When Elizabeth Ann Seton converted to Catholicism, her new faith introduced her to a whole new richness in her understanding of the angels.
But she had a relationship with the angels already. Elizabeth grew up an Episcopalian in New York in the late 1700s and didn’t enter the Catholic Church until she was a young widow in 1805. Protestant America had a surprisingly rich devotional life when it came to angels. For Anglicans and Episcopalians, Sept. 29 was “Michaelmas,” an important fall festival honoring the Archangel Michael. For Lutherans, it was the Feast of All Angels.
The Catholic Church would have given Elizabeth an even more lively sense of the patronages of each of the three Archangels — Sts. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael — and her letters show how she turned to each at different seasons of her life.
St. Michael, patron of the military and police, protected her children.
In a letter to the Italian family, the Filicchis, who had introduced Mother Seton and her family to the faith, she described how she spent Sept. 29, 1807. “This day has been a feast day to the children and a holiday from school that I might give the greatest portion of the hours to God,” she said.
The lesson that day? St. Michael. “How eagerly they listened to the history of the good offices done to us by the blessed angels, and of St. Michael driving Lucifer out of heaven!” she said.
St. Michael’s name means “Who is like God?” expressing the humility he showed in the face of the rebellion in heaven. His story is in the 12th chapter of Revelation. There, he leads the charge in heavenly warfare thereby earning his patronage. His motto could be, “to protect and serve.”
“You would have been pleased to hear their questions about St. Michael,” Elizabeth wrote.
A decade later, her son William would take the lesson to heart and enter the U.S. Navy. In 1817, she wrote to Antonio Fillicchi that she hoped her son’s love for the sea would make him a merchant sailor.
“If William should not be fit for a commercial life, I dread the attraction of the Navy so powerful to our young Americans,” she wrote, and prayed: “But you with God are the Father of the Fatherless and will direct my William for the best.”
St. Gabriel is the patron of childbirth.
The Archangel St. Gabriel is present in Elizabeth’s life throughout her adulthood. As a young mother, she would speak of her children as angels when she experienced the “shadow” — a Victorian term for pregnancy. When she was older, as a religious Sister and foundress, her letters are filled with references to the Angelus bells which set the rhythm of her day.
The two are connected. Gabriel is patron of pregnancy and childbirth because of the tale told in each day’s Angelus prayers — Mary’s dialogue with the angel Gabriel. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” says Gabriel. Mary learns she is to be the mother of the Messiah and consents with the words, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done unto me according to thy word.” And with that, “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”
Gabriel — whose name means “strength of God” — is very busy in the Gospel of Luke, visiting John the Baptist’s father Zechariah first, then Mary, then St. Joseph in a dream, each time with good news about a baby. He also appears elsewhere in Scripture, notably as a messenger to Daniel.
Elizabeth believed Christians could expect the same heavenly care for their own infants. In 1804 she wrote a letter for her infant daughter Rebecca, exhorting her to look to the angels for help.
“The angels of God accompanied the faithful when the light of his truth only dawned in the World — and now,” she wrote, “the day spring from on high has visited and exalted our nature to a union with the Divine will these beneficent beings.”
She said angels are “delighted to dwell with the soul that is panting for heavenly joys, and longing to join in their eternal Alleluias. … I will imagine them always surrounding me and in every moment I am free will sing with them, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory.’”
St. Raphael, patron of healing.
The third Archangel is St. Raphael, whose name means “healing” and who appears in the book of Tobit where he casts out demons and helps heal a cataract.
It was to Raphael that Mother Seton seemed to turn to as she neared death and her life became marked by her own sickness and stresses.
St. Raphael would have been less familiar to Elizabeth as a young woman. He has a starring role in the Book of Tobit — a book from the Apocrypha, the Greek Old Testament texts that were excluded from the canon of Scripture by Protestants.
But his role in Tobit was again very suited to Elizabeth’s life. Raphael enters the lives of a family marked by sadness and sickness and restores health.
He says he is one of the angels who is constantly before the presence of God and exhorts the family: “Praise God and give thanks to him; exalt him and give thanks to him in the presence of all the living for what he has done for you.”
Three years before her death, Elizabeth wrote to her spiritual director Father Simon Bruté in words that seem to show that she was struggling with depression and illness. Suddenly, Sept. 29 is no longer St. Michael’s Day or St. Gabriel’s Day, but St. Raphael’s.
“Let not your too kind, too patient heart in its turn ‘be sad,’” on her account, she writes. “The sadness of mine I cherish as a grace, and do hope to have it to my last hour because it makes me so watchful that I cannot open my lips since St. Raphael’s Day.”
“Oh my God,” she sums up. “If he was not my God I should go crazy in heart as well as the poor Body.”
In other words, Mother Seton followed St. Raphael’s advice and showed not only patience in her suffering but deep gratitude to God. The angels surround us, Elizabeth believed. God and his angelic servants are here to help us whenever we turn to them, in every season of life.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.