Mother Seton: Humbly Doctrinaire, and Missionary

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is our first American-born United States citizen to be canonized. She was born in New York City in 1774. When Paul VI raised her to the altar in 1975, he praised her lifelong commitment to charity (even before her conversion from Episcopalianism), and noted that she had fulfilled four roles: wife, mother, chaste widow, and professed religious. I would add one more achievement, foundress of a religious order, the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph. Her order adopted the same rule as the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul in France. Before her death in 1821 at the age of forty-six, she was administrating twenty convents as general superior and had opened many Catholic schools and orphanages. Father Leonard Feeney, who campaigned for an American saint, wrote a rather prophetic biography of Elizabeth Seton, which he called An American Woman. It was published in 1947. At that time, Mother Seton was not yet even declared Venerable.

Father J.I. Dirvin, C. M. is the foremost expert on the life of our first American-born saint. His biography, written a year before her beatification, is titled: Mrs. Seton: Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity (1962). A friend, who is reading the book, sent us some extraordinary quotes from the letters of Mother Seton that are chronicled therein. These passages reveal a childlike heart intensely aflame with divine love, gratitude for grace, profound submission to the mystery of her Creator’s providential wisdom, and zeal for the Indian missions. We hope that these quotes of Mother Seton will give everyone an appreciation of the guileless soul of an amazing saint who suffered so many life tragedies, but never stopped trusting God and submitting humbly every day to His inscrutable will, however mysterious, rather than remaking God, as proud rationalists do, in their own image and likeness.

Keep in mind that these excerpts are spontaneous responses and they run some times from the saint’s pen like a “scrivener gone wild.” Father Dirvin:

“This contemplation of a great Christian soul is the result of thirty years of research, study, meditation, writing and lecturing. We shall never know the glorious reaches of her perfection in God, but we can guess at them, at least, through her own unwitting revelations of heroic virtue. It is to authenticate these revelations that I have allowed her to disclose them in her own words, certified by footnotes and citations.

“Elizabeth would not console herself with telepathy or superstition even miracles: the eternity beyond the horizon was enough for her. Not long after Bec (her daughter) had been laid to rest, Father [Gabriel] Bruté tried to assuage his burning zeal for souls by urging the Faith upon Eliza Sadler [a good friend of Elizabeth’s from her days in New York].   He had already, the previous summer, attempted the conversion of Mary Post [Elizabeth’s sister] by mail, and thought it ‘curious’ that Elizabeth should consider the attempt useless.”

Father Gabriel Bruté was Mother Seton’s spiritual director while in Emmitsburg. He would later be assigned as the first bishop of Vincennes, Indiana. Father Bruté was always addressed by Elizabeth as Blessed Soul, or Blessed G., or simply Blessed, or even sometimes simply G, for Gabriel, his first name.

“Your letter to (my) Sister is admirable,” she wrote to Father Bruté, “if first the big stone of darkest ignorance and indifference was removed on the point of first necessity — that there is any true church or false church, right faith or wrong faith.  But Blessed Soul, [neither] you, nor anyone who has not been in that ignorance or indifference, can imagine the size and depth of it.  And putting myself again a moment in the place of my sister — even with my great advantage of having been passionately attached to religion when a Protestant, which she is not — I imagine I read your letter and, looking up with vacant surprise, would say:

‘What does the man mean?  Would he say that all who believe in Our Lord are not safe, or if even a poor Turk or savage does not believe, he is to be blamed for it?  They make God a merciful Being indeed, if He would condemn souls of His own creation for their parents’ bringing them into the world on one side of it or the other!’ . . .

“For ever accustomed to look only to little exterior attractions, as the dress and quiet of the Quakers; a sweet, enthusiastic preaching among the Methodists; a soft, melting music of low voices among Anabaptists; or any other such nonsense; the thought of a right faith or wrong faith, true church or false one, never enters the mind of one among a hundred.

“O my God!  My heart trembles and faints before Him here in His little sacristy, close to His tabernacle, while I ask Him, How am I here?  I taken, they left.”

Father Dirvin: “If Bruté thought Elizabeth’s reasons curious, the modern priest, faced with the widespread indifference to truth which is a blight on America and the world, does not.  She knew, from experience, whereof she spoke; she knew that the impetus of God’s grace alone could vault the non-believing soul over its ‘ignorance and indifference’ into the promised land of truth.  It was, indeed, this very refusal of the good Protestant to consider the possibility of a true church, that was the essence of Eliza Sadler’s reply to Bruté.  ‘Sad’ [Sadler] was not at all offended that he had attempted conversion — her letter is, in fact clear proof of her habitual courtesy and intelligence — but she rejected firmly his thesis:

Eliza Sadler: “For the kind motive of your letter I need hardly offer you my acknowledgments.  As a Christian professing the faith you do, you cannot be other than a watchful servant of your Master, ever ready to seize occasions of leading sinners into the path you believe necessary to their salvation.  Suffer me to assure you that I reverence your piety, and duly appreciate the zeal and benevolence that distinguishes your character.

“The truth, however, obliges me to assure you that I feel it impossible to subscribe to the belief that out of your Church there can be no Christians.  Ever since I have been capable of reason, I have endeavored humbly to make the law of my Redeemer the rule and guide of my actions, unworthily and unperfectly, but not blindly; and I believe that He Who sees the inmost thoughts will judge of my faith as He promised to do by all those who believe in His Name: and my constant prayer is that He may enlighten my understanding so as to enable me to obey His divine precepts, and give testimony of the faith I profess.”

Father Dirvin: “Elizabeth was having her own troubles in explaining the Church’s teaching to a prospective convert, as she related to Bruté in a letter of December 26; and it is interesting to note that, in the intervening years since her own conversion, she seemed to have forgotten the torments once raised in her soul by the intricacies of Christian argument:

Mother Seton: “Brain and heart burning — this day of St. Stephen, who saw Heaven open — with our poor Miss Marcelle’s questions on faith . . . Poor girl!  She has to combat the horrid impressions of the deriders and mockers of religion as well as the rest of her oppositions.  Yet, such good disposition — esteeming herself in this house as a wretch, as I did myself in Leghorn. . . . Do, do, do pray for her.

“She says she believes Our Redeemer came, but why original sin?  Then why a God Who did so much to repair it, etc., etc.?

“Tut! My vacant brains were never busy enough about that to mind, even what I have read of it, except to adore and skip up to the scene where all will be revealed.  She stared when I told her gravely they were mysteries of love, as much as when I assured her I was only an adorer, too, of the mystery of the Church — the only ark in the world — and all the heathens, savages, sects, etc., were only in my heart for prayer, but never in my brain for what became of them, or to trouble my faith in His wisdom and mercy.  The Father most tender, Father of All, my immense God — I His atom.”


Our friend commented that it is worthy of remark that Mother Seton clung with sure Catholic instinct, to the hand of her who was to be proclaimed “Patroness of the United States”: “We honor Her continually with Our Jesus,” she told her sisters. “His nine months within Her — what passed between them —  She alone knowing Him — He Her only tabernacle. . . . Mary, full of grace, Mother of Jesus!  Oh, we love and honor Our Jesus when we love and honor Her! — a true proof of our blessed Church being the one Jesus best loves. . . . ”  And she concluded with the all-encompassing reminder: “Mary [is] the first Sister of Charity on earth.”

Good Father Bruté will later edit this last part by removing the word “best.” The holy Sulpician knew the heart of his penitent and he did not want it to appear that she thought differently than the inspired author of the Canticle of Canticles who, speaking metaphorically of the Church, cried out: “One is my dove, my perfect one is but one, she is the only one of her mother, the chosen of her that bore her” (Canticles 6:8).

Father Dirvin: “[Father] Bruté always struck sparks from Elizabeth’s soul, and the language with which she expressed to him the unbearable heat of divine love within her had the excitement and extravagance of fireworks. In the spring of 1818, restless with apostolic zeal, he had talked of going to China as a missionary. Elizabeth had dissuaded him, because Dubois needed him so badly. When Samuel Cooper was ordained in August and came to assume the pastorate of Emmitsburg, Bruté revived his apostolic desires and looked longingly to Canada and the salvation of the Indians. The erratic [Father] Cooper had much of Bruté’s zeal, and Elizabeth did him the honor of coupling his ardor with that of her “Blessed G’s”:

Mother Seton: “Blessed, your poor little Bête-Mother is lost these days past in your Canada letters. [Note: It is interesting, and so revealing, that our saint uses the expression “poor little Bête-Mother” as a personal title. Perhaps it is idiomatic for “burdensome” or “useless,” however, Bête, literally, is the French word for “beast,” as in bête-noire (black beast), or bugbear.] Oh my! To see man a wild savage, a polished savage, man in any state what a savage! — unless he be in Christ. Oh, Blessed, I gasp with the desires to Him whom you are now carrying in and on your breast for full, whole accomplishment of His blessed Will. I glance a fearful look at you and [Father] Mr. Cooper and say secretly: if I was one or the other! Then adore and think. I know nothing about it; only it seems to me that those who have light and grace already might be trusted to keep it: and I would not stop night or day until I reached the dry and dark wilderness where neither can be found, where such horrid crimes go on for want of them, and where there is such a glorious death to be gained by carrying them. O G., if I was light and life as you are, I would shout like a madman alone to my God, and roar and groan and sigh and be silent all together until I had baptized a thousand and snatched these poor victims from hell.

“And pray, Madame Bête, say you, why does not your zeal make its flame through your own little hemisphere? True — but rules, prudence, subjections, opinions, etc. — dreadful walls to a burning soul wild as mine and Somebody’s. . . . I am like a fiery horse I had when a girl, whom they tried to break by making him drag a heavy cart; and the poor beast was so humbled that he could never more be inspired by whips or caresses, and wasted to a skeleton until he died. But you and [Father] Mr. Cooper might waste to skeletons to some purpose, and after wasting, be sent still living to the glories of the kingdom.

“In the meantime, that kingdom come every day I ask my bête-soul what I do for it in my little part assigned, and can see nothing but the smile, caress, be patient, write, pray and wait before Him.

“O G., G., G., my blessed God, that kingdom come!”

Father Dirvin: “Was ever zeal for the missions given more fervent tongue, or necessity for mission labors a truer apologia?

“This single, passionate letter, penned in some secret chamber of her heart, places Elizabeth Seton firmly by the side of Xavier, even as Thérèse of Lisieux made her way there from the quiet of her cloister.”