Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton: Uncompromising Widow, Mother and Catholic
Those who love perfectly, willingly sacrifice everything for Perfect Love
"If I am right Thy grace impart still in the right to stay. If I am wrong Oh, teach my heart to find the better way" -- the prayer of Elizabeth Ann Seton as she contemplated entry into the fullness of truth found in the Catholic Church: a conversion which would ostracize her from family and friends, and which would cost her the financial support she so direly needed as a poor widow and mother of five children.
Elizabeth Ann Seton: the first American born saint.
The Catholic Encyclopedia informs us that, educated primarily by her father, Elizabeth became an avid reader who took special interest in religious and historical subjects. As a young adult, she demonstrated a devotion to reading Sacred Scripture, especially the Psalms, and was always found wearing a crucifix about her neck. She often went about with her sister-in-law, Rebecca Seton, on missions for the poor, which led to the two becoming known as the "Protestant Sisters of Charity."
At age 19, Elizabeth married William Seton on 25 January 1794, and was blessed with five children. In about 1802, William's firm ended in bankruptcy due to the the combined loss of several ships at sea and the effects of the blockade by the United Kingdom of Napoleonic France. Soon after, William developed tuberculosis and was advised by doctors to travel to Italy for the benefits of a warmer climate. Elizabeth, along with her eldest daughter, attended William on the sea voyage to Italy; however, he died in December of 1803 shortly after his arrival there.
After William's death, Elizabeth stayed for a time in Italy with the Filicchi families, her husband's business friends, and was there first introduced to the profound beauty of the Catholic Faith. After visiting Catholic churches in Italy, she became all the more convincingly drawn to the sacred Liturgy of the Mass, the Eucharist, and the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
Following the divine impulses of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth sensed her eternal, spiritual and familial home was to be found in the Catholic Church. Further, the pious devotion displayed by the Catholics she met served only to strengthen her desire to immerse herself in the Gospel life transmitted in its fullness by holy mother Church.
The Catholic Life of Sacrifice
Yet anti-Catholic sentiment remained quite virulent in America at that time; therefore Elizabeth knew the decision to become Catholic was sure to cause alienation from friends and family -- a very serious consequence, since as a widow with children she was in dire need of financial support.
Nevertheless, after a period of significant fasting and prayer, she became certain of the divine origin of the Catholic Church as founded by Jesus Christ, and thus joined the ranks of the fullness of truth as a Catholic on the 14 of March, 1805 -- Ash Wednesday. The persecution Elizabeth feared became a reality: ostracized by her conversion, she was forced to provide for her children without aid from her relatives.
Here we arrive at an important element of St. Elizabeth's character: she was unwilling to compromise on the truth -- even at the cost of family and friends, even at the cost of personal comfort and security. She felt obliged in freedom to worship in Spirit and truth in Christ, called by the Father (see Jn 4:23), as a participant at the holy sacrifice of the Mass: the highest and most sublime form of Christian prayer. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she was willing to die for the Catholic Church.
Elizabeth's experience of persecution by American Protestants was not to end with her family. When she joined with a Catholic friend and his wife in an effort to open a school for boys in the suburbs of New York, the school was forced to close under false suspicion as a proselytizing scheme; and when Elizabeth's sister-in-law, Cecilia Seton, voiced her desire to become Catholic, Elizabeth suffered threats to be expelled from the state by the New York Legislature (ibid.).
Psalm 25 likely became the prayer of Elizabeth's heart: "Look upon me, have pity on me, for I am alone and afflicted. See how many are my enemies, see how fiercely they hate me. Preserve my life and rescue me; do not let me be disgraced, for I trust in you" (16,19-20). It is clear her prayers were answered in abundance.
Trust in God is Never Misplaced
After a great deal of struggle to support herself and her children, Elizabeth met Fr. Dubourg, who suggested she open a school for girls in Baltimore, which was begun on the feast of Corpus Christi in 1808. While there, her boys were brought to St. Mary's College, and thus Elizabeth rejoiced in God's care for her and her family, as well as the gift of being allowed to immerse herself in the Catholic Faith on a deeper level.
Elizabeth was soon given charge over a farm near the village of Emmitsburg, which was converted into an institution in order to teach poor children. There, ...
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