Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and the American Spirit

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and the American Spirit

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had a bold spirit, embraced new identities, made a home in hard circumstances, and left a giant legacy. She embodied many of the best virtues of being American.

Some key virtues that made Elizabeth Ann Seton a great saint also happen to be American virtues. On July 4, it’s good to remember what those American virtues are, because they stem from the Declaration of Independence.

As Pope Francis put it when he spoke at Independence Hall in 2015, “The history of this nation is also the tale of a constant effort, lasting to our own day, to embody those lofty principles.”

St. Elizabeth Ann was a pioneer, willing to go outside what’s comfortable.

Americans—from the Native peoples who lived on what God’s providence provided, to the settlers and immigrants who came from distant lands—have always been people who journey and build.

This year is filled with anniversaries that show this willingness on our part—75 years since we went to Normandy; 50 years since we went to the moon. There are also anniversaries of American business pioneers: pop art innovator Marvel Comics turns 80 this year and fashion brand The Gap turns 50.

Elizabeth Ann Seton ’s life was marked by this same willingness to journey and create. 

At age 29 she left New York for Italy, and that led to her conversion to Catholicism upon her return. At age 31, she started a school for young women in New York. At age 34 she was ready to leave the country for Canada, but went to Baltimore instead. From there, she settled a year later in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she would found the first free Catholic school for girls, and the first congregation of women religious founded in the United States, as well.

That also shows another American virtue.

St. Elizabeth Ann had the American ability to turn a “land of exile” into a home.

Americans are also people of exile. The first Europeans who moved here were all fleeing something—religious persecution, political despotisms and economic dead ends. Ironically, of course, we turned American Indians’ native land into a land of exile for them as we expanded west.

Catholics understand living in exile. We long for “that blessed fatherland from which we are all exiles,” while we call down blessings on our earthly homes.

Especially after her conversion to Catholicism, Elizabeth understood how America was both her home and a place of exile.

“Oh joy joy joy a Captain B will take us to America!” she wrote, when planning to return home from Italy. Her daughter, she said, was “wild with joy — yet often whispers to me ‘Ma is there no Catholics in America? Ma won’t we go to the Catholic Church when we go home?’”

Years after becoming Catholic, she still found herself a stranger in her homeland. “I am gently, quietly and silently a good Catholic,” she wrote. “The rubs, etc., are all past … only a few knotty hearts that must talk of something — and the worst they say is ‘so much trouble has turned her brain.’ Well … I kiss my Crucifix which I have loved for so many years and say they are only mistaken.”

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton also embraced new identities like an American. 

Changing identities has become a cliché—from Taylor Swift’s new persona on every new album to our own new personas in our profile pictures. But there is also a praiseworthy aspect to this flexibility.

Forging yourself anew with no foundations comes from rootlessness or narcissism. Forging yourself anew in Christ comes from authentic freedom and humility.

The virtue of daily conversion requires that we stretch our definition of ourselves, getting rid of what holds us back from Christ. St. John Paul II called this “becoming who you are.”

Elizabeth, of course, embraced conversion in her own life. She went from Episcopalian to Catholic, from wife and mother to religious sister, from sister to Mother, from Mother to foundress.

She also taught this conversion of life to others, in her school and in her community.

This is very Catholic, and very American. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Self-government only works for a moral people who are able to improve themselves, and don’t require others to intervene.

St. Elizabeth Ann thought big.

Americans have always had a genius for thinking bigger and bolder, from the desire to build a new nation from scratch in the wilderness, to modern America where everything is literally big compared to the rest of the world: Our houses are bigger, our washing machines are bigger, and our stores are bigger. Clearly, this is a mixed blessing. Thinking big often shows a lack of humility and an insensitivity to the weak and vulnerable.

But Catholicism is a beautiful marriage of the big and the small. The same reality enlivens St. Peter’s Basilica as it does your parish’s tabernacle, the universal church and your parish council, the great saints and the volunteers at the local soup kitchen.

Thinking small, but focused on the immensity of God, lands us in a big place. St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s Little Way leads to big change. Small contributions to the Church from immigrants led to big, beautiful churches. Each of our small, focused sacrifices yields big results.

St. Elizabeth Ann embraced this paradox. “We must often draw the comparison between time and eternity,” she said. “This is the remedy of all our troubles. How small will the present moment appear when we enter that great ocean.”

Her formula was simple: “The first end I propose in our daily work is to do the will of God;” she wrote, “secondly, to do it in the manner he wills it; and thirdly to do it because it is his will.”

So, how to sum up St. Elizabeth Ann Seton?

She had an adventurous spirit, she made a home in hard circumstances, she “became all things to all” for Christ, and she left a giant legacy. She embodied many of the best virtues of being American.

As Pope Paul VI said when he canonized her in 1975: “Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is an American.”

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.