[#18 in the series This Week in English Catholic History: Week of Dec. 30 – Jan. 5]
HIS week in English Catholic History, we celebrate St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first erstwhile Episcopalian and culturally English native-born citizen of the United States of America we have covered in this series. She is celebrated in America on January 4, the day of her death.
Elizabeth was born into the cream of high New York City society. Thanks to her parents’ care for her education, she was accomplished in French, an accomplished pianist and was adept in the art of horsemanship. She was a popular socialite and when she was nineteen married a 25-year-old wealthy businessman and trader, William Magee Seton in 1794. Their marriage was witnessed by the Episcopalian Bishop of New York, Samuel Provoost.
The couple was very happy together and had five children. They lived together in a fashionable residence on Wall Street, and attended the famous Trinity Episcopal Church. But eventually William’s business failed after several of his trade ships were sunk or captured. William had always been ill, suffering from the chronic disease tuberculosis, eventually succumbing to the disease in 1803.
Shortly before William’s death, in a last-ditch effort to restore his health, the couple travelled to Italy, staying with William’s business associates the Fillicchis. While there, Elizabeth was exposed to Catholicism, spending hours in the nearby Catholic chapel, and the Catholic family they stayed with answered Elizabeth’s questions and furnished her with reading material defending the Catholic Church from many of the common objections to the Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, when she returned to New York, Elizabeth continued to attend her Episcopalian parish. She started an academy for training young ladies to support herself and her young daughters. Two years later, however, after a period of deep struggle, she came into full communion with the Catholic Church, convinced that Jesus was present in the Sacrament of the Catholic Church in a unique way. Her academy also failed afrer parents withdrew their daughters from the new Catholic’s school.
On the verge of moving to Canada, where Catholics were more numerous, Elizabeth met Louis Dubourg, a Sulpician Abbot and president of St. Mary’s College whose order had fled the French Terror. In 1809 she moved to Maryland and founded Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School to educate Catholic girls, funded by the wealthy convert Samuel Cooper. It was the first free school in America. Regarding education, Elizabeth said, “Take great care about the people with whom your children associate.”
Elizabeth established a religious community called the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph that adopted the rule of life of the Daughters of Charity in France. She spent the rest of her life developing this community. She died of tuberculosis herself at the age of 46. Her last words were, “Blood of Jesus, wash me.”
Eventually the Sisters of Charity took the necessary steps to merge with the French Daughters of Charity, as Elizabeth had desired, but which had been impossible in her lifetime due to the turbulent state of affairs in France during the early Nineteenth Century.
Pope St. John XXIII beatified Elizabeth in 1963, saying “In a house that was very small, but with ample space for charity, she sowed a seed in America which by Divine Grace grew into a large tree.”
She was canonized in 1974 by Pope St. Paul VI, who said: “Elizabeth Ann Seton is a saint… Elizabeth Ann Seton was wholly American! Rejoice for your glorious daughter. Be proud of her. And know how to preserve her fruitful heritage.”
Charles Coulomb’s informative vignette from yesteryear here.
Academic Study on St Elizabeth’s spiritual direction practices.