St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

By Renae Kranz

We’ve all felt rejected at some time in our lives. Friends might reject us. We might be rejected for a new job or promotion. Even our own families might reject us. It can cause deep hurt and lead to overwhelming loneliness if the rejection is widespread enough.

Now add to those feelings of rejection the loss of loved ones. Many of us might become discouraged and feel like building walls to protect ourselves from more hurt.

But is that the best way to handle these challenges and still get to heaven?

If you consider the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, you would say we should aspire to do just the opposite. Let’s dig in and see how the first American-born saint can help us face rejection and loss in a way that builds us up and builds up the kingdom of God.

Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born on August 28, 1774, in New York City to Dr. Richard Bayley and Catherine Charlton, the daughter of an Episcopalian minister. The family enjoyed social prominence, but they were also religious and charitable people. Her father helped immigrants getting off the ships onto Staten Island with various illnesses and cared for people in the city during yellow fever outbreaks.

Her mother died when Elizabeth was only 3, and her baby sister died early the next year. These early losses surely had lasting effects on Elizabeth as they would any young child. She quickly understood life was temporary and sometimes very brief.

She was raised in the Episcopalian church, learning to pray, read the Bible and examine her conscience daily. After her father married Charlotte Amelia Barclay so his daughters would have a mother, Elizabeth accompanied her stepmother when she visited the poor to give them food and other necessities. These examples and religious foundations helped her form herself as a true daughter of God.

Happy times didn’t last long though. After having five children together, Richard and Charlotte separated and Elizabeth’s stepmother rejected her and her older sister. When their father had to leave shortly after the separation for London, the sisters lived with their uncle, William Bayley, in New Rochelle.

This was a dark period for Elizabeth that she described in her journals later in life. She longed for a mother and felt real loneliness after being rejected by her stepmother and temporarily separated from her father. However, she never sulked or expressed a bad temper because of her suffering. Instead, she displayed hopeful cheerfulness.

Okay. I have to stop here. Do you remember when you were in grade school or a teenager? I’m pretty sure I was insufferable a lot of the time, and my life was mostly pretty easy. How about you?

I don’t know how I would have handled losing my mother so early. My parents did divorce when I was 5 which introduced some feelings of rejection into my young life. I’m not sure my mother would have described my demeanor as “hopeful cheerfulness,” but I also don’t remember any serious issues until I was a teenager.

Many children and young people who are faced with their parents’ divorce struggle greatly with rejection. Just because I came out okay doesn’t mean my brother and sister experienced the situation the exact same way. It’s a situation that requires lots of love and care from those around the young people, and a good relationship with God can’t hurt.

I think we can all agree it’s tough to make saintly decisions as a teenager. But Elizabeth’s faith in God helped her hold on to hope and make better choices as she grew up. When we turn to God during our struggles, even when we’re young, we can overcome our trials and hope for something better.

Something better came to Elizabeth soon enough.

When she was 19, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, a wealthy business man. Their early marriage was a happy and peaceful time of her life. They attended Trinity Episcopal Church in New York City where she was a devout communicant. Under the influence of her father and her desire to continue helping the poor and sick, she became a charter member of The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. Charity lived loudly in Elizabeth.

The Seton’s had five children, three girls and two boys. After William’s father died, they also took in his six younger siblings. With such a large family, they moved into the larger Seton family residence. By this time, William’s business was feeling the effects of problems in the shipping industry and bankruptcy was just around the corner.

It’s at this point, around 1801, when the losses really begin to pile up in Elizabeth’s life. Her father was the first to go, dying after the sudden onset of an illness. He was a great support for her, and she felt his loss deeply.

Business woes put too much stress on Elizabeth’s husband, who suffered from tuberculosis. His doctors told him to go to Italy where the warmer weather would help his condition. After making arrangements for their children, the couple and their youngest daughter, Anna Maria, set sail for Italy. When they arrived, they were quarantined for a month in an old prison because of fears of yellow fever coming to Italy’s shores from New York.

William didn’t fare well in quarantine and died December 27, 1803, shortly after they were finally released. Elizabeth was heartbroken. She and her daughter stayed with business friends of her husband in Italy for a couple years. It was through these friends, the Filicchi’s, that she was introduced to Catholicism.

Elizabeth was drawn to the Church’s belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist and the belief that Mary was a mother to all. No doubt it was her growing faith that kept her going through the grief of losing her husband. Shortly after returning to New York in 1805, she was received into the Catholic Church in March. Anti-Catholic laws had been lifted only a few years before Elizabeth took this monumental step.

Her conversion to the Catholic Church didn’t sit well with Elizabeth’s family and friends. They rejected her, leaving her alone and penniless. Some even tried to block her from entering a Catholic church. Thankfully, she had many new Catholic friends who helped and supported her.

What Elizabeth did at this time in history was no small thing. Anti-Catholic sentiment was extremely high in America. She lost almost everything by converting.

I have to think, would I have done the same thing? Would I have the courage to change everything I believed and lose so much, even family and friends? It’s hard for a cradle Catholic in today’s America to say, “Sure I would.” I honestly hope I would have, but I’m not so sure.

If we wanted to compare it to something today, it might be similar to standing up for traditional marriage or even against abortion. The voices against the Church on these topics are loud and sometimes frightening. But we can withstand fear and rejection by turning to the Lord for strength. Just as Elizabeth did in her time, we can be fueled by the Eucharist to withstand the worst others can do to us.

Elizabeth would lose two of her daughters in the coming years. Anna Maria died of tuberculosis at 17 and Rebecca of a tumor in her hip at 14. She could have fallen into true despair with the loss of two of her children, but somehow she found a way to keep going. Her fortitude in the face of loss was astounding.

I’ve seen people basically give up after experiencing less loss, but not Elizabeth Ann Seton. She held tightly to her faith and to those who were still in her life and abandoned herself to the will of God. This led her to choose to help others in significant ways.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in West Hempstead, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

In 1809, Elizabeth moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland, and started the first school for Catholic girls, Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School. She also established the first congregation of religious sisters in the recently created United States, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s. These women served the children of the poor.

After all Elizabeth had been through, the humble beginnings of these two institutions were the foundation of the Catholic parochial school system in our country. Elizabeth became known as Mother Seton. The sisters also opened two orphanages and another school by 1818.

Elizabeth accomplished amazing things even though she became Catholic only 16 years before her death. Because of her, we have a world class Catholic school system that educates children and gives them a firm religious foundation. She didn’t let the trials of her life pull her away from the real purpose of it: to spread God’s Word and care for those round her.

Two quotes attributed to her say everything about the way she handled rejection and loss:

“Cheerfulness prepares a glorious mind for all the noblest acts.”

And…

“Afflictions are the steps to heaven.”

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton died from tuberculosis on January 4, 1821, at only 46. She was beatified by Pope John XXIII on March 17, 1963, and canonized by Pope Paul VI on September 14, 1975. She is the patron saint of Catholic schools, widows and seafarers.

“Can you expect to go to heaven for nothing? Did not our Savior track the whole way to it with His tears and blood? And yet you stop at every little pain.” –St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

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