Eight Portraits of Love: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
Editor’s note: This is the first of an eight-part series of columns for Lent.
The saints can be great friends to us. This assertion might be surprising to some people. It can seem that the saints are removed from us and our daily lives.
These friends of God are seen as holy, and somehow we think that their holiness makes them distant figures, separate from our concerns, and disconnected from our questions and struggles. What could they know about life? How can they help us?
Are the saints merely statuary figures with no relevance to us, and to where we are? Somehow the holy ones went from being understood as our older brothers and sisters to being viewed as distant relatives best kept at bay.
The saints, however, offer us their friendship, understanding, and help. One such invitation comes from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
When we think of the story of a saint and a religious sister, we normally do not think of issues relating to a husband, children, financial ruin, death and mourning, a crisis of faith, and failure.
But, Elizabeth Ann Seton experienced and suffered all of these crosses.
Through all of them she shows us the truth of the Lord Jesus’ teaching: “Blessed are the poor in the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3).
This simple expression summarized Elizabeth Ann’s life. She fought in the midst of difficulty to see God’s providence, and she labored to live by faith in him. This way of life was not always easy for her, but she understood that it was the right path and she sought to follow it.
Elizabeth Ann was born in 1774, two years before the Revolutionary War. She was from an educated, wealthy family in New York who were Anglicans.
When she was 19, she married a successful young businessman, William Seton. He and Elizabeth Ann were deeply in love, and eventually they had four children. Sadly, this joy would not last long.
Business and financial problems began to intensify for the young family. Elizabeth Ann shared her husband’s anxieties. Sleepless nights, perpetual concerns, and worries over ends meeting were new crosses for them.
William’s father died, and the Seton’s inherited the care of several family members. Money became even more stretched. In the same time period, Elizabeth Ann’s father died, and she severely mourned his loss.
Eventually, William and Elizabeth Ann had to declare bankruptcy. It was an embarrassment to them among their social circles. William’s health did not improve, and it was suggested that a change of climate might assist him, and so Elizabeth Ann took him to Italy. They could not afford it, but she took William there because she feared for her husband’s health.
William died, however, and Elizabeth Ann entered a period of great darkness in her life. She struggled to find answers, and to believe in God’s providence. It was a moment of tremendous poverty of spirit and grave perplexity for her. She became physically sick, and almost died. In the darkness, she began to appreciate the Catholic Church. She found great consolation in its beauty and doctrine.
When she returned home, Elizabeth Ann became Catholic, and turned to prayer and the sacraments for answers. Eventually, she would witness the death of many loved ones, including two of her children.
Through different members of the clergy, Elizabeth Ann created different Catholic schools.
When young women came to follow her, she became a professed religious sister and eventually established her own convent, while still caring for her own children.
Elizabeth Ann received the title “Mother Seton,” by which she is universally known to this day. Mother Seton’s efforts in Catholic education were not always successful, but she continued to hope and make every effort to improve and enhance the emerging Catholic school system in the United States.
The life of this saint was not easy. She had every reason to give up and not to believe. In the struggles of her life, she found reflections of God’s kingdom and made an act of faith.
A tranquil image on a holy card, a statue left on a shelf, or a passing glance do not do justice to this friend of God, who was poor in spirit but whose life and its decisions merit our attention.
Mother Seton’s example serves as a model to us in our own difficulties and the struggles of our lives.
Father Jeffrey Kirby is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston currently studying moral theology in Rome.