To her sisters gathered round her deathbed on January 2, 1821, Mother Seton repeated twice over: "Be children of the Church. Be children of the Church!"
Four years previously the girl's older sister, Anna, had died of tuberculosis shortly before her 17th birthday, having been permitted to profess vows as a Sister of Charity on her deathbed. Her mother wrote a friend two months later: "Eternity was Anna's darling word. I find it written in everything that belonged to her: music, books, copies, the walls of her little chamber, everywhere that word." Where can these two teenagers have got such faith, when not from their mother?
The mother's name was Elizabeth Ann Seton. She was born in New York City on August 28, 1774, the second daughter of the socially prominent Dr. Richard Bayley, later Health Officer for the city, and his wife Catherine Charlton, whose father was rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church on Staten Island for 30 years. From childhood, Elizabeth was a devout communicant of the Episcopal Church. At age 20, she was married by the Episcopal bishop of New York, Samuel Provoost, to the son of another socially prominent New York Family, William Magee Seton. Their firstborn, Anna Maria, was born a year later. Two sons and two more daughters would follow over the next seven years: William, Richard, Catherine, and Rebecca (the one who died at age 14).
Within eight years of his marriage to Elizabeth, William Seton contracted tuberculosis, for which there was then no treatment other than fresh air. Seeking relief, William and Elizabeth, with the eight-year-old Anna, embarked in October 1803 for Livorno, on the northwest coast of Italy, where they were to stay with the Filicchi family, whom William had previously visited in connection with his family's shipping business. When William died at Livorno within weeks of their arrival, the Filicchis insisted that Elizabeth and Anna stay with them as long as they liked.
They were Elizabeth's first Catholic friends, devout people of culture like herself. Visiting Catholic churches with them, attending Mass and other religious services, Elizabeth became fascinated with a world she had never known in New York, where Catholics were of a wholly different social class.
Elizabeth was especially struck with the reverence shown by Catholics to the Blessed Sacrament. When Elizabeth returned to New York in June 1804, she had discovered that Catholicism had a different face from the one she had encountered at home. After nine months of agonizing reflection and prayer, she was received into the Catholic Church in St. Peter's Church in what is now downtown Manhattan, with Antonio Filicchi at her side as sponsor. There is no evidence that she was re-baptized, even conditionally. Her Episcopalian baptism, with water in the name of the Trinity, was accepted as valid.
Despite this, her relatives and friends were outraged. Her married older sister, Mary Post, upbraided Elizabeth for joining people who were "dirty, filthy, red-faced and [their] church a horrid place of spits and pushing, ragged." Two wealthy friends in New York who had promised Elizabeth generous legacies in their wills immediately disinherited her.
With five children to support, Elizabeth's financial situation was desperate. She tried to earn money by starting a school for children and taking in boarders, only to be stymied when her erstwhile spiritual mentor, Rev. John Henry Hobart, warned parents not to entrust their offspring to a person of unsound religious views. Antonio Filicchi helped her financially and arranged for her two sons, William and Richard, to attend Georgetown College in Washington at his expense -- but these were temporary measures at best.
Rescue came from a Sulpician priest, Rev. Louis William DuBourg, founder in 1803 of St. Mary's College in Baltimore and later bishop, successively, of New Orleans and St. Louis. On a visit to New York in the fall of 1806, Father DuBourg met Elizabeth and invited her to come to Baltimore to start a school for girls and, if God so willed, found a religious community to staff it. Elizabeth asked advice from John Carroll, soon to be Baltimoreís first archbishop, who encouraged Elizabeth to accept Father DuBourgís proposal.
It was June 1808 before she could do so. Arriving in Baltimore by ship with her three daughters (her two sons were already at Georgetown) on June 16, ...
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