The Way of St. Joseph and Mother Seton

St. Joseph and Mother Seton: The Vocations of Spouse and Worker

St. Joseph and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton teach us that God won’t make troubles go away, but he will protect us in the midst of them. They both found strength by responding to God’s call, even when it meant leaving everything behind.

The Solemnity of St. Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is one of the Church’s most beloved feast days. In many countries, it is Father’s Day — and a day off work. Italian Americans celebrate it in a big way — it’s their St. Patrick’s Day. My kids see it as relief from Lent since a Solemnity is just like a Sunday.

“Relief” is a good word for St. Joseph. The example of Jesus’ foster father teaches us that life is hard, but in spite of that we can find relief.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton would agree. He was one of her favorites.

After she entered the Church on March 13, 1805 — and less than a week later, celebrated St. Joseph’s Day — Mother Seton named the most important things in her life after St. Joseph. The first school she established was St. Joseph Academy and Free School in 1810. The school survives to this day as Mother Seton School in Emmitsburg, MD.

Simultaneously, she founded the United States’ first congregation of religious sisters and initially called them the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.

Maybe she loved St. Joseph so much because they had so much in common.

Like St. Joseph, Mother Seton was a spouse and a worker.

St. Joseph’s feast day is officially called “Solemnity of Saint Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” His later feast day, which is not a Solemnity, is “St. Joseph the Worker” on May 1.

Joseph is the prototypical spouse and worker, who devoted himself to his family and his profession. Mother Seton did the same. She gained her first experience with teaching and running an institution because she was a faithful spouse.

After the death of her father-in-law in 1798, her husband, William, suddenly became responsible for the family trading business — Seton, Maitland and Company — and Elizabeth became responsible for caring for and teaching three children who were the half-siblings of her husband. She was 24 at the time and a good teacher for Charlotte, 12, Henrietta, 11 and Cecilia, 6. She also assisted her husband by acting as nighttime bookkeeper for the firm.

Mother Seton sounds like St. Joseph the worker when she says, “The first end I propose in our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner he wills it; and thirdly to do it because it is his will.”

She mirrors St. Joseph the spouse when she says, “Disorder in the society is the result of disorder in the family,” and devoted herself to help parents establish order.

She knew firsthand that the family was worth great suffering — and that it sometimes demanded it. William’s tuberculosis showed up at this time, and his company went bankrupt as his health went from bad to worse.

It was time to imitate St. Joseph again.

St. Joseph, who took his wife and child into Egypt to protect them, is the patron saint of travelers. St. Elizabeth Ann, who took her husband and daughter to Italy to preserve him, is the patroness of seafarers.

In 1802, not yet 30, Elizabeth traveled with her husband to Italy in hopes that its climate would improve his health. It did not. She lost William in Pisa two days after Christmas in 1803.

St. Joseph and St. Elizabeth Ann are models for those who have to travel out of fear — refugees from war or disease. But they are also models for those who travel in order to find safety in God — pilgrims.

St. Joseph’s travels fulfilled the prophecy that God would say, “Out of Egypt, I have called my son.” Elizabeth’s travel called her out of her own exile — and home to the Church.

“I will go peaceably and firmly to the Catholic Church,” she said, “for if Faith is so important to our salvation, I will seek it where true Faith first began, seek it among those who received it from God himself.”

But Elizabeth soon had reason to embrace Joseph, the Patron of the Church, as the Church she entered was in turmoil. She said, “The Church of God is reduced to such distress and seems as it were abandoned to its enemies.”

Nonetheless, the Church remained an oasis for Elizabeth. “He permits us to serve him in peace in this happy corner, where he stays with us even under our very roof,” she wrote.

Pope Leo XIII explained why St. Joseph is Patron of the Universal Church. “As the Blessed Joseph ministered to all the needs of the family at Nazareth and girt it about with his protection, he should now cover with the cloak of his heavenly patronage and defend the Church of Jesus Christ,” he said.

This is ultimately what St. Joseph and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton teach us. God won’t make troubles go away, but he will protect us in the midst of them.

Joseph had to be a good spouse and father despite danger, rejection, and difficulties. Elizabeth had to be a good spouse and mother through the suffering and hardship that afflicted her husband and her family.

Both show us where to find that strength: by fleeing to God, though it can mean leaving everything behind. And by clinging to his Church, even when that Church seems to be in trouble.

“He gives us every grace, every abundant grace; and though we are so weak of ourselves, this grace is able to carry us through every obstacle and difficulty,” wrote Mother Seton.

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.

Image credit: Saint Joseph by Guido Reni, c. 1635