In the year 1774, the English Colonies in the New World felt the tremors of coming war. The previous December, the Sons of Liberty had dumped 342 chests of tea into the Boston Harbor to protest onerous taxes imposed on the colonists. As the British Crown retaliated, enacting increasingly punitive measures upon its subjects, colonial representatives met in Philadelphia to strategize a response.
Less than two weeks before the beginning of this First Continental Congress, on August 28, 1774, Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in New York City.
That Elizabeth should enter the world even as the colonies were making the first steps towards unity as a nation should strike us not as accidental, but as providential.
In the life of Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, God acted decisively in the history of our nation, raising up for us our own saint on our own soil. And, as he always does, he chose an unlikely person: a woman down on her luck—an impoverished widow.
This is precisely what Filippo and Antonio Filicchi, her husband William’s Italian business partners, saw in Elizabeth when she and William arrived in their native Italy in 1803. Within weeks of their arrival, William succumbed to tuberculosis, leaving twenty-nine-year-old Elizabeth single parent to their five young children. She was a poor widow.
At the same time, the elder brother, Filippo, could see in Elizabeth a woman of unexpected gifts: a spiritual depth intensified by prayer and a capacity for self-gift enlarged by practice.
In a letter to Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, Filippo wrote in amazement of how Elizabeth possessed “a very pious and religious disposition in a degree far superior to what I ever had remarked in people of her persuasion. She saw to the “duties of wife and mother,” he said, with “exactness,” revealing “in her character an uncommon docility.” Filippo had high hopes: he wanted to draw the Episcopalian Elizabeth into the communion of the Roman Catholic Church.
An Italian merchant of means and influence, Filippo was no spiritual lightweight. He had already shown his zeal for evangelizing the New World by composing a catechism for American Catholics and forging ties with American Catholics of influence like Carroll, the first bishop of the new nation. Filippo had a great desire to build up the fledgling American Church, and, in Elizabeth, he recognized someone with a fervor that matched his own: here was a heart fascinated by the desire for love, for the infinite, for what only God can give.
Indeed, Elizabeth possessed an “uncommon docility”— the strength of character of one who can hear and respond and give oneself without stint. Elizabeth was willing to renounce whatever she must to follow her God wherever he would lead her. And, through the influence of Filippo and his family, that openness led her to the very threshold of the Church of Rome.
In Italy, at the side of the Filicchis, Elizabeth encountered the beauty of the churches, the intensity of the prayers, and, above all, the immediacy of the sacraments. She was thrilled that Catholics could go every day to Mass, and receive God into their own body. The Catholic Faith deeply excited and moved her.
But Elizabeth had no grand projects or plans. She never sought anything other than her soul’s good. And even after she returned to New York and entered the Church, she certainly did not think of herself as a pioneer of faith among her countrymen—not even when urged to do so by influential Catholics, who were suddenly aware of how much a woman of her intelligence and drive could give to the young American Church. She professed many times that her focus was simple: being a mother to her children and following God’s will. She remained the poor widow.
And God’s will, it would seem, was that something more would come from her. Precisely through Elizabeth’s willingness to follow unhesitatingly the will of God manifested in her circumstances, she eventually found herself traveling to Emmitsburg, Maryland, as a pioneer. Her duty to simply be a good mother flowered in the task to become, as she said, a “Mother of many daughters.” And this motherhood meant nurturing the beginnings of the parochial Catholic school system and founding a religious congregation which would grow beyond her imagining.
And is this not God’s method? God moves this way in the world, calling forth new saints in every place and in every age, beginning a new history. He does not need programs or projects, wealth or influence. Rather, he needs only what he needed at Nazareth, when Mary first said “yes.” He needs a willing heart, a heart totally engaged. The poorer, the better—for the more desperate and needy the heart, the more it will rely utterly upon him.
A woman, a poor widow, became an agent of change in the history of America. Would that, through St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s intercession, our hearts become so docile. May God continue to raise up saints here and now!
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.
Photo Credit: Stained glass windows in the arcade of Saint Paul the Apostle Parish (Westerville, Ohio) | Nheyob | CC VY SA 3.0
This reflection was originally published in 2019.