On the surface of things, no two women could seem more strikingly different than St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Frances of Rome.
The only thing common to them were having fathers who possessed a measure of material wealth, and therefore were well-connected to the larger society.
Beyond that, the women were differently nurtured and differently-natured. They were true opposites.
Frances was a 14th century Catholic girl who had grown up dreaming of a cloister and a quiet life of prayer.
Elizabeth Bayley, born in 1774, was a faithful Episcopalian who nevertheless loved to dance and attend social affairs.
Frances’ family negotiated her marriage to Lorenzo Ponziani, a nobleman from a prominent family; the young woman actively sought to find a way out of the commitment and into the convent she believed she would prefer.
Elizabeth entered into marriage with William Seton, of the celebrated, well-connected and wealthy Seton family, with great joy and enthusiasm. It was a true love match, and she looked forward to a rather predictable life of children and charitable work and festive gatherings, comfortably ensconced within the society in which both she and her husband had been reared.
Frances, a true introvert, suffered a physical and mental collapse while trying to meet the demands of her new role within a carousing and popular family, and the expectant sphere in which they functioned. Though she grew fond of her husband, she hated her new life.
Elizabeth, more socially adept, met her duties both inside the family and outside, among their friends, with high energy and enjoyment.
Frances endured the deaths of all but one of her six children in infancy.
Elizabeth had five healthy children, although she grieved to lose two as teenagers.
Frances was married for forty years, nursing Lorenzo through his final illness.
Elizabeth was widowed at age 28, after only nine years of marriage, after which she became a Catholic.
Frances never did enter religious life. Elizabeth Ann Seton did.
Within all of these stark differences, however, the two women shared a deep commitment to their faith traditions, and a love of prayer. Both were mindful of the call to help others in need, and responsive to it.
For the young Frances, that meant contributing food and clothing to the poor, and offering daily support through prayer.
For Elizabeth, early in her marriage, it meant charitable rounds visiting the poor, and eventually (ironically) becoming a charter member of a Society formed for the relief of widows with small children.
Ultimately, their religious convictions drove both women to commit themselves more deeply to the service of others, expanding their outreach with every opportunity. Frances began by walking amid the poor and the hungry. Eventually, with her husband’s support, she practically invented the concept of “social work,” opening a portion of her own house to the sick and feeding the hungry from her own makeshift “soup kitchen.”
Elizabeth Ann Seton, hundreds of years later, thought of ways to help educate the underprivileged Catholic children of poor families, among others.
Eventually, both women became foundresses of religious communities which are still extant today, their members continuing to actively serve others and uphold the ideals of the remarkable women whose innovative notions and examples they have followed.
Frances created an unusual community of Olivetan Oblates of the Virgin Mary (now called the Oblates of St. Frances of Rome), women who live and pray in monastic community yet take no vows, making promises into the hands of a Benedictine superior. They serve the Church by serving the poor in the teeming heart of Rome, even until today.
Mother Seton established the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, which sparked the first congregations of the Sisters of Charity, and would later became the first community of the Daughters of Charity in the United States. These Sisters created elementary and secondary schools – thereby virtually inventing the Catholic educational system in America – and built hospitals and orphanages (and prominently nursed soldiers on the battlefields of the Civil War) along the way.
We wonder how it can be that two such disparate women could end their lives in circumstances so far removed from their youthful realities, yet so similar in form to each other’s. Surely Frances, once married, never believed she would create a model of social service that would become common to the Church. Surely, Elizabeth – a popular society matron of “good Protestant” background – could not have considered that she would spend the greater part of her life alienated from her social circle and even from some members of her family as she embraced a life of endless work and service.
The answer may be to go back to the one common thing they both shared – a love of prayer, and the inclusion of times of prayer, contemplation and scripture study in their lives.
Both of them would have been familiar with St. Paul’s urgent advice to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus, for you.” (1 Thess 5:16-18).
Apparently both Frances and Mother Seton took his words to heart, and that is remarkable when we consider that they are not “easy” words.
They are, in fact, words that demand a willingness to trust that no matter what is happening in one’s life, God has a plan for each of us, if we will only say “yes” in the good circumstances, and “yes” in the challenging ones, as well. And that is hard, hard work, because it’s easy to rejoice, to give thanks and find the will of God in what meets our dreams and expectations.
It’s incredibly difficult to do so, however, when those dreams, those expectations, are irretrievably shattered, and it feels like we are left with no good options before us, nothing firm on which to rely.
In essence, what St. Paul insists is that God is the consistent good option – the firm Being upon whom we may always depend, if we will only believe that his purposes are always for our benefit – and that we will discover the truth of it if only we’ll say “yes” when we want to say “no”, and do so with grateful and trusting hearts.
That is essentially what two remarkable women did over the span of centuries. Their lives give eternal testament to the gracious reality of Paul’s promise.
The proof may be in something Mother Seton herself wrote: “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.”
It’s good advice. There is greatness to be ground out of us with our every humble and obedient “yes” to what is before us, if we can only cast aside our fears and say the word, as did these great women who have helped show us the way.
St. Frances of Rome, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, ora pro nobis.
ELIZABETH SCALIA is the award-winning author of Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick You.
This reflection was originally published in March 2020.
Image: Frances of Rome Giving Alms, Giovanni Battista Gaulli, (1639-1709).