Elizabeth Ann Seton, Feast day: Jan 4.
For 200 years, parochial schools have provided countless children
with a solid education and taught them how to be faithful Catholics and good
American citizens. Parish schools aren’t as numerous as they were 40 years ago,
and the teaching sisters that once staffed them are almost all gone. But the
situation is not anywhere near as dire as it was in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s
Mother Seton’s life coincides with the birth of the United States
and the rise of the Catholic Church in America. She was born a year before the
Battles of Lexington and Concord, when Catholicism was outlawed in every colony
except Pennsylvania. There was no bishop in British America, no nuns, no
Catholic schools, no seminary, and only about 20 priests, most of them living
incognito and using aliases in order to escape the colonies’ anti-priest laws.
Mother Seton grew up on Staten Island, daughter of the Anglican,
well-to-do Bayley family. During the Revolution, the Bayleys walked a fine line
between loyalty to the king and supporting the rebels, but whatever her
family’s true sympathies may have been, they were firmly in the American camp
by the time George Washington was elected president: 15-year-old Elizabeth
danced at the first president’s inaugural ball.
At age 19, she married William Seton, a wealthy New York
merchant. The Setons had five children — three girls and two boys — and enjoyed
a life of comfort and privilege. Then, after eight years of marriage, William’s
business went bankrupt, he contracted tuberculosis and died (William and
Elizabeth with their daughter Rebecca were in Italy at the time). At William’s
death his business associates, the Filicchi family, invited Elizabeth and
Rebecca to live with them. The Filicchis had a private chapel, and there
Elizabeth had her first introduction to the Catholic faith. Two things
especially impressed her: the family’s reverence during Mass, and the comfort
they received from going to confession. When she returned to New York she
sought out the pastor of St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street and asked to be
received into the Catholic Church.
With very few exceptions, Elizabeth’s Protestant family and
friends turned their backs on her. She was having a terrible time trying to
support herself and her children when Bishop John Carroll invited her to open a
Catholic school in Baltimore.
In Baltimore, Elizabeth began to consider entering the religious
life, but she did not want to be a nun in the European model, living a mostly
cloistered life with a few hours a day devoted to teaching girls who boarded at
the convent. With so much work to be done for the church in America, Elizabeth
wanted to be active. With Bishop Carroll’s encouragement she founded a new
order of teaching sisters and together they opened America’s first parish
school in Emmitsburg, Md., on Feb. 22, 1810.
The parochial school system Mother Seton founded passed the faith
along from generation to generation, eased the passage of Catholic immigrant
children into American society, and served as the seedbed for countless
vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. Furthermore her new
teaching order offered a new model for religious women — sisters who were “in
the world, but not of it.” In the history of the Catholic Church in America,
Mother Seton is indispensable.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will
Change Your Life.