Feast of Elizabeth Ann Seton—Jan. 4

The curved colonnade of the Watson house is unique in the Battery area of New York City. Where skyscrapers probe ramrod straight into the sky, this rounded, red brick colonial seems a quaint anachronism. Businesspeople in serious suits stride purposefully past it, while swarms of tourists move towards the Staten Island ferry. Yet this small place still holds some pulse of the city’s and country’s life. Once the home of Elizabeth Ann Seton in a fashionable neighborhood facing the Hudson River, it’s now the Church of the Holy Rosary, with a shrine to Seton at the back. She is rightly heralded as the first native-born American saint. Not a martyr, she lived instead with many heartbreaks: the deaths, before she was 4, of her mother and infant sister, then when she was 29, of her husband, and finally of two daughters as young girls. Late in life, she marveled that she had lived through it all.

Contemporary issues that would’ve interested her swirl around this small oasis in New York traffic. Immigration would’ve concerned her because when her husband William Seton sickened, the medical recommendation was that a few months in Italian sunshine would restore his health. Instead, the Seton party was confined to a lazaretto (a place like prison) because the Italians feared yellow fever. (He actually died of tuberculosis.) Once at the height of society, they quickly became the refugees.

International business thrives here. So too the Seton shipping company had commerce around the world. William had worked with the Filicchi family in Italy for two years learning the shipping business before he met Elizabeth. Interfaith dialogue, the ecumenical movement prompted by Vatican II might’ve amazed her, since her conversion made her an outcast of upper crust society. She agonized over the right path to God, believing there was only one. Many of her Episcopal friends and family rejected her, since Catholics were at the bottom of the social heap, but some friends remained faithful despite what they saw as folly.  

New trends in education? She would’ve gobbled them up, wanting nothing but the best for her students, whether they paid a small tuition or came “dutch,” free. In the early days of her first school, she’d study herself after classes ended at five o’clock, “stuffing her brain” with math and grammar to teach the next day.

The biographical details provide an outline: Born two years before the American Revolution, Betsey Bayley was the doctor’s petite and beautiful daughter, raised in privilege, but still lonely. His remarriage after her mother’s death and subsequently seven more children meant Elizabeth had to live with various relatives. When she met Will at age 16 and married him four years later, she wrote, “My own home at twenty—the world—that and heaven too, quite impossible!” The attractive couple were compatible in many ways: especially charming were duets with her playing the piano, and he the violin.

But the idyllic times were short-lived. They had five children in seven years, and Will’s shipping business began to fail. Elizabeth tried to help with accounts and her father gave money, but bankruptcy or debtor’s prison seemed inevitable. Then Will’s father died, and his own health failed. The solution, which most of their friends thought madness, was the Italian climate, voyaging with their oldest daughter Anna, leaving the four younger children with relatives. After forty days jailed in quarantine, Elizabeth wrote, “To be sent a thousand miles on so hopeless an errand…”

When Will died two days after Christmas, Elizabeth was left penniless, with five children under eight. But the church of Italy had a profound influence. After much agonizing and delay, Elizabeth became Catholic on March 25, 1805. Seton could easily be patron saint of single parenthood, financial anxiety, household drudgery, and bottomless grief. In early widowhood, she had to rely on the charity of others, but joy in her new-found faith seemed to carry her through the worst.

The only hope for the small family’s security came from the president of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore. He wanted Elizabeth to start a school for girls. In fact, he had only two prospective students, his nieces. But he was a charming and persuasive Frenchman and she had nothing to lose.

Saying goodbye to New York City where she had been so happy, never to return, Elizabeth wrote, “can the heart swell so high and not burst?” Male clergy tried to force on her small group of women the French rule of the Daughters of Charity, but  Elizabeth was adamant that nothing should interfere with her “darlings,” her children, her first priority. Her early years in Maryland were difficult, with constant illness and death, squabbles with tyrannical clergy, tedious conflict over the rule and leadership, a grueling schedule, brutal cold, fleas, food shortages and uncertainty about the school. Always the leader, Elizabeth coped with it all, admitting, “Tribulation is my element.” Then her beautiful, 16-year old daughter Anna died of tuberculosis, followed soon after by her sister Rebecca.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s community was asked to staff orphanages in Philadelphia and New York, a ministry that would eventually expand to hospitals, schools and social services all over the country. As one sister predicted, their quiet work in a valley would “give such a roar one day that the noise will sound over all America.”

Seton could address many contemporary quandaries. Difficult teenagers? Her sons were “a thorn in the heart,” of whom she said, “what’s a parent to do but pray and dote?” Tedious housework? She shoveled snow off the children’s beds in Emmitsburg. Advocacy for the marginalized? She welcomed the first African-American students, and insisted on the education of girls, apparently deflecting questions about why they weren’t learning simply to embroider.

Her self-deprecating one-liners could out-quip Stephen Colbert. She called herself the “Old Lady,” who simply doled out affection. After founding what would become the American Catholic schools, she dismissed an arduous body of work: “A ruined carcass, bundled up in old shawls and flannels, I never do the least work of any kind.”

Her humor transcends eighteenth century piety; her mysticism resonates with the best of contemporary spirituality. When she had lost almost everything–husband, beloved sister-in-law, home, comforts, she wrote drily, “is Poverty and Sorrow the only exchange?… Well, with God’s blessing, you too will be changed into dearest friends.” That is the voice of the spacious soul, welcoming whatever comes, finding even in the worst surprises the mysterious presence of the Holy.

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In by Kathy Coffey, Liturgical Press,  800-858-5450.

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