“Elizabeth Seton did more for the Church in America than all of us bishops together.” – Archbishop Francis Patrick Kenrick, 1852
Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life began as so many of us wish our lives might end — with a nice house in a good neighborhood, financial security, social status, the love of family and close friends, and a future inclined toward smooth sailing on a constant and calm sea of tranquility.
It ended very, very differently. By the time she died in 1821, at the age of 46, the seas of her windswept life had tossed her from one unexpected shore to another: from a happily-married socialite to a 29 year-old widow raising five children. From a socially influential Anglican to an obscure Catholic. From wealth to poverty.
This daughter of unique privilege became a spouse of Christ, forming the first congregation of religious women founded in the United States – the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph – in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and opening a Catholic school there that became a model for Catholic education in America.
“God has given me a great deal to do, and I have always, and hope always, to prefer his Will to every wish of my own.”
For a woman born to a genteel sort of existence, Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life became something wild, yet paradoxically serene, because it was a life alive to the promptings of the Lord, who directed all of her sails.
Mother Seton was content to follow where she was led, “I’ll be wild Betsy to the last,” she wrote to a dear friend as she neared her death. The tuberculosis that had run so ragged a thread through her life (claiming her young husband, two of their daughters and nearly 20 young sisters of her fledgling community) began to break her down, slowly and painfully, but Mother Seton knew that she was leaving much more behind than 50 Sisters and 100 students. In the 12 years since she established her service to the Church through service to Christ, she had already strewn seeds that she knew would take root and grow as the Holy Spirit willed.
“If [something] succeeds, I bless God, if it does not succeed…I bless God, because then it will be right that things should not succeed.”
There were seeds, in the form of energetic and faith-filled sisters, sent to Philadelphia and Manhattan, to serve the orphaned or abandoned children of those teeming cities, and work, which in the years to come, was also to be planted in Ohio and elsewhere, where they provided whatever was needed most: soup kitchens and food pantries, job-skills training and hospitals and colleges, all administered by the Sisters of Charity.
Even today, several distinct religious congregations, seeded from the roots of Mother Seton’s first little community in Emmitsburg, carry on the work of serving the poor for love of Christ in North America and beyond.
“We must pray without ceasing, in every occurrence and employment of our lives – that prayer which is rather a habit of lifting up the heart to God as in a constant communication with Him.”
Mother Seton’s many exhortations to her daughters on the efficacy and power of prayer – contemplative, communal, devotional, liturgical and intercessory prayer – reveal to us her ready and responsive heart of intercession, indeed that heaven itself is seeded with her prayers for the help of others. As with every saint, some miracles granted through her prayers for others are known and acknowledged:
- Sister Gertrude Korzendorfer, a Daughter of Charity suffering from pancreatic cancer and only weeks from death, who was healed.
- 4 year-old Ann Theresa O’Neill, stricken with leukemia and then cured.
- Carl Kalin, older in years and comatose, suffering from a rare form of encephalitis due to meningitis, was visited by Sisters of Charity who asked prayers from Mother Seton on his behalf while placing a relic of the saint upon him. Kalin awoke, healed, just hours later.
But healing takes many forms aside from the physical. Some healings are about moving from doubt to a restoration of faith, or the settling of long-held resentments or traumas. For some, healing may simply mean arriving at an important but difficult surrendering.
At the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, visitors have shared stories of such healings, while countless others have also left notes upon the altar of their Basilica: “Thank you, Mother Seton, my daughter’s cancer is in remission — her health has greatly improved!” reads one.
“Thank you, Mother Seton, my son got that job he needed so desperately.”
“Thank you, Mother Seton, I can see clearly again. I am overcome with joy. Thank you for the precious gift of my sight!”
“A climate of friendship is a fertile seed that our Shrines can throw into the soil of the pilgrims, allowing them to rediscover that trust in the Church.” – Pope Francis, 2018
The sentiment is Pope Francis’ but the response to his words as undertaken by the Seton Shrine is very much rooted in the seeds of faithful service, prayer, outreach, support, and innovation that were strewn within the windswept life of Mother Seton. They are still landing on fertile soil as directed by the Holy Spirit, as can be seen in the Shrine’s Seeds of Hope program, which offers opportunities for spiritual retreat and renewal to people on the margins of society, who are welcomed and given an opportunity to be seen and heard as they bring their difficulties into the bosom of the Church and are recognized.
“We created the Seeds of Hope retreats to make sure that the least privileged among us have a place at the Shrine,” says Sister Anne Marie Lamoureux, D.C., “to learn, share meals and pray together [with people] who would never otherwise be able to visit.”
“[Elizabeth Ann Seton] sowed seeds in America which by Divine Grace grew into a large tree.” – Pope Saint John XXIII at her beatification
On their website, the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Province of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul write that the sainthood of Elizabeth Ann Seton is grounded in “the way that she searched for and responded to God’s will in her life.”
Indeed, for many of us she is a model of such dynamic faith – a personal patron for those who are mindfully seeking out what God wants for us and from us, so that we may earnestly respond with the confidence of so windswept and trusting a saint as Mother Seton.
This reflection was first published in 2021.