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Since my middle name is Elise (German for Elizabeth), I asked God to help choose from the various Saints Elizabeth an appropriate patroness. As an adult convert, I hadn’t had one chosen for me by my parents, but trusted He would find a way to introduce me to just the right one. I met St. Elizabeth Seton in the pages of a biography and knew that I had discovered a woman who would help fit me for the challenges facing me as wife, mother, friend and disciple of Christ.
Elizabeth Bayley was born in 1774, into a young America. The fiesty and fun-loving daughter of an Episcopalian doctor and his wife, Elizabeth thoroughly enjoyed the fashions and New York social whirl of her day. She caught the eye of William Seton, son of a well-to-do merchant family, and shared with him a love of music, dance and theater. Their marriage was considered by friends and family an excellent match.
By 1802, she and William had five children. They made the wrenching decision to take only Anna Maria, the youngest daughter, with them to Italy where they planned a stay with friends for the good of William’s failing health. The ocean voyage was not the cure they had hoped for, and the Setons were forced from the ship into prison-like quarantine by Italian medical authorities. For six weeks, Elizabeth and Anna tended him with devotion and prayer as he lay dying. When the ordeal was over, his dear friends the Filicchis, opened their hearts and home to his widow and child.
The Filicchis marveled at the strength of Elizabeth’s faith, and willingness to accept the most difficult trial of her life as the will of God. She was deeply impressed by their strong Catholic faith – stirred by its depth and beauty and by a longing to possess their confidence in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. After three months she felt anxious to return to her bereaved children, and departed with every assurance of the Filicchis’ love, prayers and willingness to help her as they would have helped their beloved friend William in any way possible.
Long after her return to New York, she struggled with her doubts, and with the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of a conversion hotly opposed by family and friends. Ultimately, she could not resist the growing certainty of God’s will in the matter, and was received into the Church at St. Peter’s in March 1805. She considered her Catholic faith a great gift from God, and was willing to endure any loss for the sake of following where He led.
Disowned and shunned by many because of her scandalous conversion, the gregarious Elizabeth clung to her faith for strength to face a loneliness she could never have chosen for herself. She had been refined by fire during her husband’s last days, and now she grew in spiritual maturity bearing the loss of goodwill, friendship, social standing and financial help. The young widow patched a living together, gratefully accepting the charity of family and friends and tutoring a few young boarding students.
In 1808, Elizabeth accepted an offer to open a Catholic school for girls in Baltimore. The school’s stress on the integration of religious and spiritual instruction with academic pursuits was unique, giving rise to her reputation as ‘foundress of American parochial schools’. In the midst of the dawn to dusk duties of mother and schoolmistress, Elizabeth kept up a rich correspondence with loved ones. Her letters were full of heartfelt concern for others’ needs, spiritual encouragement, honest reflections on her own weaknesses, and humorous observations on the ups and downs of her busy new life.
During the year she spent in Baltimore, plans were made to start a religious order to teach girls and serve the poor, with Mother Elizabeth as its directress. Thus, the first American religious order, the Sisters of Charity, was born in 1809 in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Special provision was made to accommodate Elizabeth’s primary responsibilities to her children. Taking as their habit her own simple black mourning dress, cape, and white tie-on cap, seven sisters began life in community under a rule patterned on that of St. Vincent de Paul.
Over the next twelve years, Elizabeth endured the deaths of sisters and daughters, desperate concerns for the spiritual welfare of her sons, difficulties in disagreeing with and submitting to her superiors gracefully, recurrent physical problems, and all the trials of overseeing the life and work of the community. Her letters and journals open to view the spiritual wealth gained through these years of struggle to submit entirely to the will of God in all circumstances. During her final days, in 1821, she often repeated a prayer of Pius VII:
May the most just, the most high and the most amiable will of God be in all things fulfilled, praised and exalted above all forever.
The study of her life brings home to me the message that it is real people who become saints! Through earnest intention to receive all that God would give in the form of hardships and suffering, responsibility, spiritual direction, and the authority and sacraments of the Church, Elizabeth Ann Seton moved through doubt, discouragement, stumbling, frustration, failure, heartache, and pain to become the first native-born American saint.