The First Saint Born in America

The First Saint Born in America

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January 4

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton's Feast day today. Ora pro nobis.

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is beloved by American Catholics as our first native-born saint. In this article,  Dan Flaherty recounts how this great Saint had a heart of charity from an early age — and how she endured much hardship along a road that would eventually result in her canonization more than two hundred years later, in 1975, the first saint born in America.

Abandoned, then Well-Married  

Born in New York City in 1774 to prosperous French Protestant parents, Elizabeth was just three years old when her mother passed away. Tragically, after her father’s second marriage ended in separation, she and her sister were effectively abandoned. Their stepmother didn’t want them, their father departed for London and the girls were sent to live with relatives.

In the time spent with her father, however, we see the early seeds of Elizabeth’s ultimate legacy, as he passed on to her his great love for intellectual pursuits, both in religion and history.

When she was nineteen, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, a wealthy importer. It was a happy marriage. With financial means at her disposal, and social prominence through New York City's Trinity Church, Elizabeth founded an organization to provide relief to impoverished children and poor widows.

The early 19th century saw the return of hardship in Elizabeth's life, however. The Napoleonic Wars in Europe involved a blockade of England, which devastated William’s shipping business. Her husband first went bankrupt and then fell ill with tuberculosis. Doctors prescribed an escape to Italy for its warmer climate, and so they departed for the Continent.

William would pass away in 1803 and her sister a year later,  but the trip to Italy proved to be the vehicle whereby Elizabeth’s sufferings would be transformed by grace.

Tragically, after her father’s second marriage ended in separation, she and her sister were effectively abandoned. Their stepmother didn’t want them, their father departed for London and the girls were sent to live with relatives.

The Cost of Conversion

In their grief and bereavement, Elizabeth and her five children elected to stay in Italy.  Her husband's business partner, Antonio Filich was a devout Catholic with a family of his own in Livorno. In their private chapel, Elizabeth was introduced to the fullness of the Faith.

On her return to New York City, Elizabeth converted to Catholicism, but at a great cost. First, her academy for young women suffered, when Protestant families withdrew their daughters. Soon, families with political influence were seeking to expel her school from the state.

Elizabeth was ready to go to Canada and start over when Divine Providence intervened in the form of a French priest named Abbe Louis William Valentine Dubourg.

Because of her conversion, Elizabeth's New York academy for young women suffered when Protestant families withdrew their daughters. Soon, families with political influence were seeking to expel her school from the state.

A Fugitive from the French Reign of Terror

Father Dubourg was a French Supulcian Father, in refuge from the Reign of Terror in his home country. (Editor's Note: As well he might have. At the beginning of the Reign of Terror, there were over 11,000 Catholic priests in France. By the end, there were 394 priests left. Many were murdered in cold blood by mobs; others were beheaded by the French State.) 

Dubourg was the president of St. Mary’s College in Maryland. He invited Elizabeth to establish a religious school there. She accepted the invitation, and moved to Emmitsburg, MD with her daughters. With Mr. Filich supporting her sons at the new Catholic Jesuit university at Georgetown, Elizabeth could now begin the work that would define her legacy.

Father Dubourg was a French Supulcian Father, in refuge from the Reign of Terror in his home country.

Caring for the Poor

Elizabeth started St. Joseph’s Academy for Catholic girls, and also established a religious community—the Sisters of Charity—for the care of poor children. Over the ensuing two decades the Sisters would eventually found six schools as far west as Cincinnati and New Orleans.

Her spiritual life, as is the case with all the saints, was founded a great love for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. The 23rd Psalm —“The Lord is my shepherd…”—was her personal favorite, even prior to her conversion to the Church.

The work Elizabeth did in education has resulted in her being revered as the patroness of Catholic schools, the heavenly role for which she is best known. It’s less widely known that she is also patroness of the sea services in the U.S. military; she had two sons who served in our Navy.

Elizabeth was a prolific writer, including her diaries and correspondence and this has aided in the preservation of her legacy.

Elizabeth started St. Joseph’s Academy for Catholic girls, and also established a religious community—the Sisters of Charity—for the care of poor children.

A Visit to Seton’s National Shrine

This is a task carried in our own day by the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmittsburg. The Shrine is on beautiful grounds in western Maryland with hiking available to pilgrims. Masses are offered at its Basilica three days during the week and on Sunday. The dedicated staff provides numerous opportunities for its roughly 50,000 annual visitors to learn about both Mother Seton and the Sisters of Charity.

A museum, with an accompanying movie, provides background on the life of the first American saint. The two houses in which Elizabeth lived are open for touring, with trained guides on hand to answer questions. The houses—a stone house and a white clapboard house—are  perfectly preserved, with an early 19th century feel.

“It gives you an idea of what it was like to live in that period,” said Amanda Johnston, the Marketing Director and Communications Manager. The Shrine is replete with beautiful art, and also includes a “Legacy Garden.” The garden includes inspirational quotes from Elizabeth, and is the venue for a tour event where people important in the life of the Sisters of Charity “appear” to tell the story.

A visitor to the Shrine also gets a primer on Civil War history—the grounds are just ten miles from Gettysburg, and Union troops were housed by the Sisters. The Civil War’s history is part of the busy events calendar that marks the life of the Shrine today.

Elizabeth is entombed in the Basilica, with imported mosaics from Germany and marble from Italy. It melds beautifully into a scenic landscape that the saint called her “Valley of Blessings.”

Through Saint Elizabeth Seton’s intercession, those blessings continue to flow today. Visit setonheritage.org to learn more about how you can share in the life and legacy of America’s first native-born saint. 

Elizabeth is entombed in the Basilica, with imported mosaics from Germany and marble from Italy. It melds beautifully into a scenic landscape that the saint called her “Valley of Blessings.”

TIMELINE: THE STORY OF THE ‘AMERICAN RULE'

1809:  Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton founded the Sisters of Charity of  Saint Joseph’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Her community of sisters followed a modified form of the Rule written for the Daughters of Charity by St. Vincent de Paul and Saint Louise de Marillac in 1633. Commonly referred to as the American Rule, it is built upon simple vows and a life spent living the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. For their habit, Mother Seton adapted the Italian widow’s black dress; they became known as the “black cap Sisters.”

1812: The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were founded by Fr. John Baptist David and Mother Catherine Spalding near Bardstown, KY, in 1812 and also adopted the American rule. These Sisters wore a black dress and a white cap and were called the“white cap Sisters.”

1829: Bishop John England founded the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Charleston, SC, basing their community on the American rule used by Mother Seton. The Sisters wore the black cap habit until 1932. In 1949, the community added the word Charity to its original title, making them the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy.

1850: The original community in Emmitsburg formally joined the Daughters of Charity of Paris as an American Province and began wearing the Daughters’ traditional habit of the white cornette and the dark blue dress.

1817-59: During Mother Seton’s life and shortly thereafter, her Sisters went to different parts of the country at the request of local bishops. In time, these local communities of Sisters formed separate religious congregations but retained the name “Sisters of Charity” as well as the black cap habit. This process led to the founding of the Sisters of Charity of New York, the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, and the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, NJ.

Support the Shrine

The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is supported solely by the generosity of our benefactors.  These women, men, and organizations ensure that the vital work we do to promote the life and legacy of Mother Seton can continue.

 

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