Fr. Scott A. Haynes
The Feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton is kept annually on January 4th. Mother Seton is one of the keystones of the Catholic Church in America. She founded the first American religious community for women, the Sisters of Charity. She opened the first American parish school and established the first American Catholic orphanage. All this she did in the span of 46 years while raising her five children.
Born August 28, 1774, just two years before the Declaration of Independence, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is a true daughter of the American Revolution. By birth and marriage, she was linked to the first families of New York and enjoyed the fruits of high society.
Raised as a staunch Episcopalian by her mother and stepmother, she learned the value of prayer, of reading Sacred Scripture and a nightly examination of conscience. Her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, did not have much use for church, Catholic or Protestant, but was a great humanitarian, and so he taught her to serve others. The early deaths of her mother in 1777 and her baby sister in 1778 set her mind on eternity. Far from being sullen, she faced each new “holocaust,” as she put it, with hope.
At age 19, Elizabeth married a wealthy businessman, William Magee Seton. They had five children before his business failed. Shortly thereafter he became terribly sick and died of tuberculosis. At the young age of 30, Elizabeth was widowed. She was penniless and yet, had five small children to support.
Shortly after the death of her husband, Elizabeth Ann Seton sought a moment of comfort in her local church. She was, at this time, an Episcopalian. So, she walked in her church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New York City, and took a seat and began to pray. She later wrote to a friend:
“I got in a side pew in which I was positioned in such a way that I was facing St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in the next street. And I found myself speaking to the Most Blessed Sacrament in the Catholic Church [next door], instead of looking at the naked altar where I was.”
You see, long before Elizabeth Ann Seton became a canonized saint of the Catholic Church, she already had an instinct for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. She knew that the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ is there burning with love for sinners.
Many of her family and friends rejected her when she became a Catholic in 1805. She had no financial support because her family had largely abandoned her and since the family savings had been exhausted to pay for her husband’s medical care.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had no extraordinary gifts. She was not a mystic or stigmatic. She did not prophesy or speak in tongues. But the letters of Mother Seton reveal her transformation from ordinary goodness to heroic sanctity. She suffered great trials of sickness, misunderstanding, the death of her husband and two young daughters, and the heartache of a wayward son.
She died on this day, January 4, 1821, and became the first American-born citizen to be beatified (1963) and then canonized (1975). She is buried at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.