Elizabeth Ann Seton grew up in New York City during the very beginning of America’s independence. Let author Anne Merwin, former president of the Mother Seton House in Baltimore, guide you through the life of this young socialite who becomes the pioneer of the Catholic school system in the United States and the foundress of the Sisters of Charity.Discover the secret of Elizabeth’s holiness—a courageous determination to allow God to guide her, no matter where he might lead.
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Saints by Our Side
By Anne Merwin
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Elizabeth Ann Seton / Anne Merwin.
1 online resource.
Includes bibliographical references.
Description based on print version record and CIP data provided by publisher; resource not viewed.
ISBN 978-0-8198-2381-6 (epub) --ISBN 978-0-8198-2382-3 (mobi) --ISBN 978-0-8198-2383-0 (pdf) --ISBN 978-0-8198-2380-9
1. Seton, Elizabeth Ann, Saint, 1774-1821. 2. Christian saints--United States--Biography. I. Title.
The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for use in the United States of America, copyright © 1994, United States Catholic Conference, Inc.—Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Used with permission.
Excerpts from Elizabeth Bayley Seton Collected Writings, 3 vols. (New York: New City Press, 2000–2006) copyright © Sisters of Charity Federation. Used with permission.
Excerpts from Rev. John David to Elizabeth Seton, Baltimore, 28 December 1809, Archives of Mount Saint Vincent (AMSV) 115, 1, 18. Courtesy: Archives Sisters of Charity of New York.
Excerpts from Numerous Choirs, Volume I: The Seton Years, 1774–1821, and the Archives Province of St. Louise (APSL) 1–3-3–4 #119, from Cecilia O’Conway, Christmas 1818. Courtesy: Daughters of Charity Province of St. Louise Archives, Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Excerpts from the Canonization of Elisabeth Ann Seton, Homily of the Holy Father Paul VI, September 14, 1975, copyright © Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Used with permission.
Excerpts from the Navy Medal Pamphlet, Commemorating Elizabeth Ann Seton, 1774–1821, Sainted Mother of Two U.S. Navy Sons, copyright © National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton, Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Cover design by Rosana Usselmann
Cover background photo: © istockphoto.com/ver0nicka
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
“P” and PAULINE are registered trademarks of the Daughters of St. Paul.
Copyright © 2015, Anne Merwin
Published by Pauline Books & Media, 50 Saint Pauls Avenue, Boston, MA 02130–3491
Printed in the U.S.A.
Pauline Books & Media is the publishing house of the Daughters of St. Paul, an international congregation of women religious serving the Church with the communications media.
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“The Lord looks on the heart.”
—1 SAMUEL 16:7
“God loves a cheerful giver.”
—2 CORINTHIANS 9:7
“Think of him, love him, and look to him,and never mind the rest—all will be well—the Lord will direct.”
—SAINT ELIZABETH ANN SETON1
“Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.”
—GENERAL GEORGE WASHINGTON2
My Personal Connection to Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
Spiritual Seeds and Formation
Marriage and Motherhood
Livorno: Tragedy Transformed
Conversion and Change
Baltimore: Answering God’s Call
From Emmitsburg to Eternity
The Spirit of Love and Service
Prayer in Honor of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
Bibliography and Sources
“Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter: whoever finds one has found a treasure.” (Sir 6:14)
I met Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton because of my husband. One weekend in the early 1990s, he suggested that we visit her house in Baltimore. He told me I had a great deal in common with her. I reluctantly agreed to put our active young sons in the car and go to a museum, where I would have to prevent them from running through the exhibits. When I arrived and walked through the front door of the Mother Seton House, I felt a peace that engulfed my mind, my body, and my soul. I knew I belonged there. From that day on, I have tried to learn as much as possible about Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. What I did not realize was how much she would teach me about my own life through her example.
We are all part of God’s family through the communion of saints. My relationship with Elizabeth has another, earthly dimension, however, because I am related to her sister-in-law, Mary Hoffman Seton. I have other things in common with Elizabeth. She and I were both Episcopalians from New York City who converted to Catholicism while we cared for our young children. Her maternal grandfather was a Protestant clergyman, as was my maternal great-great-grandfather. Religion was ingrained in our families. Brought up to be debutantes, we went to private schools for girls and studied music. We both married men from New York who changed the direction of our lives. Circumstances concerning our husbands led us to Catholicism and to Baltimore at the age of thirty-three. Elizabeth found her mission in life while living at her house on Paca Street, and at that same house I discovered joy in promoting her legacy.
The other similar circumstances in our lives are too numerous to list here. They helped me understand Elizabeth’s story. I never planned these events; they just happened. In retrospect, my connections to Elizabeth gradually and gently unfolded like a sunrise at dawn. Divine education teaches through revelation. My personal connections to Elizabeth can be best understood in light of a short overview of her life.
It is not possible to speak of the spirit of Elizabeth without joining it to the spirit of her land, the new nation, for she came from its soil, breathed its air, and walked its streets. She dreamed its dreams, captured its vision, and lived the meaning of its pioneering experience.1
Elizabeth was brought up during the tumultuous times of the American Revolution. She was born in the area of New York City in 1774 into a wealthy, aristocratic, and Episcopalian family. Her parents were preoccupied with the war and their expanding family while Elizabeth was growing up. Elizabeth’s faith in God comforted her and became a source of strength.
In 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States at New York City’s Federal Hall on Wall Street. The same year, Bishop John Carroll became the head of the nation’s first Catholic Diocese in Baltimore. Elizabeth would convert to Catholicism; and her later association with Bishop Carroll gave her the opportunity for leadership in the formative years of the Catholic Church in America. The year 1789 was a year of spiritual growth and formation for the teenaged Elizabeth. She discovered that God, who revealed himself to her in nature, was also her Father.
In 1794, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, of the prominent Seton mercantile family. She bore five children in the next eight years. Then tragedy struck several times in quick succession. Elizabeth courageously faced the failure of her husband’s business and his painful death from tuberculosis. Inspired by her stay in Catholic Italy at the time of her husband’s death, Elizabeth returned to New York in 1804 only to face struggle once again. She decided to give up her social standing, withstood the rejection of family members (which included my relative, Mary Seton), and, to the horror of New York society, she converted to Catholicism. This penniless widow with five children persisted while making such a bold move. And it got the attention of Baltimore’s Bishop John Carroll.
In 1808, John Carroll approved the invitation of Reverend Louis William Valentine Dubourg, the President of Saint Mary’s College in Baltimore, to have Elizabeth start a Catholic school for girls on its grounds. With extraordinary perseverance and hard work, she managed to bring up her own five children while she accomplished pioneering work for the Catholic school system and establishing the first order of Catholic sisters in the United States. From their formation days in Baltimore and Emmitsburg, Maryland, her Sisters and Daughters of Charity would travel across the United States and around the globe to establish new foundations. On September 14, 1975, the world celebrated the canonization of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born saint of the United States.
Elizabeth’s life and work teach us how to put faith into action. She responded to the needs of each day and to the events of her time. She answered the call of Christ with a grateful and willing heart. She accepted God’s will and moved forward.
Three memorable experiences solidified both my connection with Elizabeth and my commitment to her legacy. I can label these experiences human, historic, and holy.
Elizabeth’s humanity became evident to me in the winter of 2000. In January, one of my children hit a tree hard while sledding at dusk. While I waited in the hospital’s emergency room for my son to return from getting x-rays, I prayed for Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s intercession and promptly fell asleep. It was the last thing I wanted to do, because I intended to pray for a positive outcome the entire time he was having the x-rays. Upon waking, I immediately learned that my son suffered much bruising, but he did not break any bones. He would be fine, but I needed to recover. The only sleep I got that night was when my son was in the x-ray department.
In retrospect, not only were my prayers for my son answered, but I also got a few minutes of rest, which I needed for the following day.
When we left the hospital early the next morning, I realized the deeper significance of the nap. When I fell asleep, I lost control of my prayers. My agenda to pray continuously during the x-rays peacefully slipped into God’s gentle, correcting hands. I believed that God, helped by the loving intercession of a maternal friend in heaven for an anxious mother on earth, knew what I really needed. I learned that I could finally trust God to set my agenda. In gratitude, I decided to commit as much of my life as possible to promoting the legacy of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Historic saintly connections can seem like coincidences. People have told me that they became interested in Elizabeth because her saint’s day happened to be their birthdays or anniversaries. Others said that, like Elizabeth, they had five children or that they were one of five. These shared circumstances are factual magnets that draw people to Elizabeth and anchors that keep them interested in her. They also can become holy, life-changing, faith-filled experiences. The first time I heard Elizabeth’s story at her house in Baltimore, I reacted by thinking: An Episcopalian woman married in Lower Manhattan who converted to Catholicism and moved to Baltimore ... wow, I did that, too! I was hooked and had to learn more.
I read that Elizabeth had worshiped at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in New York and had felt drawn by the nearby Catholic church of Saint Peter during her decision to convert to Catholicism. I had spent many lunch hours praying in Episcopal churches in mid-town Manhattan wondering why I felt something missing, why I was not quite connecting. When I stepped into the nearby Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, I knew I had found the comfort of the missing link. It was the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, although I did not understand what that meant at the time. Now I feel most closely connected to Elizabeth in prayer that takes place in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, either privately or at Mass.
Finally there are the holy experiences that seem to include all dimensions of life. In the spring of 2006, almost exactly 200 years after Elizabeth’s confirmation at Saint Peter’s Catholic Church in New York by Baltimore’s Bishop John Carroll, I visited the Parrocchia Madre Seton in Livorno, Italy (the first church in Europe named for Mother Seton). In Livorno, Elizabeth would become interested in the Catholic faith while staying with the Filicchi family after her husband’s death. In the garden of this church named after Mother Seton, her statue stands most appropriately between the graves of her husband, William, and their mutual Catholic friend Antonio Filicchi. She holds a rosary in one hand and a book in the other. The book reminded me of my Protestant days when I began to study the Bible, and the Rosary represented my Catholic faith and prayers to Mary, the Queen of All Saints.
The juxtaposition of the graves was deeply moving. The friendship of William Seton and Antonio Filicchi was honored in a way that revealed the beauty of God’s love in his plan for Elizabeth’s life. Through these men, Elizabeth’s life as wife and mother became that of widow, convert, and foundress. The unity of the American and Italian men reflected the universality of the Church. In nature’s peaceful setting, history met eternity in the sanctity of Elizabeth. And through the death and resurrection of Christ, we all have hope for a blessed eternity. In the silence of that garden, in the presence of earthly and heavenly friends, in a country where I could not understand the language, I finally understood the meaning of the Communion of Saints.
What does Elizabeth mean to me?
She has enlightened my life for the past twenty years. I have tried to visit the places in the world where her footsteps have left historical imprints. On a summer’s day you can see me on the upper deck of the Governor’s Island ferry in New York’s harbor. Camera in hand, I click away at the approaching Manhattan skyline. For right in the center of that coastline is the site of Elizabeth’s former home. In Baltimore, it was my great privilege and joy to show visitors her home and the chapel where she became Mother Seton. And as I approach Emmitsburg in my car during the different seasons of the year, I can see how Elizabeth must have felt this was truly God’s country. I simply never get tired of retracing her timeless footsteps.
When I arrive at the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, I slip into the old cemetery to visit the graves of her two teenaged daughters and two beloved sisters-in-law. I ask for Elizabeth Seton’s intercession for my family. Then I pray for her girls and soul sisters as well.
Elizabeth is like a jewel. The many beautiful facets in her legacy of love continue to sparkle. She trusted in God and thrived in the present. Yet she saw the present through the lens of eternity. She is a mentor and a heroic model of holiness. Best of all, she is a friend who is always available. I think of the words in Proverbs, “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all” (Prov 31:29).
In the following pages, I have attempted to show how God motivated Elizabeth’s thoughts and actions.2 My hope is the example of her life, one of divine education, can reveal the love and mission God has for your life. The reflections and questions at the end of the book are designed for that purpose.
If you feel particularly drawn to Elizabeth, I hope this book will help you understand why. In A Simple Life, Kathryn Hermes, FSP, beautifully describes the connection to a saint.
It is a blessed moment when one discovers a kindred spirit among the saints. When this happens, it often becomes apparent that the spiritual friendship had been developing quietly and patiently throughout life, waiting for the moment when it would blossom into a kinship of the soul.3
All saints have demonstrated extraordinary virtues, especially charity. So even if you have a different vocation from Elizabeth’s, it is still possible to imitate the purpose and motivation of her life. She loved God with her whole heart, mind, and soul. She also loved her neighbor. Through God’s timeless love, the years melt away. Therefore, her neighbor today includes you.
“Look up at the blue Heavens and love Him!”1
As you approach the tip of lower Manhattan aboard the deck of a slow-moving ferry, the tall, gleaming glass buildings of State and Water Streets beckon. From this majestic, thin tip of the island, every linear structure reaches for its place in the spacious blue skies. But what is the tiny brick building front and center, nestled between two skyscrapers? More importantly, how can it justify the land it occupies in both the continuously evolving New York skyline and one of the most valuable real estate markets in the world? This three-story Georgian style house is associated with the legacy of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born Catholic saint of the United States. Today, it is both a parish church and a shrine to Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. Her journey began in New York City in 1774, but now her legacy is worldwide, eternal, and accessible to all. Just as this site where she lived over two hundred years ago has endured to become a church that welcomes visitors from around the globe, her story still invites everyone to share in its relevance today.
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