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January 4, Memorial of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Mother Seton

I asked my students today why Elizabeth Seton is significant to us as Catholics and then why she was significant to us as Americans.  A few had some ideas.  None got it right.

As I explained, in 1975 Paul VI canonized her as the first American-born saint.  Yay!  I can almost hear The Stars and Stripes Forever playing now.  But hold on…  Mother Frances Cabrini was the first American saint!  Don’t lie to me!  Seriously, that’s also correct.  And sometime later this year a woman named Kateri Tekawitha will also become the first American saint.  Huh?  Trust me, I haven’t been drinking.

First the other two…  Cabrini came to these shores as an Italian immigrant in the late 1800’s, became a US citizen, did all of her ministry here, died here, and in 1946 became the first “American citizen to be canonized by the Church”.  Kateri was a Mohawk woman from an area now known as central New York State.  She lived and died in the 1600’s and, when she is canonized this year, she will become the first “Native American saint”.  But what of Mother Seton?

Elizabeth Bayley was born in New York in 1774, just two years before independence was declared from Great Britain.  I guess that technically makes her a British national and not a native born US citizen but let’s not even go there.  She hailed from a wealthy Protestant family in a day when being Catholic was practically outlawed in the budding Big Apple.  Her father was a doctor, her mother died when Elizabeth was young.  At 19 she married shipping magnate William Seton.  It was kind of like Jackie and Onansis except she wasn’t a frail waif with oversized sunglasses and he wasn’t a dirty old man.  They produced five children.  What a beautiful life!

The Seton home today.

Then tragedy struck.  William’s fleet was lost at sea and he contracted tuberculosis.  It never rains but it pours, I guess.  The couple traveled to visit friends in Italy, figuring the climate would do William some good.  Sadly, William was placed in quarantine and died before ever seeing his friend Fillipo Felici.  Elizabeth did, however, stay with the Felici’s for a time as she began her public mourning dressed all in black.  While in their home she had occasion to witness the family (devout Catholics) in their devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  They were well off and so had a private chapel in their home.  Moved by their piety, Elizabeth returned to New York and sought entrance into the Catholic Church.  She was advised against this conversion as it would mean she would face being ostracized.  Well, she was ostracized — by her family, her friends, and society at large.

Replica of the second schoolhouse at Emmitsburg.

She traveled to Baltimore, about the only place where it was safe to practice the Catholic faith at the time, and opened a school.  John Carroll, first bishop of the United States, called upon her to found an order of nuns for the new nation which had none.  He also asked her to start a new school in the Catoctin Mountains on land where he would also build a seminary to train priests.  The location in Emmitsburg, MD, is today home to Mount St. Mary’s (the seminary he founded) and not far from Camp David.  Her only insistence was that no one be turned away for financial reasons.  Carroll agreed.

Though she and her new sisters (who all chose to wear widows’ black like her) faced terrible weather and lack of material goods, she made it work and within a few years the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent dePaul was a thriving community of nuns.  By the time of her own death in 1821 Elizabeth had been credited with helping to establish a model for Catholic education in the US; and it is the Catholic schools which have always offered an educational choice, an alternative even to non-Catholics in this great land.

A striking resemblence

During her canonization process, the pope waived the second miracle (not sure why) and when she was raised to the honors of the altar a grateful nation rejoiced.  And what better way to celebrate than… a made-for-TV movie!!!  Yes, in 1980 ABC Television aired A Time for Miracles starring Kate Mulgrew as Elizabeth Seton and John Forsythe as Bishop Carroll.  Now that, friends, is proof of a woman’s sanctity.  When I go I can only hope to be as lucky.  I wonder who will play me?

As an aside, Seton’s nephew, James Bayley become the first bishop of Newark (where I grew up) and named his own seminary after his holy aunt.  That place would eventually become Seton Hall University (my alma mater).  Her shrine in Emmitsburg is a beautiful place I’ve visited many times but the real jewel is her shrine in Manhattan.  On State St., at the tip of the island and across from Battery Park is a three story brick colonial house.  It is now the rectory of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic parish but it was once the Seton home.  I had the chance to stand in the dining room there once.  It’s on the second floor.  Looking out the bay window at the harbor I really could imagine the young Seton family enjoying life in this place.