|August 28, 1774, New York City, New York
January 4, 1821, Emmitsburg, Maryland
September 14, 1975 by Pope Paul VI
Simon and Garfunkel sang Mrs. Robinson, the classic song from the movie The Graduate. They lamented the lack of American heroes and sang, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
The true American heroes are not sport or entertainment figures, but Catholic saints. We should turn our “lonely eyes” to them and follow their good examples, virtues and works. They are our true friends and are alive in heaven with God. They are models of holiness for us. They can help us just like friends on earth by their prayerful intercession on our behalf. They give us courage and hope.
We are starting off the New Year by celebrating today the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. She was our first native born to be canonized. She was two years old in 1776 when she became a charter citizen of the United States of America. She lived on to become a mother, a widow and a foundress of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, the first community for religious women to be established in the United States. She also founded St. Joseph’s Catholic school, the first Catholic parish school in the United States. Like all of our American Saints, she is a model of holiness for us.
Betty’s Episcopalian mother planted the seeds of the faith in her, even though she died when Betty was only three years old. Her father soon remarried. Unfortunately, she did not get along with her new stepmother and her physician father left the home for extended periods of time to learn new medical techniques and to minister to the sick.
Betty spent her teenage years with various relatives in the New York City area. It was a depressing time for her and apparently she was even tempted to suicide, but thankfully overcame it and wrote, “The praise and thanks of excessive joy not to have done the horrid deed.”
When she was 19, the pretty Betty married the handsome William Seton, a wealthy socialite and owner of a large shipping business. Together they enjoyed the high society of New York, attending balls, the theater and parties. William was a co-host of a gala ball honoring our first president George Washington on his 65th birthday.
In the fall of 1799, William’s business fortunes begin to decline due to pirate raids upon his ships. Soon Betty suffered the deaths of her father-in-law and father and then her husband came down with tuberculosis. They decided to make a seven week voyage to Italy with their daughter Anna to visit his business friends, the Filicchis. They hoped to find a warmer, healthier climate to ease his last days. So Betty with a heavy heart had to parcel out her four other children. She wrote to a friend, “Take my darlings often in your arms.”
When they landed in Italy, they learned that their ship was suspected of carrying yellow fever from New York so they were quarantined in a cold and damp stone tower on the coast. They were bolted into a small room, 20 steps up, where they suffered for a month awaiting their release. Betty wrote, “Will has had a violent fit of coughing so as to bring up blood, which agitates and distresses him through all his endeavors to hide it. What shall we say? This is the hour of trial. In permitting it Our Lord gives us support and strength. In looking around us we are only burdened with more anguish. Let us press forward toward the goal and the reward.” A month later they were released, but her husband died only eight days later.
Then Betty became a 29-year-old widow with five young children living in a foreign land with only her daughter Anna. The Filicchis hosted them in their home. Episcopalian Betty was very influenced by the beautiful Catholic churches, art and music in Italy. She was impressed by the Catholics reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. On one occasion, a Protestant English tourist mockingly told her during the consecration at Mass, “This is what they call their real presence.” Elizabeth was shocked at his sarcasm and wrote, “My very heart trembled with shame and sorrow for his unfeeling interruption of their sacred adoration; for all around was dead silence, and many were prostrate. Involuntarily I bent from Him to the pavement, and thought secretly on the words of St. Paul, with starting tears, ‘They discern not the Lord’s body.’ “
After her return to New York, Elizabeth resolved to become a Catholic. She now believed that the Catholic Church was the one true Church and wrote, “I will go peaceably and firmly to the Catholic Church; for if faith is so important to our salvation, I will seek it where true faith first began, seeking among those who received it from God himself.”
After her conversion, she became estranged from all of her Protestant relatives and friends. She tried to support herself and started a private school, but the rumors flew that she was going to try to convert the Protestant children. The school failed for lack of students and Elizabeth was humbly forced to move in with her sister and brother in-law. Her priest friend advised her to start a school for Catholic girls in Maryland.
The school was established in Emmitsburg as the first Catholic parish school in the United States. Mother Seton was now a mother to her own natural children, her schoolchildren and her religious Sisters. But she never forgot that her primary duty was to her own biological children. She wrote, “The dear ones have their first claim, which must ever remain inviolate.” Her 16-year-old daughter Anna soon became one of her religious Sisters but then came down with tuberculosis. She offered all her suffering to God and heroically said , “Let me pay my penance for so often drawing in my waist to look small and imitate the looks of my companions, let the ribs draw now with pain for having drawn with vanity.”
Mother watched at Anna’s deathbed and soon at the deathbed of her baby Rebecca, who also was not afraid to die. She said, “Dearest mother you think I am not willing to die, but I am. Indeed I am. All I fear is my sins.” Soon Mother was tended at her own deathbed. She wrote, “We must all be ready for this dear dearest thief who is to come when least expected.” Shortly before her death on January 4, 1821, she told her Sisters, “Be children of the Church, be children of the Church.” She died in peace. Her religious order grew into six communities with more than 5000 members operating hospitals, nursing schools, homes for the elderly, child-care centers, colleges and hundreds of grade schools and high schools.
To learn more about Mother Seton and all of the American Saints and Blesseds, you may read my book, Saints of the States. You may order it by clicking here.