Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 12, 2005
Elizabeth Seton trusted in God
Remarkable woman was mother, convert, founder of religious order
By SR. MARY SWEENEY, sc
Special to the WCR
If you've had a wonderful marriage and children whom you've loved more than you thought possible; if you've enjoyed deep trusting friendships with men and women; if you've found peace and joy in God's love, St. Elizabeth Seton will speak to your experience.
But if you've watched the people you love most in three generations die; if you've suffered financial hardship; if you've been the object of slander and power, you too will find in her story something of your own.
This week, when we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the canonization of Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (Sept. 14), we can recall her life to see why she has drawn so many to find in her story a reason to trust God's ways in their own lives.
Although Elizabeth Seton is best known as the foundress of the Sisters of Charity in North America, and is credited with establishing a school that became the model for parochial schools in the United States, often it is in her many other facets that she has inspired others.
Woman of intense loyalty
Today we might describe her as a single parent or a recent convert to Catholicism, a working mother, or a woman of intense loyalty. When she was born in New York on Aug. 28, 1774, to Dr. Richard and Catherine Bayley, no one could have anticipated the twists and turns which Elizabeth's path would follow.
Elizabeth's childhood was a difficult one. When she was three, her mother died. After her father remarried, there was little love in the new family for her sister and her.
In addition, Dr. Bayley, a noted physician, spent a great amount of time in England developing his professional skills and seemed more inclined toward his medical work than to his family. He did, however, recognize in Elizabeth a lively spirit and a quick mind and made sure that she received a broad education.
As a child and as a young woman, Elizabeth was a devout Episcopalian. She was nurtured by Scripture and the Episcopal Communion services. The loss and sadness of her early life drew her closer to her "heavenly Father." In addition, fired by charity, she and her friends from the comfortable Lower Manhattan Episcopal parish of St. Paul were active in aiding widows and orphans.
Married a businessman
It was a joyous time in her life when Elizabeth was courted by, and married to, William Seton in 1794. Life seemed full of promise. Seton was the son of a successful businessman in New York and was well connected to many of the outstanding families in the new nation.
The love of the young couple, as reflected in her letters to him, bespeaks hearts full of joy - a joy which faced new challenges as William's financial status shifted dramatically and sent him into bankruptcy. With five children, their needs were serious. Soon, William's financial situation was complicated by his medical problems.
In 1803 while he and Elizabeth and their eldest child were visiting Italy on doctor's advice, William died. Elizabeth was 29 years old and now left alone with five children.
While William's death brought Elizabeth enormous sorrow, it was during this time that she first encountered the Roman Catholic Church. Thanks to friends of her husband, brothers Antonio and Filippo Filicchi and their wives, Elizabeth stayed in Italy for the winter and spent many hours visiting Catholic churches with them. She was deeply impressed by the Catholics' devotion to the Holy Eucharist and longed to find the same solace in her life which Catholics found for their lives in the Eucharist.
Anguished over conversion
After returning to New York, Elizabeth anguished over her desire to become a Catholic. Her family and friends provided great resistance, and the anti-Catholic attitude in the city was formidable. Yet despite the opposition, Elizabeth made her profession of faith and received her First Eucharist in March 1805.
Spurned by many of her relatives and friends, the recent convert assisted in two schools, but opposition to her Catholicism led parents to withdraw their children. Under the guidance of the leading Catholic clergy of the new country and aided by the financial support of her few loyal friends, Elizabeth set out with her children for Maryland where she opened a school. Eventually she became the nucleus for the new religious group which found in the rule of St. Vincent de Paul a mirror of their own desires.
As a religious superior and as the head of a boarding school, Elizabeth faced numerous difficulties, including financial need and differences of opinion with the clergy. As mother to her five children, however, she embraced the most heart-wrenching role of all: in a family beset by tuberculosis, she watched two of her daughters die. In the midst of it all, her own fragile health caused her concern lest she leave her children as orphans.
So much suffering led to so much faith and trust. As her life's path rose to mountaintops of great joy and fell into valleys of enormous depression, Elizabeth turned to her Good Shepherd and trusted in his ways.
The Eucharist was an unfailing source of strength for her. Her dear friends supported her both emotionally and financially. When Elizabeth died in 1821, she had accomplished far more than anyone might have dared to imagine. Her loving heart had touched many.
Today we see in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton someone who has lived many of our own experiences as wife, widow, mother, friend, breadwinner and vowed religious. Thirty years after her canonization, her story still stands as an example of how God's love supports and draws us through the events of our lives.
(Sister Mary Sweeney is a member of the Sisters of Charity-Halifax.)