by William Michael
January 4, 2012
As a history teacher, I’d like to reflect a bit on the life of Elizabeth Ann Seton, to set her life and deeds in their historical context that will be much more edifying than most modern accounts are.
Elizabeth Ann was born into a wealthy and prominent family. Her father was an educator, who taught anatomy at Columbia College in New York–its first such professor. The time of her birth was the time of the Revolutionary War. She was born in 1774 in New York–so think George Washington and Paul Revere, not Henry Ford and Theodore Roosevelt.
Seton was born in a devout Anglican family. What does that mean? Anglicans are members of the Church of England. They are Protestants who believe that the king of England is the supreme head of the Church in England. They are non-Catholics who maintain a liturgical tradition and quite beautiful devotional life. When you think of Anglicans, think John and Charles Wesley, who lived near the same time. We can be sure that the Bayley family was a pious, Bible-reading family that valued Christian culture and education very much. That’s what Anglicans are–as a former Anglican, I know that they probably enjoyed a beautiful Christian life.
Moreover, realize that they were Anglicans in a revolutionary America. That was surely not a welcome worldview in the colonies at the time. In the northeast, the king wasn’t exactly well-liked and to say that he is the head of your American church is saying something unpopular for sure.
Anyway, Elizabeth Ann married well, into another devout Anglican family, marrying a man of business who had business ties accross the Atlantic. She and her sister in law, as good Anglicans, set out to work in mercy ministry, caring for the poor. They named their ministry the “Protestant Sisters of Charity”, which was important because Catholic proseletyizing was illegal in almost all of the 13 colonies.
At that time, tragedy struck all around Elizabeth Ann. Her father-in-law and father both died, leaving their children to Elizabeth Ann’s husband to help care for. This stressed them financially before Mr. Seton went bankrupt around 1802. This all but ended Elizabeth Ann’s charity work for she herself became poor. Then, her husband became terribly ill and we sent overseas to a region of Italy where the air was thought to help him. So, she set off to Italy a devout Anglican woman in a time of trial and darkness. While in Italy, her husband’s condition worsened and he died rather than recovered. Thus, Elizabeth Ann, at age 30 was a poor, well-educated, Anglican widow with children, far from home. We can all imagine the discouragement and difficulty she endured at that time.
However, she was blessed with the knowledge of the Filicchi family in Italy, who were business contacts and friends of her husband. The Filicchis were devout Catholics who shattered all of Elizabeth Ann’s anti-Catholic prejudices. She had never met real Catholics before. The Filicchis introduced her to the beauties of Catholic family life and culture, provided for her and her children after her husband’s death and evangelized her. Mr. Filicchi personally led Elizabeth Ann to the point of conversion. He traveled with her back to America, and used his own influence to put her into personal contact with John Carroll, who was the most prominent and influential Catholic man in America.
Just to maintain the true context of all of this, there was at that time no “Catholic Church” in America yet. There was not at that time a single Catholic diocese or bishop. In New York, where Elizabeth Ann formally entered the church, she did so in the only parish in the city, for anti-Catholic laws in the land had just been removed. John Carroll, a Jesuit priest, was the Superior of the Church’s missionary work in the new land. Carroll was so influential that he–a Catholic–was sent by the Continental Congress in 1776 to accompany Benjamin Franklin on an embassy to Canada. Carroll was soon after appointed the first archbishop in the United States as the first archdiocese was established in Baltimore, Maryland. This was the man with whom Mr. Filicchi connected Elizabeth Ann Seton. Not too shabby!
It was this connection to John Carroll that provided for the rest of Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life and works. She was speaking, as she converted, with the Vatican-appointed leader in America, surely, a gift of divine providence. Carroll was no lazy, timid office-man, but a wise and zealous missionary priest in an anti-Catholic land who wanted to convert Americans to Catholicism. In 1791, to address the fact that Catholics were not welcome in the American colleges, Carroll led the founding of Georgetown University, the nation’s first Catholic college. In 1806, he oversaw the construction of the first cathedral in America. This was the man with whom Mr. Filicchi put Elizabeth Ann Seton in contact in America.
After her conversion, she suffered the rejection of her Anglican family members, but she was in good hands as a friend of John Carroll, who confirmed her in 1806 (she was 32). For three years, she struggled to get anything together in New York, for Catholic schooling was all but impossible in the anti-Catholic area. Fortunately, she met a Sulpician priest who set her in contact with a group of Sulpicians interested in starting a school in Maryland. She then worked for a wealthy Catholic benefactor who met her through his own Sulpician connections, and personally funded a new school for Catholic children.
It was at that time that, working closely under the Church’s direction, Seton established a community of “sisters” who would devote themselves to working with the children of the poor. The community adopted the rule of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in France and she was permitted by the Church to live in religious community with her children for this purpose. She was elected Superior of the community and thereafter was referred to as “Mother Seton”. She spent the rest of her life engaged in those charitable works, serving the poor.
Shortly after her death in 1821 (she was 47), with her reputation well known, Cardinal Gibbons recommended that her case for canonization be pursued. In 1963, Elizabeth Ann Seton was beatified and in 1975 she was canonized by the Catholic Church. Today, she is remembered for her charitable work in the education of the poor.
What is unfortunate is that the saints’ true personalities, along with the knowledge of their friends and benefactors are often lost in history as their biographies are condensed and oversimplified to turn them into human heroes (or worse, feminist heroes) rather than humble children of God. The historical context of Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life is one of its most important pieces and gives us encouragement in the face of anti-Catholicism. The men whom God provided to help and direct Elizabeth Ann in her time of confusion and poverty show His extraordinary kindness and give us all hope in the face of tragedy and confusion. The story is not one of Elizabeth Ann Seton, but of God, as she would agree if she were here to tell it. Her virtue, more than anything, consisted in continuing to look to God for light and help, to humbly lean upon good Christian friends in time of need, to heed the advice of wise Christians in times of confusion, and to constantly obey God rather than be drowned in self-pity and anxiety. How could a poor, 30-year old Anglican wife and mother, mourning the loss of her husband overseas, ever have imagined that she would end up living as the leader of a new Catholic religious community in America? Her sons ended up attending a Catholic college in America–which hadn’t existed earlier–no doubt through Carroll’s connections. Her daughters lived with her in community and died in her care–some or all, I do not remember. She could never have orchestrated the life she ended up living and probably spent many nights alone laughing out loud at the ridiculous improbability of it all.
The message her life teaches us is that God is not asking us to work out all the questions and difficulties that come upon us. If that were our job, we would melt in anxiety and confusion. God asks us to always maintain a clear conscience so that when difficulties do come, we can trust that they will work for our good and that they are not punishments for our sins. When we enter trials with that true confidence, we will cling to God and God will provide for us in ways that only He can possibly know or arrange. We will be led along like sheep from one pasture to the next, not knowing where the next stop will be, but knowing “from whence cometh our help”. It is not a life of indifference or irresponsibility–”let go and let God” nonsense–but a constant working and readiness to begin working all over again in whatever appointment God gives us. After all, our disposition is to be that of good servants, who look to the hand of their masters, waiting to learn of their daily duties and then fulfilling those duties with all their might. When we are faithful in little things, we are given more. However, there’s no use talking of great things when we are not yet willing to be great in little things. No master entrusts important work to unproven servants.
William Michael, Director
Classical Liberal Arts Academy