Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. Wikimedia Commons

The Promise Fulfilled

The foundress of the vast parochial school system in America: from the Protestant high society of 19th century New York to the conversion to Catholicism against all odds, embracing its consequences with love and compassion.

Barbara Gagliotti

The house of Dr Richard Bayley, preeminent physician and first health officer of the Port of New York, still stands at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Not far to the north rises Trinity Episcopal Church, that today is the focal point of the tall and narrow corridor of Wall Street. On the opposite corner of Wall and Broad Streets stands Federal Hall, where the first president of the United States swore the oath of office. Among those present at the ceremony were George Clinton, Governor of New York, and John Jay, who was to become the first Chief Justice of the United States. Bayley, Barclay, Van Cortlandt, Roosevelt, Hamilton, Jay, Clinton, and Washington are among the names of family, friends, and acquaintances of Elizabeth Bayley Seton.

Elizabeth was born to Dr Richard Bayley and Catherine Charlton on August 28, 1774. Richard Bayley was a brilliant physician and medical researcher. Catherine died at the birth of their third child, before Elizabeth was three years old.

Though she suffered greatly the death of her mother, the frequent absences of her father, Elizabeth grew up to be intelligent, charming, and possessed of a deep piety. She married William Magee Seton, the son of a wealthy New York merchant. Within five years of their marriage, they had five children. Elizabeth’s life seemed the picture of happiness. She had a loving husband, beautiful children, a close circle of friends, and a prominent place in society. All this was not to last, however, and a series of events was destined to change Mrs Seton’s life forever.

In 1798, the elder William Seton, who directed the affairs of the Seton shipping firm, died suddenly. That left the younger William in charge when a number of disasters rocked the company. These events had a devastating effect on William Seton, whose health soon failed him.

In a desperate attempt to stay the onslaught of William’s tuberculosis, the Setons decided to visit their friends the Filicchi’s in Leghorn (or Livorno), Italy. In October of 1803, the Setons set sail for Leghorn with their oldest daughter Anna. Upon arrival at the port, they were denied entry on account of an outbreak of yellow fever in New York. Since William was sick, the Seton family spent the next month in a quarantine hospital. The accounts of Elizabeth’s diary tell it best: “How gracious is our Lord who strengthens my poor soul! Consider my husband, who left his all to seek a milder climate, confined in this place of high and damped wall, exposed to cold and wind which penetrate to the very bones; without fire except the kitchen charcoal which oppresses his breath so much as to nearly convulse him. No little syrup, nor softener of the cough. Milk and bark, Iceland moss and opium pills is all I can offer him from day to day.”

He died several days after being released from the lazaretto. Elizabeth describes her situation upon her return from the English cemetery, where William was laid to rest: “Poor, high heart was in the clouds, roving after my William’s soul and repeating: ‘My God, you are my God; and so I am now alone in the world with You and my little ones. But you are my Father, and doubly theirs.’”

Following an Attraction
In the days that followed, the Filicchi family and residents of Leghorn took such care of the widow and orphan that even the eight-year-old “Annina” remarked to her mother, “Oh, Mama, how many friends God has provided for us in this strange land! For they are our friends before they know us.” Elizabeth was an exceptional person; it was her astonishing courage and capability throughout William’s last agony and death that caused the neighbors of Pisa to declare, “If she was not a heretic, she would be a saint.”

Though Elizabeth was a graceful and attractive woman, Antonio and Filippo Filicchi were especially struck by the beauty and grace of her soul. Their time together left ample occasion for discussion of religious matters and it is clear that the Filicchi family thought such a refined soul as Elizabeth’s “on the wrong path.” Elizabeth made light of their attempts in a letter to her sister-in-law Rebecca on January 3, 1804: “I am hard pushed by these charitable Romans, who wish that so much goodness should be improved by conversion, which to effect they have even taken the trouble to bring me their best-informed priest, Abbe Plunkett, who is an Irishman; but they find me so willing to hear their enlightened conversation that, consequently–as learned people like to hear themselves best–I had little to say, and as yet keep friends with all as the best comment on my profession of faith.”

Elizabeth could hardly have had a better teacher in the faith than Filippo Filicchi. He went to the trouble of composing an “Exposition and Defense of Catholic Doctrine” for Mrs Seton, with the help of his friend, Fr Pecci. This lengthy document dealing with the principle questions that divide Protestants and Catholics was especially effective as it made reference to numerous passages from the Bible and the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, both of which were very familiar to Elizabeth.

For her part, Elizabeth was wholly moved by the reverence and faith of the Catholic people. She was particularly struck by the thought of Jesus truly present in the Eucharist: “2nd February–This is some particular festival here. Mrs Filicchi took me with her to mass, as she calls it–as we would say, to church. I do not know how to express the awful effect of being where they told me God was present in the blessed sacrament, and the tall, pale, meek, heavenly-looking man did I don’t know what. Being at the side of the altar I could not look up without seeing his countenance, on which many lights from the altar reflected and gave such strange impressions to my soul that I could but cover my face with my hands and let the tears run. Oh! The very little while we were there will never be forgotten, though I saw nothing and no one but this more than human person, as he seemed to me.”

On another occasion, Elizabeth attended Mass in the monastery church of Montenero. During the consecration, an English tourist leaned toward Elizabeth and snidely remarked, “This is what they call their Real Presence.” Elizabeth’s heart and soul broke open: “My very heart trembled with shame and sorrow for his unfeeling interruption of their sacred adoration; for all around was dead silence, and many were prostrated. Involuntarily I bent from him to the pavement, and thought secretly on the word of St Paul, with starting tears, “They discern not the Lord’s Body”; and the next thought was, “How should they eat and drink their very damnation for not discerning it, if indeed it is not there? Yet how should it be there? And how did He breathe my soul in me? And how and how a hundred other things I know nothing about?”

On February 18, 1804, mother and child were back on board the vessel that had first carried them across the Atlantic. But a sudden storm damaged the ship while they were still in the harbor and the captain was forced to turn back. It was a good thing, since little Anna had contracted scarlet fever and her mother would soon come down with the same. They would be obliged to wait in Leghorn several months, thus prolonging Elizabeth’s introduction into the Catholic world. She reflected on these things in a letter to Rebecca: “How happy would we be, if we believed what these dear souls believe, that they possess God in the Sacrament… My God! How happy would I be, even so far away from all so dear, if I could find You in the church as they do…how many things I would say to You of the sorrows of my heart and the sins of my life! The other day, in a moment of excessive distress I fell on my knees without thinking when the Blessed Sacrament passed by, and cried in an agony to God to bless me, if He was there–that my whole soul desired only Him.” Accompanied by Antonio Filicchi, they finally took their leave of Leghorn.

Outcast and New Friends
Elizabeth could not keep her interest in the Catholic faith a secret once she arrived back to New York. She had been a regular communicant at Trinity Church and had developed a special friendship with one of the assisting curates, John Henry Hobart. He naturally dissuaded her from pursuing that path. Elizabeth made it clear in a letter explaining her inclinations that even their friendship would not stand in the way of the truth: “If you will not be my brother, if your dear friendship must be the price of my fidelity to what I believe to be the truth, I cannot doubt the mercy of God who, depriving me of my dearest tie on earth, will certainly draw me nearer to Him–and this I feel confidently from experience of the past and the truth of His promise, which can never fail.” One year would pass before Elizabeth resolved her doubts and took definite steps toward the Catholic Church.

It cannot be stressed enough what Mrs Seton, impoverished widow and mother of five children, gave up by walking around the block to St Peter’s Catholic Church. Elizabeth’s encounter with Catholicism had been so striking because it was so different from her experience in New York. The few Catholics in the city at the time were largely poor immigrants. Not only was there the disdain of the Episcopalians against the Papists, there was the stigma of mingling with the filthy, indigent classes. Now that she had embraced Catholicism, she could not even find employment among her old friends. She hoped to make her living as a teacher, but when it became apparent that Cecilia, her fifteen-year-old sister-in-law, had converted–and with a resolve as steadfast as Elizabeth’s–her friends and relatives threatened to turn Mrs Seton out like a beggar with her children. It soon became evident that Elizabeth could no longer raise her Catholic children among her Protestant relatives in New York.

Through the influence of the Filicchi brothers, Elizabeth’s situation was brought to the attention of John Carroll, Bishop of the first American See in Baltimore, and other leading churchmen of the time. The news of her holiness and struggles had spread throughout the fledgling Catholic communities. It is amazing to witness the progression of the hundredfold in Elizabeth’s life. When she experienced the alienation of the Wilkes, the Charltons, the Setons, and the Hobarts, she was immediately embraced by companions like Carroll, Dubourg, Cheverus, and Dubois, men whose names are thoroughly entwined with the beginnings of the Catholic Church in America. These men recognized the exceptional nature of her soul and the important role she was to play. Fr Matignon, an intimate friend, told her, “You are destined, I think, for some great good in the United States.”

It is likewise moving to see how Elizabeth entrusted herself completely to their guidance. She had expressed her desire for religious life to Bishop Carroll, though she had still to care for her own children, which she would see to by opening a boarding school. It would be Fr Dubourg, a Sulpician priest driven from France during the Reign of Terror and founder of Mount St Mary’s Seminary, who would begin to put the pieces of the divine plan together. For years, Fr Dubourg had been working toward the establishment of a female religious institution for the education of Catholic children. Some pious people in Baltimore were offering daily prayers for just such a purpose, yet finances were lacking. In her new home in Baltimore, Elizabeth had made the acquaintance of a wealthy Philadelphia convert, Samuel Sutherland Cooper, whose zeal was carrying him toward the priesthood. Their attraction for each other was immediate, as she confessed to Cecilia, “If we had not devoted ourselves to the heavenly spouse before we met, I do not know how the attraction would have terminated; but as it is, I fear him not, nor any other. But such a perfect character is a fit offering to the fountain of all perfection.” Some time after their meeting, Elizabeth told Fr Dubourg that while she was praying after communion one morning at Mass, God instructed her in a clear and intelligible voice to address herself to Mr Cooper and he would supply the necessary funds. Fr DuBourg, while admitting such a thing was certainly possible, urged her to wait for further signs of God’s intention. That very night, the Sulpician received a visit from Mr Cooper, inquiring as to why nothing had been done to favor the establishment of an order for women who “had so powerful an influence in regard to morals and religion.” When he discovered that lack of funds was the only hindrance, he immediately pledged his support.

Populum Tuum
Mrs Seton had opened her first Catholic school on Paca Street in Baltimore and a small community of sisters was founded there. With the help of Mr Cooper, the sisters soon moved westward to a picturesque vale nestled amid the rolling hills of Emmitsburg. There Mother Seton opened a school for boarders as well as day students from the nearby parish. In so doing, she established the first parochial school in 1810 with the intention of providing education for poorer students. For this, she is honored as the foundress of the vast parochial school system in America, which blossomed from this tiny seed.

The growing community soon adopted, with some variation, the rule of St Vincent de Paul and became known as the American Sisters of Charity of St Joseph. This order founded by Elizabeth Seton was dedicated to the care of the poor, sick, and the aged and to works of education. Already in Mother Seton’s lifetime, the sisters would be called upon to operate orphanages in Philadelphia (1814) and New York (1817). In the years to come, more than 11,000 women would dedicate themselves to work among the poor in hundreds of schools, orphanages, hospitals, and other charitable institutions

Mother Seton never again left Emmitsburg and in the few remaining years of her life worked tirelessly in teaching her students, assisting her own children, and instructing her sisters in the ways of charity. She translated from French the lives of St Vincent de Paul and St Louis de Marillac, founders of the Daughters of Charity, for the use of the community. Her own formula for holiness reflected Vincent’s simplicity: “What was the first rule of our dear Savior’s life? You know it was to do His Father’s Will. Well then, the first end I propose in our daily work is to do the Will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner He Wills it; and thirdly, to do it because it is His Will.” Her attachment to Jesus and His Blessed Mother were a daily spectacle of sanctity for all to see.

Perhaps the most moving part of a pilgrimage to Emmitsburg today is visiting the original site of Mother Seton’s grave in a grove at the foot of an oak tree. Under that same tree, she would lay to rest her two daughters, Anna and Rebecca, and her two sisters-in-law, Harriet and Cecilia, before she died herself in 1821. There, she would be surrounded by family members, sisters from her order, schoolgirls, benefactors, and neighboring priests from the valley. The site bears witness to the new people generated by the life of Mother Seton.

In a letter to Antonio Filicchi sometime after her death, Fr Bruto, spiritual director of the order, extols her excellent virtues: “How profound her faith and how tender her piety! How sincere her humility, combined with so great intelligence! How great her goodness and kindness for all! Her distinguishing characteristic was compassion and indulgence for poor sinners. Her charity made her watchful never to speak evil of others, always to find excuses to keep silence. Her other special virtues were her attachment to her friends and her gratitude; her religious respect for the ministers of the Lord and for everything pertaining to religion. Her heart was compassionate, religious, lavish of every good in her possession, disinterested in regard to all things. O Mother, excellent Mother, I trust you are now in the enjoyment of bliss!”