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Elizabeth Ann Seton Is Received into the Catholic Church: March 14, 1805

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise.

For months she had watched him grow weaker and weaker. With determination and cheerfulness she had striven—despite her own sorrow and fears—to prop up his flagging spirit; but their financial worries, the long voyage, the detention in quarantine in Pisa, had exacted a heavy tribute of the sick man’s heart. And now he was dead, and she and her daughter were alone in a foreign land.

She had married William Magee Seton nine years earlier, in 1794, at the Episcopal St. Paul’s Church in New York City. By him she had given birth to five children. Before her marriage she was Elizabeth Ann Bayley, daughter of Dr. Richard Bayley, a professor and health officer for the Port of New York, and of Catherine Charlton, daughter of an Episcopalian minister of Staten Island. While providing her all comfort, Elizabeth Ann’s father had not neglected her education, nor was she an indifferent student. She read avidly, especially in religion and history. Probably through her mother’s influence, Elizabeth conceived a great love for Sacred Scripture, taking a special delight in the Psalms.

Besides the love of her husband, marriage brought Elizabeth a new and deep friendship. Rebecca Seton, William’s sister, became the “friend of her soul.” Together they went about doing charitable work among the poor of the city until people began to call them the “Protestant Sisters of Charity.” In 1797, at the age of 23, Elizabeth and Rebecca founded the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children.

Elizabeth Ann Seton
Elizabeth Ann Seton

Tragedy soon dogged the steps of the Setons. Business troubles followed the death in 1798 of William’s father, a rich merchant, and Elizabeth and William were left to raise William’s orphaned siblings. Then, in 1801, Elizabeth’s beloved father died. In great anxiety she prayed for him, offering to God even the life of her infant daughter for his salvation. Then, in 1803, William had fallen ill, and Elizabeth and their eldest daughter set sail with him for Italy where they hoped his health would improve.

After her husband’s death, the Filicchi family, William’s business associates in Pisa, befriended Elizabeth Seton, and she stayed on in Pisa for two more years. There she encountered the beauty of Catholic culture in the church buildings of Italy. Through the example and influence of Antonio Filicchi, Elizabeth grew slowly convinced of the truth of the Catholic Faith. Returning to America, she began to correspond with Jean-Louis Lefébvre de Cheverus, who later became bishop of Boston. Cheverus was a kindred spirit and helpful correspondent for Elizabeth Ann. Living in a two-room shack, Bishop Cheverus chopped his own firewood and dispensed charity to the poor of Boston. His zeal for souls would later move him to travel on foot to minister to the Indians of Maine, and even to learn their language. Now he labored for the soul of a young, aristocratic widow, and his labors, joined with her prayers and fasting, were not in vain. On Ash Wednesday, March 14, 1805, Father Matthew O’Brien of St. Peter’s church in New York City received Elizabeth Ann Seton into the Catholic Church.

With five children to support, and with little of her husband’s fortune left, Elizabeth’s conversion was not worldly wise. Her Protestant friends and relatives abandoned her. She found employment teaching for a school opened by an English Catholic; but when that was forced to close because of rumors that it was seeking to make converts, Elizabeth, with the help of some friends, opened a boarding house for the boys of a Protestant school. But when, through her influence, Elizabelth’s youngest sister-in-law converted to the Faith, the New York legislature threatened to expel her from the state. After much suffering, Elizabeth Seton accepted an invitation from Father Dubourg of St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore to open a school for girls in that city.

She arrived in Baltimore in 1808 and opened her school next to St. Mary’s Seminary. Soon several other women joined her, and together they formed a quasi-religious community. The same year a convert from Virginia offered Elizabeth Ann and her community $10,000 to found a school for poor children. Buying a farm just outside Emmitsburg, Maryland, the community moved in June 1808. In 1812, the community adopted the rule of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul; and, against her wishes, the sisters elected Elizabeth as their superior.

Many were the hardships of the life at Emmitsburg. Mother Elizabeth lost two of her daughters, Anna and Rebecca, but her fervor and zeal carried her through all difficulties and sorrows. Soon members of her community took charge of an orphan asylum in Philadelphia (1814).

When her sisters elected her superior for the third time in 1819, Mother Elizabeth protested that they had elected the dead. She lived for the next two years, suffering from heart problems. When she died in 1821, she was only 46 years old, but her religious community, then numbering 50 sisters, lived on after her. She is buried in the basilica bearing her name in Emmitsburg.

A Revolutionary Symphony

Not a month passed after St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s reception into the Catholic Church than Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E major had its first public performance in Vienna, Austria. Called Eroica (\“heroic\”), the Symphony No. 3 was something of a musical revolution, bringing the art fully into what is called the Romantic style. Contemporary reaction to the symphony could be censorious, as this dramatization of the first private performance of the piece portrays.

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