Today’s the feast of St. Elizabeth Seton (1774-1821), a woman born at the time of the American revolution and a founder of the American Catholic Church.
The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults sees her as an example of a woman in search of God. We find God through Jesus Christ, but also through creation, through human relationships and through various circumstances of our lives.
Elizabeth Seton was a woman who found God in all those ways. As a little girl after her mother’s death she was neglected by her father and at odds with her stepmother, and she found God in the beauties of nature, in the fields around New Rochelle, NY, where she played as a child.
Then, as a young woman, she married a prominent New York business man, William Seton. They had five children and Elizabeth enjoyed a happy married life, lots of friends; she was active in her Episcopal church, Trinity Church, on Wall Street in New York City.
She lived in a new country, in a city inspired by the optimism and principles of the Enlightenment, a movement that saw life as a pursuit of human knowledge and progress, more than as a pursuit of the knowledge of God. Alexander Pope sums up her time in his famous couplet in “An Essay of Man” (“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan/The proper study of mankind is man”)
In a society and a church largely influenced by those values, Elizabeth felt drawn to Jesus Christ, whom she searched for in the scriptures and found in the care of the poor.
Her life changed when her husband’s business failed. When his health also failed, Elizabeth took him to Italy to see if a better climate could revive him. As they arrived in Livorno, Italy, he died in her arms in a cold quarantine station at the Italian port.
Some Italian friends took Elizabeth and her daughter into their home and there she began to think about becoming a Catholic. Her conversion after her return to New York City caused her to lose old friends and left her to face hard times as a widow with small children.
She moved to Baltimore, then Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she opened her first Catholic school and gathered other women to form a religious community. She is one of the great saints and founders of the American Church. She’s also an important witness to the major role women played in establishing the Catholic Church in America.
Her quest for God was many sided, touched by sorrows and joys. She’s a good example of how our relationship with God is formed by creation, by the people around us, and the varied circumstances we face as we go through life and the times in which we live.
People like Mother Seton show how faith grows in us. That’s why the new U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults sees her as an example of how we find God in real life. More important than books, people tell us what believing means. They’re good catechisms.
Happy Feast Day to all her daughters throughout the world who continue in her spirit. They are following her and their journey isn’t over.
A biography of Mother Seton: http://emmitsburg.net/setonshrine/