An American Daughter: Elizabeth Ann Seton and the birth of the U.S. church
Early on the morning of June 9, 1808, a petite, 34-year-old woman in widow’s weeds and her three young daughters stood on the deck of the packet boat Grand Sachem in New York harbor. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton found herself bound for Baltimore, the next step on a journey of faith that had already taken her across an ocean and into worlds she never imagined, a journey that paralleled the revolutionary growth of the Catholic Church in America.
Just two months before, on April 8, 1808, Pope Pius VII had named Baltimore an archdiocese. Within the vast territory stretching from the Atlantic westward to the Mississippi, and from the border of Canada to Spanish Florida, four new dioceses were created: Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Bards-town, Ky. Elizabeth Seton had been a Protestant for 31 years, a Catholic for just three; she was a laywoman without means, influence or official status. Yet her life of profound faith was intimately linked with each of these five centers of the young church in America, which celebrate their second centenary this year.
She was born in New York in 1774, a British subject; by her second birthday, she was an American. Her grandfather was rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Staten Island; her father was a health officer of the Port of New York, who treated shiploads of sick immigrants at the quarantine station he began, where Elizabeth learned lessons of compassion and selfless service. Her marriage to William Magee Seton, son of a prosperous business family, solidified her standing among New York’s social elite. The young couple lived at fashionable New York addresses close to the homes of Alexander Hamilton and Duncan Phyfe, the famous furniture designer. A devout Episcopalian, she thrilled to the preaching of the Rev. John Henry Hobart at Manhattan’s elegant Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel.
Catholics in New York City at the time occupied another world entirely. Until Elizabeth Seton was 10 years old, the Catholic Church in the fledgling country was outlawed, its priests subject to arrest. When the ban was lifted, Catholics built a modest wooden church, St. Peter’s, on Barclay Street. The city’s elite (Bayleys and Setons among them) regarded it as a “horrid place of spits and pushing,” and scorned the mostly immigrant Irish and French congregation as “dirty filthy red faced…ragged.” Cath-olic widows and children were undoubtedly among the poor to whom Elizabeth and her friends ministered in their charitable work, but for her to join a church so identified with the lower class would then have been unthinkable.
Faith Through Tragedy
Elizabeth, who loved children, had five in seven years. When her father-in-law died suddenly, Elizabeth and her husband also took on the care of his father’s eight younger children. As the Seton shipping business struggled under the impact of the Napoleonic wars, William’s health began to fail. Elizabeth and William, with their oldest child, Anna Maria, crossed the ocean hoping that the Italian sun would revive him. Instead, he languished in quarantine, died in December 1803, and was buried in Livorno, home of his business associates, Antonio and Filippo Filicchi. The Filicchis opened their home to the bereft widow until she and her daughter could secure passage back to America.
During her stay with the Filicchis, Elizabeth witnessed for the first time a vibrant Catholic faith among her intellectual and social equals. Already accustomed to a life of prayer, Scripture study and service to others, she was deeply stirred, especially by her experience of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. “I fell on my knees without thinking when the Blessed Sacrament passed by,” she wrote her sister-in-law Rebecca, “and cried in an agony to God to bless me if he was there, that my whole Soul desired only him.”
Armed with St. Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life, apologetic treatises and a newfound devotion to Our Lady, Elizabeth returned to New York. Her family was shocked that she would even consider abandoning her religious and social roots to worship with Catholics. Father Hobart countered her experiences with learned discourses. Elizabeth, so wearied by the inner struggle that she could barely sleep, compared her soul to “a Bird struggling in a net.”
Antonio Filicchi, traveling on business in America, advised her to write for guidance to Baltimore’s Bishop John Carroll and Boston’s Rev. John Cheverus. Both sent promises of prayer. Cheverus, edified by her “Christian courage and resignation,” encouraged her to become Catholic as soon as possible. It was the push she needed.
Elizabeth made her profession of faith at St. Peter’s on Barclay Street in New York on March 14, 1805, and received her first Communion 11 days later. The next year, while visiting his flock in New York, Bishop Carroll confirmed her. At their first meeting, she won his respect and admiration; she in turn increasingly came to rely on his judgment and practical advice.
Elizabeth also found a sympathetic and astute spiritual guide in Michael Hurley, an Augustinian priest. Hurley had come from Philadelphia in July 1805, on loan to St. Peter’s during one of the yellow fever epidemics that beset New York. She and her sister-in-law Cecilia Seton, whom he instructed in the faith, continued to correspond with him even after he returned to St. Augustine’s Church in Philadelphia.
Elizabeth’s decision to become a Catholic immediately placed her in the ranks of the poor widows whom she and her Episcopalian friends had sought to help only a few years earlier. Cut off from family support, she tried to maintain herself and her five children by tutoring and taking in boarders, but many non-Catholic parents feared that her devotion would taint their children. Already some of her Seton sisters-in-law were showing signs of following Elizabeth’s spiritual path. Doors slammed shut, closing off her chances to make a living.
But as her inner life deepened and her spiritual horizons widened, other doors opened. Prominent Catholics in Boston and Baltimore became deeply interested in Seton’s situation. Cheverus sent prayer books and spiritual reading. Antonio Filicchi suggested that Elizabeth apply as an assistant teacher to a convent school in Montreal, where she could live as a boarder while her two boys attended a college seminary. Bishop Carroll’s offer to pay her sons’ tuition for two years at Georgetown relieved her worries for a time. The “gentlemen in Boston,” Cheverus and his colleague Rev. Francis Matignon, at first concurred with the “Canada scheme,” but then found more merit in a proposal enthusiastically promoted by William Dubourg, a Sulpician from Baltimore.
Dubourg first met Elizabeth in New York in November 1806 while raising funds for one of his many projects, St. Mary’s College for boys. He was also keenly aware of the need for Catholic education for girls in America. An expansive, persuasive man of ideas, Dubourg convinced Elizabeth that relocating to Baltimore, the center of Catholic life at the time, would provide the security she needed. He offered to help her establish a girls’ school near the Sulpician seminary. Continuing on his circuit to Boston, Dubourg consulted with Cheverus and Matignon, whose judgment Elizabeth respected. Matignon spoke for the three clerics: “You are, I believe, called to take a great place in the United States, and it is there that you should remain.” It took another year and a half and many machinations, divine and otherwise, before Elizabeth bade farewell to her New York home to begin her new life in Baltimore.
She arrived on June 16, 1808, as the magnificent chapel at St. Mary’s Seminary, designed by Maximilian Godefroy, was being dedicated by John Carroll, newly named archbishop. It was the feast of Corpus Christi, an auspicious sign for the woman irresistibly drawn to Catholicism by the Eucharist. The warm welcome of her Sulpician hosts and the Mass of consecration with its choir, candlelight and crimson, stood in sharp relief to the struggle and opposition she had left behind in New York. She took it as a sign of God’s blessing that her Philadelphia friend Michael Hurley was there, with Samuel Cooper, a recent convert. Dubourg predicted that this phase in Elizabeth’s life would prove to be “of infinite importance for Religion and humanity.”
A Home in Maryland
Within the year, Cooper had donated property in Emmitsburg, about 50 miles northwest of Baltimore, as a permanent home for Elizabeth’s school for both rich and poor children, and for the sisterhood that was rapidly forming around her. Young women and widows from several states, inspired by the charismatic Elizabeth, were drawn to join her. “Providence has disposed for me a plan after my own heart,” she wrote, as her dream of a life of devotion and service took shape in the Maryland hills. The Sisters of Charity, begun by Elizabeth Seton in 1809 in St. Joseph’s Valley, had the distinction of being the first active religious community of women founded in the United States.
Less than a year later, the community numbered 12, and there were 12 more women awaiting admission. In 1810 Benedict Flaget, the bishop-elect of Bardstown, was asked by his Sulpician confrere John Baptist David, the second director of the Sisters of Charity, to bring from Paris the rule followed by the French Daughters of Charity. Elizabeth Seton’s fledgling community needed the security of a tested rule. The firm but flexible structure designed by Sts. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac for their apostolically mobile community of women in 17th-century France seemed well suited for 19th-century American needs. On Flaget’s return Elizabeth and her advisors made several significant adaptations. By the time the rule was approved by Carroll and by Seton’s community, Flaget had left for his new diocese in Kentucky, taking David as his assistant. Elizabeth, whose temperament had clashed with David’s from the beginning, was not sorry to see him go. To serve the needs of the frontier diocese, David soon organized another community, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, with a rule adapted from Emmitsburg and based on the same Vincentian model.
Early in the life of her community, Elizabeth wrote, “There is every hope that it is the seed of an immensity of future good.” God speedily fulfilled her hope. After opening an academy and free school in Emmitsburg, she sent Sisters of Charity to Philadel-phia in 1814 and to New York in 1817 to care for orphans in both cities. When Elizabeth died in 1821, her community was only a dozen years old, yet some 60 Sisters of Charity in three dioceses were tending orphans, visiting the sick, teaching, catechizing and serving the poor of every type.
Elizabeth Seton’s journey to Baltimore in 1808 led eventually to the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. For her indomitable hope, fidelity to God’s will and unswerving devotion to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and in life, she was canonized in 1975, the first native-born American to be so honored. Like the community she founded, the five original dioceses linked with her life have flourished beyond all expectation. Today, in over 190 dioceses coast to coast, the church that Elizabeth Seton cherished as her “ark” serves more than 64 million Catholics. During this bicentennial year of the Baltimore Archdiocese, one can readily imagine the diminutive convert-mother-widow-foundress contemplating the American Catholic scene, with all its scars and struggles, from the vantage point of her beloved eternity, and celebrating the “immensity of future good” that has sprouted from the seeds planted 200 years ago.
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