near the Seminary, which house still stands. Her chief object was to give her pupils a solid religious training, combined with the prinicipal studies of a good English education. From the first, she felt the desire of a consecration of herself to God, and led a life retired as much as possible from the world. She was joined soon after the establishment of her school by Miss Cecelia O’Conway, who felt a strong desire for seclusion from the world, and assisted her in the school, becoming her first associate. About this time a coincidence, which suggested itself as a direct interposition by Providence in favor of Mrs. Seton’s ardent wishes, occurred. A young student in Saint Mary’s Seminary named Cooper, who possessed some property and who wished to use it for good, offered to give it for Mrs. Seton’s design.

Her advisors approved of the project, and the question next arose as to the best locality for the establishment of the institution. Mr. Dubourg wished to keep it in Baltimore, but the donor insisted on Emmitsburg as the choice, and his wishes prevailed. The site on which stands the present fine institution was purchased, and Mrs. Seton went to study its possibilities. She says of herself at this time, “The tender title of mother salutes me everywhere, even from lips that have never said to me the common salutation among strangers,” and this affectionate title remained with her and to her memory down to the present time.

Miss Maria Murphy, of Philadelphia, came to join the little religious family, and two others, Miss Mary Ann Butler, of Philadelphia, and Miss Susan Clossy, of New York, followed, forming the nucleus of the new community which was to spread and prosper in the coming years. The little band now assumed the form of a religious order, donning a habit similar to that worn by Mrs. Seton, who had seen it in Italy, and the community was organized with regular rules, its members being called, by the wish of their founder, Sisters of Saint Joseph. Two others from Baltimore, a widow, Mrs. Rose White, and Miss Catherine Mullen, swelled their numbers, and then Mrs. Seton’s heart was gladdened by the coming of her beloved sisters-in-law, Harriet and the young Cecelia, on a visit to her. They now took possession of the small building at Emmitsburg, and a log building to accommodate the members was started. Mother Seton, as she was now called, determined to adopt the constitution and rules of the Daughters of Charity, founded by Saint Vincent de Paul.

As all their funds were absorbed by the expenses of the foundation, the poverty of the new community was extreme. They contrived a drink from carrots to take the place of coffee, and their bread was made of rye. On their first Christmas Day they had a “luxurious” dinner of smoked herrings with a spoonful of molasses for each one. But they were not disheartened, and Mrs. Seton herself had the compensating happiness for all privations of seeing her dear sister Harriet received into the Church. Soon after, the latter became ill of a violent fever and died in her sister’s arms, being soon followed to the grave by her young sister Cecelia, who had joined the community and was the first Sister to die.

Both school and community now began to prosper and both increased in numbers. However, some difficulties arose about the affiliation of the new order to the Daughters of Charity, a rule of Saint Vincent forbidding widows with children still depending on them, to be received. An exception was finally made in Mother Seton’s favor, allowing her, after making her vows, to continue as the legal guardian of her children. In 1812, the rule of Saint Vincent was formally adopted. In 1817, through the exertions of General Harper, an act for the incorporation of the Sisterhood was passed by the Legislature of Maryland, and the farm occupied by the Sisters was transferred to them in their own right. But about this time they were threatened with unexpected trouble of a legal kind in the attack made upon their title to. the land by its former owner, Mr. Emmitt, who, on the plea of a flaw in the early deeds, started a suit against the Sisters, which was ended by his sudden death when apparently in good health.

The fame of the new institution spread. An application was made for a foundation in New York, and Sister Rose White was sent to that city to establish a school for orphans. Mother Seton had also established free schools for poor children near her Academy and in Philadelphia, besides the other works of charity to which the Order was devoted. But while her institution prospered, she was called upon to endure trials particularly severe to her affectionate nature. In succession, she lost her steadfast friend, Mr. Philip Felicchi; her youngest daughter, Rebecca, and her eldest daughter, the beloved Annina, who received the habit of the Order on her deathbed. The disease which had been so fatal in the family, consumption, attacked Mother Seton in 1820, and on January 4, 1821, she died, after sufferings heroically borne, at the early age of forty-six, a short period of years in which to have crowded all the work this remarkable woman accomplished, a work now going on in all parts of the United States. Long after her death, in 1850, the Emmitsburg community was formally affiliated to the Community of Saint Vincent de Paul in France, and came under the authority of the Superior General of that Order, assuming the habit of the French Sisters. The community, however, established in New York at Mount Saint Vincent still follow the original rule, and wear the habit adopted by their saintly foundress.

Mrs. Seton was the mother of five children – three daughters, Anna Maria, Rebecca and Catherine – and two sons – William and Richard. The eldest child, Anna Maria, who accompanied her parents to Italy, and who thenceforth was always called “Annina,” was received into the Catholic Church with her mother, and was confirmed at Saint Joseph’s at Emmitsburg by Bishop Carroll, the first Bishop of Baltimore. She was naturally of a sweet and lovable disposition, and was popular with all who knew her. At the early age of fifteen she became engaged to a young man from Guadaloupe, of wealth and education, a match which promised to be a brilliant one; but the opposition of the young man’s mother broke off the marriage, and thenceforward Annina turned all her thoughts to a religious life. She was passionately devoted to her mother. On her return from a visit to Baltimore, she caught a cold which developed into rapid consumption. She begged on her deathbed to be admitted into the order of her mother, and died after receiving the habit of a Sister of Charity at the age of sixteen. Rebecca, the youngest child, was crippled for life from a fall on the ice at the age of ten, and bore her continued sufferings with the fortitude of a young martyr. She died at the age of fourteen, even though so young, being a novice in the Order.

William Seton was Mother Seton’s eldest son. He was for some time in Italy in business with his mother’s staunch friends, the Filicchis, In 1817, President Monroe appointed him a midshipman in the Navy, and the following year, John C. Calhoun, then Secretary of War, offered him an appointment in the Army as second lieutenant of the First U. S. Infantry, but he loved the sea too well to give up the Navy.

Catherine, the second daughter, was educated at Saint Joseph’s, Emmitsburg, and after her mother’s death made extensive travels with her brother William in Europe, he then enjoying a long leave of absence from the United States Navy. She was gifted with beauty, wit and possessed many social accomplishments, and was a fine French and Italian scholar. About all the notabilities of the country were numbered among her acquaintances and she was a particular favorite of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Her fidelity to her faith made her refuse a splendid alliance in the eyes of the world with Mr. Stratford Canning, British minister to the United States, afterwards the celebrated Viscount Stratford de Radcliffe, her refusal being based on the conditions exacted by the Church in a mixed marriage. Catherine was one of the first members of the Order of Sisters of Mercy established in New York by Archbishop Hughes and at her death in that city, April 3, 1891, was the oldest member of the Order. Following her mother in all works of charity, she was especially devoted to poor prisoners and for twenty-five years was a daily visitor at the Tombs prison, one friend saying of her, “No one probably ever acquired such influence and control over the thieves and robbers’ class of New York.” Many of the men she had reformed would come to her after their release to ask her advice and look to her for guidance, even wanting her to act as executrix for their families. She was long past middle age when she took up the study of some modern languages in order to enable her to work the better among foreign prisoners. On one occasion a noted burglar whom she had reformed left her as a dying legacy a small trunk in which he said he kept all he possessed of value, which he wanted to go to his only friend, Mother Catherine. When she opened it, expecting to find some clothes for her poor, she found it contained a complete burglars outfit, a fine legacy for a nun!

Among Mother Seton’s descendants still living is the venerable Monsignor Robert Seton, of New Jersey, whose father was her eldest son William. His brother, William Seton, was an officer in the United States army, and had a family of several children.

Mother Seton’s younger son, Richard, like his father, was very handsome and was a fine musician. Though devoted to his mother, he had a roving disposition and travelled as far as Africa, where he was United States Assistant Agent at Monrovia. He died at sea on his return voyage at the age of twenty-six. It was said of him that his kind heart and genial manner had won the affections of the blacks more than any other agent had done in so short a time. They said he had only one fault, that of being a white man.

Mrs. Seton was the most devoted of mothers. She loved her children tenderly and they idolized her. They all seemed to inherit her peculiar charm of attracting the affection of everyone with whom they came in contact.

With the energy, determination and will power which she showed in her undertakings, Mother Seton seems to have united an unusual charm and attraction for all who came in contact with her, and to have had the power of inspiring in others the greatest veneration and love. It is told of her that a man in New York who had two daughters at the Academy of Saint Joseph’s, and who was lax in the observance of his religion, was persuaded by his daughters to visit her, in the hope of her obtaining an influence over him. He said afterward he would willingly travel 600 miles to get a view of Mother Seton’s eyes, even though she were not to open her lips to him. Severe to herself, practicing as favorite virtues humility and poverty, yet gentle, tender and liberal with others, she won all hearts, and, while she was venerated as a saint, she was loved as a mother. Even those outside of her own faith can feel proud that so fine and noble a woman is to have the honor of being the first American canonized saint.

From her humble little log house in Emmitsburg, now replaced by a stately structure, has gone out foundation after foundation, till now the Sisters of Charity are to be found in every section of the United States.

Her Family

The Seton family, into which the Saint-to-be married, is a very old one of Norman origin, appearing in the early history of England and counting its members among the nobility. One of the Seton ancestors, Alexander de Setoun, subscribed a charter given to a church in the Thirteenth Century in which is the earliest mention of coal-mining in Scotland, an industry in which the monks were the pioneers, and which is mentioned as something wonderful in the writings of Pope Pius II, who visited Scotland in the Fifteenth Century. He describes coal as “a sulphurous stone dug from the earth, which is used by the people as fuel.” George, seventh Lord Seton, was one of the commissioners appointed by the Scottish Parliament to be present at the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, with Francis I of France, then Dauphin, and he brought with him the first coach seen in Scotland when he returned with Mary from France. He was one of the most devoted and faithful adherents of the beautiful and unfortunate Queen, and was distinguished by her in the days of her prosperity. When he refused with proud humility the advanced rank she wished to bestow upon him, she wrote with a diamond ring on a window of the great hall at Seton Castle,

This George Seton helped in her escape from Lochleven Castle, and was ranked among “the only true nobles of her realm, those whom English gold had not corrupted, nor successful traitors daunted.” His fidelity to his sovereign brought Seton to imprisonment, exile and poverty. His sister, Mary Seton, was one of the “four Maries” whom the fancy of the Queen for attendants of her own name kept constantly with her, and who is mentioned in the old familiar rhyme,

“Yestreen the Queen had four Maries,
This night she’ll have but three;
There was Mary Seton and Mary Beton
And Mary Carmichael and Me.”

Mary Seton refused flattering offers of marriage and died a nun. It is this George Seton who figures as one of the characters in Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel, “The Abbot.”

Mrs. Seton’s father-in-law, William Seton, went to New York in 1763, and at the age of sixteen was superintendent and part owner of ironworks in New Jersey and of property in the interior of New York. He was also a member of the New York Chamber of Commerce the year of its foundation, showing a business ability which, unfortunately for himself and his family, his son did not inherit. William Seton married Rebecca, daughter of Samuel Curzon, and it is of particular interest to Baltimoreans to know that this Richard Curzon’s son, Richard II, brother of Rebecca, married Elizabeth Moale of Baltimore and settled in this city. Their daughter, Ellin Moale Curzon, married Samuel Poultney, and Walter Curzon Poultney, well known in Baltimore social circles, is the son of this Miss Curzon, being thus connected with Mrs. Seton through her husband’s family.

Mrs. Seton’s father-in-law married in succession two sisters, and as the Church of England did not permit marriage with a deceased wife’s sister, the couple had to go to New Jersey to be married, as no clergyman in New York would perform the ceremony. His numerous family by his two marriages were thenceforth connected intimately with the life of Mrs. Seton, as she acted the part of a mother to her young brothers and sisters-in-law on the death of their parents. William Seton, the husband of Mrs. Seton, was born at sea while his parents were returning from a visit to England. On her own side Mrs. Seton was connected with the family of Theodore Roosevelt, former President of the United States, as her half-brother, Dr. Guy Carlton Bayley, married Miss Grace Roosevelt, their son, James Roosevelt Bayley, afterward becoming Archbishop of Baltimore. He was an Episcopalian minister, but was converted to the Catholic Church while on a visit to Rome. His grandfather, James Roosevelt, made him heir to his large fortune, but on his grandson’s conversion changed his will, under the mistaken impression that a Catholic priest could not possess property. The fortune finally went to found the Roosevelt Hospital in New York. Archbishop Bayley had a great veneration for his saintly aunt, and by his own request was buried beside her at Emmitsburg.

There is a touching love story connected with one of Mrs. Seton’s brothers-in-law, Samuel Waddington Seton, which probably made her own tender heart with its rare capacity for loving regard him with unusual sympathy. He was engaged to a beautiful young girl, who became ill at a time when he was on a long business trip to China. When he returned to New York he was met by the startling intelligence that she was dying. He started at once for her home, which was a considerable distance from New York, riding on horseback all night to see her once more. They were married on her death-bed the next morning. He remained faithful to her memory to the end of his life, and sixty years afterward said to his grand-nephew, Monsignor Seton: “We were spiritually wed on earth. I kissed her chaste lips once. She died that afternoon. We shall meet in Heaven.” Edward Augustus Seton, another brother-in-law, who was quite an artist, when on a visit to Mrs. Seton at Emmitsburg, made a water-color sketch of the institution as it appeared in 1810.

Her Canonization

For the first time in history, North America seems destined to lay claim to a saint.

Impetus, thanks to Archbishop Michael J. Curley of Baltimore in continuing the efforts begun in 1880 by the late James, Cardinal Gibbons, has been given the movement to bring about the canonization of Mother Seton, founder at Emmitsburg of the Sisters of Charity in the United States.

If plans succeed, she will be invested with the halo and title of Saint by official decree of the magnificent solemn rite of formal canonization at Rome, through the office of the Supreme Pontiff.

The only American canonized saint up to this time is Saint Rose of Lima, in Peru, but the honor of a saint of its very own is to be conferred on the vast English-speaking portion of the Western Continent. This is particularly interesting to our local patriotic pride, since Mrs. Seton was a native-born citizen of the United States, and even more so from the fact that though by birth she was a New Yorker, the sanctity she developed to win her this signal honor and the splendid work she accomplished were in our own State of Maryland, which can thus claim the right of being the place of her spiritual birth and life.

As far back as 1880 the late Cardinal Gibbons urged the initiation of measures for the canonization of Mother Seton, but it was not until the fall of 1908 that the actual process began, the movement for their beginning coming from the Sisters of Charity as an order and the Vincentian Fathers (sometimes called the Lazarists, and the Marists (Congregation of Mary), who are affiliated with that order. The Seton Court, as it was called, held secret sessions every week for three and a half years in the chapel of Saint Vincent’s Orphan Asylum, near the Church of the Immaculate Conception, in Baltimore, which is under the Vincentian or Lazarist Fathers. The public sessions at the beginning and end of the secret sessions were held in the Cardinal’s library at the Cathedral. Before this court were summoned the witnesses and the evidence presented under oath of Mother Seton’s reputation for sanctity, the miracles reported to have been wrought by her intercession, including many wonderful cures, and other facts bearing on the extraordinary virtues claimed for her.

This court, the first in what is called the Diocesan Process, was composed of the following ecclesiastics of the Archdiocese: Very Reverend Edward R. Dyer, Superior of Saint Mary’s Seminary and Provincial of the Sulpitians in the United States, chief judge; Monsignor C. F. Thomas and Rev. Peter Tarro, assistant judges; Rev. James O. Hayden, C. M. (Congregation of Mary), of Emmitsburg, vice-postulator; Rev. (now Bishop) O. B. Corrigan, fiscal promoter; Rev. Desire C. De Wulf, nuncius (messenger, corresponding to “bailiff” in a civil court) ; Rev. Joseph A. Cunnane, secretary or “notary.” Later, the late Monsignor Donahue replaced Bishop Corrigan as fiscal promoter. Some of the older Sisters from Emmitsburg were among the witnesses examined before this court. All this evidence was taken to Rome by the secretary of the court, Father Cunnane.

The next sessions of the Diocesan Process started before the World War of 1914, which event and the death of Pope Pius X. interrupted the proceedings, which were resumed after the war. These sessions formed the second part of the Process, and were to determine whether undue public veneration and invocation as to a saint had been paid Mother Seton, as this is forbidden by the Church until the canonization is actually bestowed. Of this court Father Dyer was again judge (there being no assistants) ; Father Hayden, vice-postulator, and Father Cunnane, secretary. Rev. M. J. Riordan was fiscal promoter in place of Monsignor Donahue, who had resigned on account of ill health. The sessions were held in the library of Cardinal Gibbons and at Emmitsburg, and the findings of the court were taken to Rome July 1, 1920, by Rev. Bartholomew Randolph, C. M. (who died recently in China, where he had been sent on missionary work).

The next proceedings, called “The Apostolic Process,” as they emanate from Rome, are now in progress. Their object is to collect and examine all the letters, writings of any kind, or anything edited by Mother Seton. Recently a letter from Archbishop Curley was read at the masses from the pulpits of all the churches in the Archdiocese of Baltimore calling on everyone who had any letters or writings of Mother Seton to send or bring the same to the Archbishop’s residence that they might be examined and copies of them sent to Rome. This examination will also be made by an ecclesiastical court similar to those holding the sessions of the Diocesan Process.

The process of canonization is a long, complicated and thorough one. When the reputation of a person for extraordinary sanctity inspires the idea of his canonization – that is, the formal enrolling of his name among the recognized saints of the church – the first inquiries are made by the bishop of the diocese to which the person in life belonged, or under his direction, and are pursued with the greatest care, these inquiries including three processes: First, as to the sanctity of the person and the miracles said to have been wrought by him or at his intercession: second, that there has been no violation of the prohibition against giving a non-beatified person public veneration and homage as a saint; third, that there is nothing in the writings of the person to throw doubt on his orthodoxy. The result of these inquiries is sent to Rome and proceedings are suspended for 10 years, so that no undue enthusiasm or feeling will have the possibility of interfering with the calm judicial consideration of the case. Then the Cardinal, whose duty it is to forward the formal introduction of the cause, who is called its “Postulator,” and who has appointed the vice-postulator to start the inquiries under the local bishop, applies for what are called “remissal letters,” that the inquiry may proceed to the next step, called “the apostolic process.” If these letters are granted, the title of “venerable” is given to the person in question, and the first process of canonization is completed. This process in conducted by the Congregation of Rites in Rome.

Next, the cause is tried with more severe tests, with local and national influences rigidly eliminated and with experts on both sides. This trial is similar to that of a court of law, except that the rules of evidence are even more strict than any in a lay court, with the judges bound by every rigor of conscience to decide no point on any consideration but that of truth and justice. For the purpose of getting on record in its most literal signification the “truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” there is an advocate whose duty it is to bring out everything discovered in the life of the person on trial which may militate against his sanctity, and to present all the reasons possible why the cause should not proceed, contesting all the evidence of sanctity and authenticity of the miracles brought forward. The proper title of this prosecutor, so to speak, is “promoter of the faith,” though he is popularly known by the less impressive and more pessimistic name of the “devil’s advocate.” There is no defect, legal or otherwise, no smallest flaw in the evidence, no doubt of the sanctity or miracles of the person under investigation, which is not subject to the strong and searching attack of the “promoter.” His duty must be performed in such a way that not the least shadow of doubt rests upon the cause. Facts, and especially phenomena, are sifted to a degree that would not be dreamed of in usual courts of law. Physicians, scientists, theologians, secretaries, experts in any special knowledge, are all brought forward as witnesses, while equal care is observed in taking the testimony of those who Knew in life the person on trial, or in any other way had knowledge of him. There must be absolute proof that the person has practiced the seven capital virtues – humility, liberality, chastity, meekness, temperance, brotherly love and diligence; the theological virtues – faith, hope and charity, and the cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, in a heroic degree. Every fragment of writing of the person is rigidly examined to see that it contains no errors against faith or morals.

Later on, the whole process is reviewed from the beginning; the Congregation of Rites again considers the process, and the virtues and miracles claimed – the latter being absolutely required – are discussed in three separate sessions, each a year apart. The miracles especially are subjected to the most searching scrutiny, until their authenticity and supernatural character are established beyond the slightest vestige of possible question. (The late Pope Leo XIII once said that in these days the greatest miracle of all was to get a miracle proved at Rome.) The Pope himself generally presides at the last session, and after earnest prayer and the report of each consultor makes his decision known to the secretary. One more meeting of the Congregation of Rites is then ordered to make sure that all is safe for the beatification, and a day for the ceremony is appointed. The formal declaration of the decision is proclaimed in the Basilica of Saint Peter’s at Rome, the Papal Brief being publicly read; the “Te Deum” is sung, the picture of the beatified one unveiled and Solemn Pontifical High Mass is said. The title of “Blessed” is then given the person, but this ceremony takes . place only after two new miracles wrought by the servant of God have been proved by the same strict investigation undergone by the others.

Now comes the last and most important step – the solemn canonization, carrying with it the title of “Saint.” If the Pope and all the ecclesiastical judges in the case are satisfied with the evidence leading to the beatification, the physicians, scientists and others concerned also satisfied of the miraculous nature of the case, that is, of works performed and results obtained beyond all possible merely human power, the same formal sessions of the Congregation of Rites are repeated with the same intervals, and at the last session, the Pope, again presiding, proclaims his decision to proceed with the formal canonization.

This is a ceremony of the greatest pomp, impressiveness and beauty. The Basilica of Saint Peter’s is magnificently decorated with rich hangings and myriad lights; above the high altar hangs the picture of the new Saint, covered with a veil. After prescribed ceremonies and prayers, the Pope upon his throne, surrounded by the Cardinals and other ecclesiastical dignitaries, pronounces the formal Brief of Canonization, the formula used being these words: “In honor of – we decree and define that Blessed N. is a Saint, and we inscribe his name in the catalogue of Saints, and order that his memory be devoutly and piously celebrated yearly on the-day of-his feast.”

In a blaze of light and clouds of incense, and the triumphant outburst of the “Te Deum,” the veil is drawn aside from the picture, and the vast assembly fall upon their knees, venerating for the first time publicly the glorified Saint. Afterward pictures and token of the Saint are distributed among the Congregation. Those who attended the canonization of Joan of Arc at Rome in 1920 will not soon forget the magnificence of the spectacle and the thrilling impressiveness of this rare and beautiful ceremony.

About This EBook

The text of this file was taken from the booklet The Life Story of Mother Seton, by Louise Malloy. The edition used was published by Carroll Publishing of Baltimore, Maryland in 1924.