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.
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.
Mrs. William Seton
At one of the many social functions that this daughter of the American Revolution attended she met “her William”…William Magee Seton. The young New York financier was handsome, charming, successful, but also of extremely poor health due to an advanced case of consumption. He was the oldest son of William Seton, Sr., who headed the commissioning firm of Seton, Maitland and Company. Their courtship began upon William’s return from Italy, where he had spent considerable time as an apprentice to the Filicchi brothers, prominent bankers and good friends of his father. It did not take long for the ailing young Seton to discover the treasure he had in this delightful girl. William and Elizabeth were married January 25, 1794; the bridegroom was twenty-six and the bride nineteen.
The first years of Elizabeth’s wedded life were cloudless. She was married to the most desirable of husbands and both were very popular in society. In fact, in 1797, William was one of the four distinguished hosts of a tremendous social event, a ball honoring George Washington. Naturally, William’s beautiful wife would be present at this gala affair — and we do not doubt that our first American Saint was acquainted with our first American President. The Father of our nation, it might be added, died just two years later — a Catholic (as has been attested to by Father Leonard Neale, S.J., who assisted him in his last hour).
The year 1798, however, wrought sorrowful changes in Elizabeth’s life. Her beloved father-in-law died, leaving William, Jr., barely thirty years old, to care for his younger brothers and sisters. His strength lay in Elizabeth, who invaluably aided him in the care and upbringing of the seven additions to their own family of two-going-on-three. Likewise, Elizabeth tirelessly devoted herself to assisting William in the affairs of his business, which was now rapidly declining. Despite all efforts, the following year saw the complete crash of the Seton finances.
When her own father Dr. Bayley died in 1801, life became almost insupportable to Elizabeth, who wrote, “Human life and sorrow are inseparable…. At all events this life is worth possessing only because, while we have it, we are candidates for a better one.” — A marvelous insight into the supernatural value of suffering, which most of us fail to grasp.
From her earliest childhood, Elizabeth had lived a life with God that was all her own, adopted without the instruction of her father or stepmother. She had amassed an amazing diversity of ideas and observances. Thus she wore a Catholic crucifix; looked kindly on the life of the cloister; subscribed to the doctrine of angels (insisting on having one for herself); liked Methodist hymns, the quietism of the Quakers and the emotionalism of Rousseau; read general Protestant works (along with her beloved “Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis); practiced meditation; was inclined to the narrow Calvinism of her ancestors in the matter of sin and punishment, and attended the Episcopalian Church! In the descriptive words of Father Leonard Feeney, “She was a bewildered moth, always searching for the flame, not sure where it was, but terribly sure that it was.”
At about this time she began to receive spiritual direction from one Reverend Henry Hobart, an Episcopalian minister and assistant rector of Trinity Church. In her own trusting fashion Elizabeth became, so to speak, Mr. Hobart’s disciple. Incapable of giving her any real doctrine, except the most evasive kind, Mr. Hobart overwhelmed her with “morals.” As a result of this direction, we find the confidences entrusted to her diary during this period altogether shorn of the natural cheerfulness and gaiety of her normal character.
But this was not to go on for long. For, by a merciful dispensation of Divine Providence, it was arranged that Elizabeth should change the sober and delusive air of her present surroundings for the warm, rich Catholic life of Italy. There her soul would be given what it most craved — doctrine — truth .
Sojourn in Italy
By the year 1803 Elizabeth was twenty-nine and the mother of five children: Anna Maria, William, Richard, Catherine and Rebecca. Her husband’s health had deteriorated rapidly, due partly to consumption, and partly to the tremendous strain of attempting to recover his business from ruin. He decided, therefore, to go back to the Filicchis at Leghorn, Italy, in the hope of regaining both his health and fortune.
William, accompanied by Elizabeth and eight-year-old Anna Maria, the only child they could afford to take along, departed for Italy aboard the brig The Shepherdess . It was October 2nd, the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, who must have been instructed to guard with special care these passengers, for on November 18th, after weathering many sicknesses and dangerous storms, The Shepherdess arrived in the port of Leghorn while the evening Angelus bells were ringing in the village.
How excited they were — the sick man, his exhausted wife, and their lonely child — to see land, the Promised Land to them. How anxious to disembark! But no, — one more trial — and this time an almost unbearable one to Elizabeth. The Shepherdess was the first to bring news of the yellow fever which had just broken out in New York. The Setons did not have yellow fever, but the boat lacked a bill of health to show their freedom from it. The Italian health authorities, therefore, placed them under quarantine for a period of thirty days in what was called the “Lazaretto,” nothing more than a tower in the middle of the bay.
During the entire trip Elizabeth was keeping a journal for her sister-in-law Rebecca, and from this we obtain the following details:
“How eagerly would you listen to the voice that should offer to tell you where your ‘dear sister’ is now — your soul’s sister. Yet, you could not rest in your bed if you saw her as she is, sitting in one corner of an immense prison, locked in and barred with as much ceremony as any monster of mischief might be….”
“….My William and Anna are sound asleep, and I trust that God who has given him strength to go through a day of such exertion will carry us on. He is our All indeed….”
“Consider my husband,…. confined in this place of high and damp walls, exposed to cold and wind, which penetrates to the very bones, without fire, except the kitchen charcoal, which oppresses his breast so much as to nearly convulse him….”
At last on December 19, after thirty days in the Lazaretto they were released. They had been exactly seventy-nine days in confinement, if we consider both the ship-voyage and the dungeon detention. When Elizabeth left the Lazaretto with her poor husband — now at death’s door and borne along by two men — and frail Anna Maria, the sympathetic Italian crowd could not restrain the cry: “O Poverino!”
William Seton was to live exactly eight days after his removal from the Lazaretto to Pisa. He died on the morning of December 27th. Because of the fear of yellow fever, Elizabeth was left to wash and dress alone the body of her dead husband. The next morning, as he was being lowered into the earth in the Protestant burying ground in Leghorn, the disconsolate widow was heard to murmur, “O my Father and my God!” Someone among the bystanders whispered, “If she were not a heretic, she’d be a saint!” This she recorded in her journal.
A New Life
And so Elizabeth and Annina (“little Anna,” as the Italians soon named her) came “home” to the Filicchi palace where William had spent so many days of his youth.
The Filicchi family, destined to have such a bearing on the life of Elizabeth Seton, were greatly loved in Leghorn and held in high esteem abroad. Filippo, the elder of the two brothers, had often visited America, and had married an American girl, Miss Mary Cowper of Boston. The younger brother, Antonio, attended to the family business with his brother. Antonio and his wife Amabilia had several children.
What was most notable about the Filicchis, however, was the exceptional Catholic life they led. They were more than just devout — they were truly holy. Their faith was the shining quality enlightening all their undertakings, as attested to by both their servants and business associates.
The entire Filicchi household now hastened to comfort William Seton’s young widow, but she writes, “My soul was roaming among the clouds winging its flight towards William, and ceaselessly repeating, ‘O God, Thou art my God. Here I am, alone in the world with Thee and my dear little ones. But Thou art my Father and doubly theirs.’ ”
Expecting Elizabeth’s stay in Leghorn to be very short — she intended to return to America aboard The Shepherdess in possibly two weeks’ time — the Filicchis undertook to give her as much distraction and diversion as possible. So Amabilia set out with Elizabeth and Ana to see the wonders of Florence. They stayed about four days at the Medici palace, and the remainder of the two weeks was spent in visiting the veritable pageant of beautiful churches, most of which honor Mary, the Mother of God.
Did Elizabeth recall the words which Henry Hobart had written before her departure: “The sumptuous and splendid worship of Italy will not, I am sure, withdraw your affections for the simple but affecting worship of Trinity Church….” It appears that these churches of Italy made Elizabeth realized fully that, because Catholics possess All, they give all to the worship of God. She writes: “It recalled the ideas of the offerings of David and Solomon to the Lord when the rich and valuable productions of nature and art were devoted to His holy Temple and sanctified to His service.”
After this memorable journey to Florence, Elizabeth returned to the Filicchis, where “the hand of God kept her in their company for several months more.” It is to be expected that in a household as devout as theirs, where every day began with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and the Rosary was an essential part of the routine, Elizabeth should begin to ask questions. The challenge of the Filicchi household was not what they argued but what they lived; quite different from the regime she had been drawn into by the eloquence and charm of the Reverend Mr. Hobart.
The dawning of the Faith in this exquisite soul becomes clear when we read two of her letters to Rebecca Seton. The first was written after their unsuccessful attempt at sailing home — failure due to both “a driving storm at night which struck the vessel against another,” and a case of scarlet fever contracted by Anna Maria at this time.
“My sister dear, how happy would we be, if we believed what these dear souls believe, that they possess God in the Sacrament, and that He remains in their churches….A little prayer book of Mr. Filicchi was on the table, and I opened it to a little prayer of St. Bernard to the Blessed Virgin begging her to be our Mother. I said it to her with such a certainty that God would surely refuse nothing to His Mother; that she could not help loving and pitying the poor souls He died for; that I felt I really had a mother whom you know my foolish heart so often lamented to have lost in early days.”
This second letter was written after Elizabeth’s own recovery from scarlet fever:
“…I am now able to leave my room after an illness that lasted twenty days, as Ann’s did. This evening, as I stood by the window with the moon shining full on Mr. Filicchi’s countenance, he raised his eyes to heaven and showed me how to make the sign of the cross. Dearest Rebecca, I was cold with the awful impression my first making it gave me. The sign of the cross of Christ on me! Deepest thoughts came with it of I know not what earnest desires to be closely united with Him who died on it….My dearest Rebecca, they go here to Mass every morning. Think what a consolation!….I don’t know how anyone can have the smallest trouble in this world who believes all that these dear souls believe. If I do not believe, it shall not be for want of praying. Why, they must be as happy almost as the angels.”
The more Elizabeth penetrated the rich deposit of Catholic truth the more she realized the great deficiency of her “own” Christianity. Very soon this inward struggle would be over and she would be filled with that joy which is the peace of Christ, the peace of Truth. Was not Elizabeth born on August 28, the feast of Saint Augustine of Hippo, the great Doctor of the Church? Soon she would consider him her patron. He, too, found this Peace, this Truth late in life, and penned these most fitting words: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”
April 8, 1804, accompanied by the noble Antonio Filicchi, Elizabeth and Anna Maria departed from Italy and made their way slowly back across the Atlantic — home!
Conversion and its Consequences
Elizabeth had been separated from her family exactly eight months. What a reunion there was upon her arrival in New York! She rushed to embrace her four little ones who had been distributed among relatives and friends.
In the shelter of various hospitalities she began to figure out how she must henceforth exist, knowing what her husband did not know (and was not let know) before his death, that their financial ruin was beyond recovery. More harrowing still was the anticipation of all that becoming a Catholic would entail. Poor Elizabeth! She wrote to Amabilia:
“…The children are all asleep. This is my time of many thoughts. I had a most affectionate note from Mr. Hobart today, asking me how I could ever think of leaving the church in which I was baptized. But though whatever he says to me has the weight of my partiality for him, yet that question made me smile, for it is like saying that wherever a child is born, and wherever its parents place it, it will find the truth. And he does not hear the droll invitations made me every day since I am in my little new home and old friends come to see me. For it has already happened that one of the most excellent women I ever knew, who is of the Church of Scotland, finding me unsettled about the great object of a true faith, said to me, ‘Oh! do, dear soul, come and hear our J. Mason, and I am sure you will join us.’
“A little after came one whom I loved for the purest and most innocent manners, and belonging to the Society of Friends, to which I have always been attached. She, too, coaxed me with artless persuasion: ‘Betsy, I tell thee, thou had best come with us.’
“Then my faithful old friend, Mrs. T. of the Anabaptist meeting, says, with tears in her eyes, ‘Oh! could you be regenerated, could you know our experiences and enjoy with us our heavenly banquet.’
“And my good servant Mary, the Methodist, groans and ‘contemplates,’ as she expresses it, ‘my soul so misled, because I have yet no convictions.’
“But, O my God! all this will not do for me! Your word is truth and without contradiction, wherever it is! One faith, one hope, one baptism, I look for wherever it is , and I often think my sins, my miseries, hide the light. Yet will I cling to my God to the last, begging for that light, and never change until I find it.”
It was at this trying time that Elizabeth prayed repeatedly:
“If I am right, Thy grace impart, still in the right to stay.
If I am wrong, oh teach my heart to find the better way.”
The Reverend Henry Hobart used his influence to dissuade his one-time enthusiastic disciple from entering the Flock, presenting her with tracts against the Catholic Faith. He offered such typical arguments as “being true to her traditions,” and remaining “loyal.” On the other hand, Antonio Filicchi, with true charity, presented Elizabeth with the claims of the True Faith.
And so she was torn. Her letters give proof to the two questions foremost in her mind: the reality of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and honor due to Mary His Mother. She writes to Amabilia:
“…Mr. Hobart says: ‘How can you believe that there are as many Gods as there are millions of altars and ten millions of Sacred Hosts all over the world?” Again I can but smile at his earnest words, for the whole of my cogitations about it are reduced to one thought: ‘Is it not God Who does it?’ The same God Who fed so many thousands with the little barley loaves and fishes, multiplying them, of course, in the hands that distributed them. The thought leads me to look straight at my God, and I see that nothing is so very hard to believe since it is He who does it.”
Concerning Our Lady, “…Anna begs me, when we are at our evening prayers, to say the Hail Mary, and all exclaim: ‘Oh! do, Ma, teach it to us!’ Even little Bec tries to lisp it, though she can scarcely speak, and I ask my Savior why we should not say it. If anyone is in heaven, His mother must be there. Are the angels, then, who are so often represented as being so interested for us on earth, more compassionate or more exalted than she is? Oh! no, no, Mary our Mother, that cannot be! So I beseech her, with the confidence and tenderness of her child, to pity us and guide us to the true faith if we are not in it.”
Beset with many arguments from her Protestant antagonists,, Elizabeth, for comfort and advice, wrote to Antonio, who gently and simply put the truths of the Faith before her groping mind. In another letter, to Amabilia, Elizabeth writes that she is “worn out to a skeleton; death may overtake me in my struggle, but God Himself must finish it.”
And God Himself did finish it! The New Year, 1805, saw Mrs. Seton in a true state of despair in which, distrusting herself, she failed to trust in God. She determined to finish the remainder of her life without any form of religion at all. So on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, Elizabeth remained at home, self-excluded from any church services, in a truly despondent mood. God, however, in His great mercy and love for this soul which had shown such good will, did not abandon her. Divinely inspired, she picked up a volume of Bourdaloue, the famous French Jesuit priest of the previous century. Turning to his sermon of the day, which commemorates the homage rendered to the Infant Savior by the Magi and refers especially to the disappearance of the star at Jerusalem, she read:
“It is necessary that our faith be tried, and how? By those abandonments and those privations so common to the souls of the just; and if we are not strong enough to say to God with the Royal Prophet: ‘Try me, O Lord!’ we must, after the example of the Magi, be so holily disposed as to persevere in the midst of trials which it may please Him to send us. We must be mindful of the lights with which we have been favored when it shall please God to deprive us of them.
” ‘We have seen His star!’ I no longer experience what formerly impressed me and drew me to God. But I have seen it and have know its truth and its necessity, and I have been persuaded by it…
“Into whatsoever state of blindness or obscurity I may fall, in whatever ignorance of God’s ways I may chance to be, in whatever state of disorder my faith may be, if I seek out God in the simplicity of my heart, I will surely find Him. It is He Himself who has told me this and His word is expressed in the following: ‘Seek Him out in the simplicity of your heart, for He is found even by those who do not seek Him.’ Oracles of Scriptures which I am not allowed to doubt! Now is there anything more proper to encourage me in the duty of seeking God and of studying out the ways of salvation?…
“…There are in the Church of God doctors and priests, just as there have always been;…Their lips, the depositories of knowledge, will teach you the science of sciences, that of finding God. Can you fail to know Him in virtue of this? And in virtue of this, can you deceive yourself without rendering yourself absolutely inexcusable?’
When she closed the book she cried, “Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth! Thine hour has struck. From now on, no hesitation, no weakness, no procrastination. Holy Church of God, teach, direct, call to thyself thy child, docile and faithful evermore.”
Daughter of the Church
In vain now her associates endeavored to shake her courage; her resolution was deeply rooted in her heart, and she writes to her faithful friends the Filicchis:
“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; seek it among whose who received it from God Himself.”
Finally on Ash Wednesday, February 27, 1805, while exclaiming in her heart, “Here, my God, I go,” she marched resolutely to the Church of Saint Peter on Barclay Street in New York (a Church which, she remarked, “has a cross on top instead of a weathercock:). Here at last, arrangements were made for her instruction in the truths of the Catholic Faith.
After the necessary preliminaries, on March 14, 1805, Elizabeth made her formal abjuration of heresy at the hands of Father Matthew O’Brien, and in the presence of Mr. Antonio Filicchi, “who offered himself to God as a security for her promises.” She writes: “I returned home light of heart and cool of head, the first time these many long months, but not without begging our Lord to wrap my heart deep in that open side,…or lock it up in His little tabernacle, where I shall rest forever.”
The following excerpts from her letters show her profound faith and love of Jesus’ Real Presence on the Altar:
“Annunciation Day I shall be made one in Holy Communion with Him Who said, ‘Unless you eat My Flesh and drink My Blood, you can have no part with Me.’ I count the days and hours. Yet a few more of hope and expectation, and then….”
“At last, Amabilia, at last, God is mine and I am His! Now let all go its round. I have received Him!”
How much she depended on her Jesus now, for everything; because at her abjuration all those loyal friends, including the Reverend Hobart, abandoned her. How was the new convert to support her five children? Elizabeth’s children took to Catholicism with the most perfect ardor and delight. When their simple pieties began to be ridiculed and satirized, it caused her pain of the acutest kind. “Besides,” she wrote to Antonio concerning her boys, “their minds are being poisoned with bad principles of every kind, which I cannot always check or control.” Antonio finally placed the boys at Georgetown College in Washington, much to Elizabeth’s comfort and delight.
To resolve her financial difficulties, Mrs. Seton joined a Mr. and Mrs. White in running a school in New York, but within three months it had to be closed due to lack of students, for it was rumored that the school was begun for the sole purpose of advancing the principles of her new religion.
At this failure, a few remaining friends arranged for her to board students attending a school conducted by a Mr. Harris. This lasted for three years and might have lasted longer but for the serious illness of her very devoted fifteen-year-old sister-in-law, Cecilia Seton. The young girl insisted on the continual companionship of the ostracized convert.
After her recovery, Cecilia announced to her family her decision to become a Catholic. No threat could change her mind and when she was received into the Church on June 20, the new convert was disowned by her family. Cecilia went to live with Elizabeth until the storm died down.
If there was one thing clear after this incident, it was that Elizabeth Seton must get out of New York. She might be tolerated there as a “poor fanatic,” but certainly not as a “corrupter of youth”! What was she to do? She thought of going to Canada with her three girls and helping in a Catholic school, but providentially in August of 1807 Elizabeth met Father Du Bourg, President of Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He advised strongly against going to Canada, and described to her the need of starting a Catholic school for girls in Baltimore. At the invitation of Archbishop Carroll, Elizabeth agreed to establish such a school.
The Birth of an Apostolate
So on June 9, 1808, Saint Elizabeth departed forever from New York. The brave mother was accompanied by her three little girls: Anna Marie, 13, Catherine Josephine, 8, and Rebecca, 6. the only regret she had was abandoning Cecilia Seton to the persecution of the Seton family.
The little troop arrived in Baltimore Bay a week later, on the morning of the Feast of Corpus Christi, Father Du Bourg had rented a house on Paca Street, not far from the Seminary, and on the following day they occupied it.
It was here that Elizabeth opened her school for girls. The Catholics of Baltimore were numerous and fervent, and the house was filled from the beginning of the first school year — 1808. By December the number of pupils had increased, and she found that “from half past five in the morning until nine at night, every moment is full — no space even to be troubled.” The school curriculum of reading, writing, arithmetic, English and French, plain and fancy needlework was much the same as Elizabeth’s had been barely thirty-five years before.
The next year it was obvious that the Paca Street house would not be large enough to accommodate both the students and the young girls who were asking to join Mrs. Seton in her work. Very soon the number of helpers had reached a total of five, and Archbishop John Carroll with Father Du Bourg, made plans to unite them as a religious community. When this took place, Elizabeth and the young girls took simple vows binding for year; Mrs. Seton was appointed their directress and henceforth was called by all — Mother.
Their choice of religious dress was influenced by the costume the Saint had worn since becoming a widow, and they wore it for the first time in public on June 9, 1809.
The school continued to prosper, and soon two more postulants arrived — one of whom was none other than Cecilia Seton, accompanied by Harriet, Mother Seton’s other devoted sister-in-law, who became a Catholic the same year. It was clear that something would have to be done to provide more room for the expanding group. The problem was readily solved when a wealthy Virginian convert, Samuel Cooper, who intended to become a priest, bought Mother Seton a large piece of land in Emmitsburg, a “village eighteen leagues from Baltimore” to the northwest. This beautiful valley would be considered the cradle of the Sisters of Charity in America.
In June, 1809, several Sisters, with Cecilia and Harriet, transferred from Baltimore to Emmitsburg, the journey taking several days. Their residence, called the Stone House, would not be ready for them until July of that year, and the group stayed in a little mountain dwelling — no more than a log house with a dirt floor — belonging to Father Dubois of Mount Saint Mary’s, who moved out to make room for the Sister.
The first winter spent in the Stone House at Emmitsburg was a series of continual hardships. The snow daily drifted into the house, and the Sisters had to shovel it out. There could be no such luxuries as tea of coffee, nor could they afford fresh meat, butter, or milk. Their Mother wrote: “All hearts applied themselves to mortification with such good will that they found carrot coffee, buttermilk soup, and stale lard too delicate food.”
In February of 1810 a new log house, constructed in the valley and known later as the White House, was ready to receive the entire order. Sixteen Sisters moved from the Stone House to inhabit this one-story dwelling, and on February 22 the new school opened with an enrollment of fifty pupils. Here, under the patronage of the great Saint Joseph, was planted the seed from which sprang the parochial schools, hospitals, and orphanages conducted by Mother Seton’s followers, the Sisters of Charity.
The most important question was whether the group should go on as an independent religious institute, or adopt the rule of some already established congregation. After discussion, it was found that the rule most suitable to Mother Seton’s purposes was that of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, a congregation already flourishing in France after having been established there a century and a half before.
The constitutions of Saint Vincent, with some very necessary changes required by local circumstances, were adopted and approved by Archbishop Carroll, and the small American community embarked on its course as a full-fledged religious congregation. It is interesting that the most decisive exemption from the original French rule had to be made in the case of Mother Seton herself. The French rule provided that in case of widows with children seeking admission to the Order, their children must first be provided for, and secured a competence before they be left by their mother. Mother Seton felt that she could not in conscience go on with her part of the project if she were to turn over her children to the care of another. This might be very well in France, where they could obtain suitable Catholic homes, environment and religious training; but to whom in America at that moment was Mother Seton to entrust her much-loved brood of five? By as special permission she was allowed to remain the legal and maternal guardian of her two boys and three girls until her death.
And so the days went by peacefully at Saint Joseph’s for Mother Seton. She cared for the whole community, school and convent; keeping accounts, communicating with parents about their children; writing out teaching schedules, and teaching French and catechism.
No matter how busy she was, however, she was always accessible to her daughters. And they loved her. At recreation nothing pleased them more than to be near her, to talk with her. Her spiritual advice was simple: “Not one grace is given but might, by your fidelity to it, become for you an eternal treasure. …Our least action when done for God is precious to Him…” were two of her favorite maxims.
Saint Elizabeth was firm in her one desire — that her spiritual children might live close to God and become saints. To a Sister who felt too inclined to the cloistered life, she said: “…but look to the kingdom of SOULS — the few to work in the vineyard of Our Lord. This is not a country for solitude and silence, but for warfare and crucifixion.”
The winter of 1811 had been early and cold. Seventeen-year-old Anna Maria Seton was now a novice in the community. Very mortified, she had not deviated at all from her chosen manner of life, arising at the first sound of the bell, going out in all kinds of weather to nurse the sick. A severe cold which she had contracted brought on a fever which developed into the fatal disease — consumption. By January 30 her condition was so bad that she was given the last rites. The next day little Anna was admitted fully into the Order her mother had founded, her desire of dying a Sister of Charity fulfilled.
As death approached, Anna minced no words with those around her: “See how vain and foolish is all that is not for Jesus — how it passes!” After she had suffered patiently for three months, the angels took her pure soul to heaven on March 12, 1812. At the time of her death her Mother writes: “Kitty will sometimes kiss me in a transport and ask, ‘Oh mother, won’t we be happy when we are there?’ Little Bec is more given to tears and often says, ‘If I should be left behind!’ ”
But Rebecca was not to be left behind as she feared. This youngest of the Seton five loved to skate, and one winter’s day in 1812, when she was ten years old, she slipped and fell on the ice, seriously injuring her hip. All doctor’s care and medication availed nothing and her condition became hopeless. For three long years she was in excruciating pain, unable to walk. When the injury developed a tumor and tuberculosis set in, she began to realize the hopelessness of her condition. She said to her mother, “If the Doctor would say, ‘Rebecca, you will get well,’ I would not wish it. No, my dearest Savior, I am convinced of the happiness of an early death; and to sin no more,…”
Little Bec followed Annina on November 3, 1816; she was only fourteen, and the fourth Seton to be buried at Emmitsburg.
It should be mentioned here that Mother Seton’s other three children survived her. Kit (Catherine Josephine) became a Sister of Mercy in New York. William, her older boy, chose a career in the Navy and was destined eventually to have a son an archbishop (Robert Seton) and a daughter, a nun. Her second son, Richard, died at sea from a disease contracted while nursing a fellow patient. He was twenty-six.
After Rebecca’s death Mother Seton began to long for her own resting place. She wrote: “I long so to get above this blue horizon…” At last her great desire for eternity was beginning to be fulfilled. She had fought and won with God’s help, the struggle which had begun not so many years before. She was completely detached from all things of earth — even the most holy bonds of friendship she strove to remove from her heart — and she continually dwelt on the beatitude, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.”
Her Last Trial
Every moment of time brings us closer to death. As soon as we are born we begin to die. The last two years of Mother Seton’s life were spent in dying more intensely, for a slow, continual fever was burning away her strength. “I am going toward dear eternity so gently and almost imperceptibly that, though no evident change of constitution has taken place, I feel the general decay of poor sinking nature enough to shorten my perspective of every scene beyond the present moment.”
Father Brute`, Mother Seton’s dear friend and confessor, wrote an account of her illness and death for the Filicchi family. In the following passage he sums up Mother’s general state of health during this period:
“Her illness lasted about two years, and we had for some time past been threatened with losing her. She partially recovered after these crises, giving hope of a prolongation of life….But in August last she again relapsed, and on account of her debility, her situation soon became alarming, and toward the middle of September we expected to lose her….She continued to follow as closely as possible the exercises and rules of the house, being assisted in doing so by a Sister who read and prayed with her. This she did until her death with great fidelity and perseverance,…
“On September 24, she seemed nearly to have reached the end….She rallied, however, and contrary to all expectation, in October and November she experienced a marked improvement, being able to sit up and to occupy herself with the affairs of the house….A relapse closely followed; December left no hope. She felt certain of the approaching end, and continued to prepare for it with great simplicity and peace. The chief characteristic of this lengthy preparation for her departure was the ardor of her love for Communion. Communion was all to her, especially during her illness.”
And so it had been throughout the fifteen years of her Catholic life — truly her consuming love was for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
On December 19 Father Brute` gave Mother Seton the Viaticum. Father writes:
“Will I ever forget that face, fired with love, melted in tears at His approach in Communion? To the last, exhausted death on that face, as He came — it was still inflamed, and blushed in ardent love, desire inexpressible of eternal union in Him.”
She was able to receive Holy Communion one last time on January 1, Feast of the Circumcision. The previous night the Sister who watched with her urged her to take a refreshing drink to cool her feverish throat. She, whose heart was set on the coming Communion with her dearest Lord, brushed aside the drink, answering, “Never mind the drink. One Communion more and then Eternity .”
On January 2 she received the Last Absolution and Last Indulgence form Father Brute`, who recited near her the Prayers for the Agonizing. Later that afternoon Father Dubois, now the Superior of the Sisterhood, insisted that Extreme Unction be administered. The community assembled. Mother Seton was too feeble to speak to her grieving daughters. It was Father Dubois, who in her stead, recommended Mother to their prayers and asked pardon for any offenses. In her name he told them to be true Sisters of Charity and faithful to their rules. But their Mother then succeeded in raising her feeble voice and said: “I am thankful…. Sister, for your kindness…in being present…at this trial,” and then exhorted them firmly, “Be children of the Church, be children of the Church.”
In the very early morning of January 4, 1821, Mother Seton begged her nuns to help her say the prayer she loved so well, Saint Ignatius’ “Anima Christi” — a heart-rending scene. Her daughters began, and each line their Mother repeated. Half way through, however, Saint Elizabeth was left to complete the prayer alone. The Sister, overcome by grief, could not go on.
Shortly before the hour of two, on that same morning, Mother Seton made a great struggle to enunciate her last three words. Every nun listened, in an intense hush. The ejaculation, interrupted by death, was clearly to have been, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” But only one word came, the faintest, the most difficult, yet the most definite she had ever uttered — “Jesus .”