A Saint from New York: Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton

It was Father Leonard Feeney, one of Mother Seton’s earliest biographers, who asked this important question in a 1937 sermon given at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. In 1975 his hope was realized, and we now have a Saint Elizabeth of New York — Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, our first “All-American” Saint, and this in every sense of the word. Possessing typical American intensity, in her short life she was a belle, a wife, a mother of five, a widow, a nun, Foundress of the Sisters of Charity in America, and the originator of our parochial schools.

That our Saint should have come into this world during a time of such great importance to our nation was in God’s mind, no mere accident. His Providence directs the course of all human affairs. Undoubtedly, then, the formative years of our country and the beautiful life of Saint Elizabeth are much more than an interwoven chain of events with no real connection or purpose.. Rather the Divine dispensation was generously bestowing a most sublime gift upon the American people — sanctity.

Early Years

Elizabeth Ann’s timely arrival was on August 28, 1774. The previous December had witnessed the dramatic Boston Tea Party, and the following September would see the decisive meeting of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Her father, Richard Bayley, a surgeon of high repute (more devoted to his profession than to his family), was nominally Episcopalian. Her mother, Catherine Charlton, was the daughter of an Episcopalian minister. They had three children, all girls, Mary Magdalen, Elizabeth Ann, and Catherine Josephine, in that order.

When Elizabeth Bayley was two years old the Declaration of Independence was signed, and during her childhood the American Revolution was fought. Her father was a Royalist, in fact a surgeon in the British Army. But such were his qualities of character and learning that, when American Independence was established, he was warmly received by the citizens of the new Republic and given posts of honor in the community. The war cost him no serious reversal of fortune and the days of Elizabeth’s girlhood were passed in extreme comfort.

Yet, there can be no sanctity without suffering and in view of her future mission and vocation, little Elizabeth was visited with a long succession of sorrows from the very start.

Her mother died May 8, 1777, when she was not yet three years old. The following year Doctor Bayley married Charlotte Amelia Barclay, daughter of Andrew Barclay and Helena Roosevelt, whose father was the founder of the Roosevelt dynasty in America. Elizabeth came to love and respect her stepmother as much as is possible in such cases, but her father became for her, henceforth, pretty much of a mother and father combined. This was soon followed by another tragedy, the death of her two-year-old sister Catherine. When asked if she were not sad at the loss of her little sister, Elizabeth expressed her early realization of the very purpose of our life in this vale of tears by replying, “No, because Kitty is gone up to heaven. I wish I could go there too.” This yearning for Eternity was but the seed of her spirituality, which God Himself would carefully nurture, and with the passing years, render fruitful.

Elizabeth was brought up in an age when a girl was given a distinctly feminine education. Music, drawing, French, literature, sewing, dancing, and housewifery were the general curriculum allotted to her. Her father also strove to develop in her everything that was fine in the way of moral virtue. But what was lacking in Richard Bayley was a belief consonant with his disciplinary regime. The discipline was Christian, the doctrine indefinite, for he was no more or no less than a Christian humanitarian. It is not surprising, then, to find Elizabeth upon the threshold of adulthood, thoroughly indoctrinated with the ideas of Rousseau, the philosopher of the French Revolution. That harm was not done, and that, without any spiritual direction, she gradually disregarded Rousseau and reverted to her quest for something in which her spirit could rejoice without disillusionment, is a tribute both to the character of the girl herself and to the intense impulse of grace that was drawing her step by step to the goal God had intended for her from the beginning.

It was evident that heaven had also endowed Elizabeth with a naturally pious disposition which even the tempting vanities of girlhood could not impair. There was no question about it; Elizabeth was a beauty, a model of slenderness and grace. Her features were finely cut and her eyes a brilliant dark-brown. And, as one might expect of an attractive young woman, she was courted lavishly. She attended cotillions and balls, escorted by handsome young men from the prominent families of New York society. Nevertheless, she wondered after being at public places — “why I could not say my prayers and have good thoughts as if I had been at home.”

Who could have fully perceived the beautiful desires of her youthful heart? Elizabeth as she was known to her family, friends, and many social acquaintances was quite different from the Elizabeth known to God and God alone. Fortunately, she kept detailed journals throughout her life, and from these it is easy to see the grace that was forever at work in the depths of her soul. It was during these early years that she had “passionate wishes that there were such places in America…where people could be shut from the world and pray and be good always.” Little did Elizabeth Bayley imagine that her desire for detachment and prayer would one day be happily fulfilled beyond all expectation. But this day would have to wait.

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