Tag Archives: Elizabeth Seton

Elizabeth Seton, January 4

Elizabeth Seton 1804

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/

33rd Sunday C: Visiting Churches

Audio homily here: 

Whenever I can, I invite visitors to our monastery in Jamaica, Long Island, to take the subway to downtown Manhattan for a ride on the Staten Island Ferry and then visit Battery Park, the Museum of the American Indian, and some of the old churches and shrines among the city’s famous skyline. I try to tell the story of our country and the Catholic church in America by walking through those places. It’s a good opportunity to talk about the care we need to give creation as we look at the waters of the harbor, the question of immigration as we visit Castle Clinton in the Battery, and the church as we visit the area’s churches. Looking at the past helps you to understand the present.

Our walk usually ends at St. Peter’s church, the oldest Catholic church in New York City, on the corner of Church and Barclay Streets, a block away from the World Trade Center. The church was dedicated November 4, 1786, three years after British troops evacuated the city at the end of the Revolutionary War and it’s been there as an active parish every since.

Previously, New York City was under Dutch and British rule for almost 150 years. During that time the city was strongly anti-Catholic, with laws calling for any Catholic priest who came there to be jailed. Catholic worship was forbidden; there were no Catholic churches.

Even after the Revolutionary War, despite their support for the American cause, Catholics were looked down upon in New York City. There were only a few hundred in a population of almost 20,000. Being a Catholic didn’t get you far in New York in those days.

So how did that church get built? Well, there were some foreign diplomats from France and Spain and Portugal in the city then. New York was the nation’s capital at that time. (1785-1790)

There were a couple of well-to-do Catholic businessmen, but most of the Catholics that formed St. Peter’s were poor Irish and German immigrants and French refugees and slaves from the recent revolution in Haiti.

Not a good mix of people to form a parish, you might think. This new congregation, besides facing the anti-Catholic attitude of New Yorkers, was poor and getting poorer as new Catholic immigrants poured into New York from Europe. Its priests weren’t the best either. They seemed to be always squabbling among themselves. There were some scandals among them. The laypeople were also divided among themselves. There were factions that wanted to run the parish their way or no way. There wasn’t a bishop in the country at the time to straighten things out.

So what kept it going? The other day we celebrated the Feast for the Dedication of the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome. The liturgy for that feast offers some wonderful insights into what a church and a parish should be. “My house is a house of prayer,” Jesus says. This church is not a social hall; it’s a place where we meet God and God meets us. It’s a place where we are welcomed on our way through life by a living water that restores us and helps us grow. ( Ezekiel 47.1-12) It’s is a place where we remember our mission in this world: we’re builders of the City of God, living stones that together form the temple of God. ( 1 Corinthians 3, 9-17) It’s is a place of communion, where we commune with God and God with us.

The readings for the feast say a church is a place of welcome. It’s where the lost sheep find their way home. It’s where people like Zacchaeus, the tax collector mentioned in St. Luke’s gospel, find new hope for their lives. It’s is a place of sacraments, where infants are blessed, where marriages begin, where we put our dead in the hands of God who promises eternal life.

What keeps a church and a parish going is its spiritual life, its life of prayer, its life of ministry.

Whenever I go to St. Peter’s Church on Barley Street I point out two markers at its entrance. One says that St. Elizabeth Seton, the first native born American saint, was received into the Catholic Church here in 1806. She had been a member of a prominent Anglican church just down the street, Trinity Church, but came to St. Peter’s drawn by her faith in the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament. Socially, it was step down for her. Spiritually, she found a home here in this struggling, messy parish of poor immigrants.

The other marker recalls Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian slave who was also a member of this church in colonial times. He became a famous New York hair-dresser and was welcomed into the homes of elite members of New York society for over 50 years. For 50 years he came to Mass every morning at St. Peter’s. He’s buried in the crypt at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and in being proposed for canonization today.

The church is not a place of brick and stone. It’s a place for people, holy people, to meet God and one another.  They make the church.

New York Harbor


I went on a boat trip on Sunday into New York harbor, one of my favorite places. We followed a giant container ship from Singapore under the Verrazano Bridge.

Indian tribes were the first here to fish and to trade. The Dutch and the English followed them. It’s a great harbor with a great history. The fishing’s gone, unfortunately, and I wonder what happened to the Indians? Their story never seems to be told.

Indian fishing

Indian fishing

The Hudson River reaching north was a trading dream. Early on, furs and timber and raw materials were brought here from the interior to be shipped all over the world. The Eire Cana only increased the river’s reach.

liberty stat - Version 2Millions of immigrants, looking for work and a place to live, sailed into this harbor from distant places. The sign welcoming them, the Statue of Liberty, and the place where many of them were processed, Ellis Island, are on the left of the harbor as you come through the Narrows from the open sea.

Many of our ancestors, my own included, first saw the New World here. Many never left the area. On a recent TV program on Italian immigration, the question was asked “Why did so many Italians choose to live in New York City and New Jersey?” “That’s where the work was, “ someone said. My ancestors–Irish and Swedes– chose to live and work here too. Skyline medium

Skyline close

As you look at the impressive skyline of New York, look also to Brooklyn on the right and Jersey City and Bayonne on the left, Staten Island behind you. Those places were where the immigrants who built the city lived–and still do.

Quarentine station, staten island,

Quarentine station, staten island,

The Quarantine Station built in 1799 by Doctor Richard Bayley, father of St. Elizabeth Seton, was located near Stapleton on Staten Island, just south of the Staten Island Ferry terminal at St. George. Passengers with infectious diseases like small pox, cholera or yellow fever were detained and treated there, and sometimes returned to their own countries.

In the summer of 1801, Elizabeth Seton was staying with her father at the quarantine station when a boatload of sick Irish immigrants were brought in. She describes what poorer immigrants faced coming here:

“I cannot sleep–the dying and the dead possess my mind. Babies perishing at the empty breast of the expiring mother…Father says such was never known before: twelve children must die for want of sustenance…parents deprived of it as they have lain for many days ill in a ship without food or air or changing…There are tents pitched over the yard of the convalescent house and a large one at the death house.” (Letter July 28, 1801)

That same year, Richard Bayley died from yellow fever contacted while caring for a boatload of Irish immigrants at the Quarantine Station. He’s buried in the family plot next to the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew in Richmond, Staten Island.

Too bad no remains of the quarantine station are left to remind us how difficult an immigrant’s journey could be. There’s no quarantine station in the harbor now; sick immigrants and travelers go to nearby hospitals, as far as I know.

People in ancient times looked at travel over the uncertain sea as a perilous challenge. You never knew when you would arrive or the welcome you would get. No cruise ships then to make the journey a pleasure. An anchor was the sign the ancients used to symbolize their arrival, safely reaching port. Some ancient Mediterranean seaports like Alexandria and Antioch adopted the anchor as a symbol of their city.

Early Christians used this same sign on the burial places of their dead to symbolize their hope in Jesus Christ. The anchor closely resembles a cross. Jesus would bring them safely home, to harbor, to the New Jerusalem.

Visiting Elizabeth Seton’s New York

Twelve of us from St. Mary’s Parish, Colts Neck, NJ, visited Elizabeth Seton’s New York yesterday. We took the 10 AM boat from Atlantic Highlands for pier 11 in downtown New York City and walked to St. Elizabeth Seton’s shrine and home on State Street nearby.

One of New York City’s distinguished citizens, she was born in 1774, a couple years before the American Revolution.  She’s also the first American saint to be honored by the Catholic Church.

Our first stop was a colonial house and a shrine near the ferry terminal at the end of Manhattan Island where Elizabeth Seton and her family lived for a short time. Most of her New York years were lived in this old section of the city.

Approaching Manhattan through New York harbor let’s you see the city as the earliest European explorers saw it. The island is the gem at the harbor’s center; on its left the Hudson River flows to the north, on its right the East River flows out to the coast.

In 1524 Giovanni Verranzano came upon New York harbor–he thought it was a lake– searching for a passage to the Pacific. The Verranzano Bridge stands at the entrance to the harbor today.

In 1609 Henry Hudson, exploring for the Dutch, sailed into the harbor and then up as far as Albany on the river that now bears his name.  The Dutch realized how valuable this place was and made a small settlement on the island. They called their trading post New Amsterdam and traded with the many Indian tribes here and along the Hudson River. Before any Europeans came, numerous Indian tribes fished, hunted and traded here.

The English had their eyes on the place too and in 1642 took it over. New Amsterdam became New York, and it was under English control till the American Revolution in 1776.

Millions of immigrants have come through New York harbor since then. This was their gateway to the new world.  Through the harbor, this country also traded the new world’s resources with the rest of the world.

We began our tour of Elizabeth Seton’s New York here because she and her family were closely connected to the harbor. Her husband, William Seton, invested in the ships that made New York one of the richest ports in the world.  But ships were a risky investment; they brought handsome profits but they could also bring bankruptcy if they didn’t come in. The Setons experienced both.

William Seton was one of Wall Street’s first venture capitalists. In 1801 the Seton’s went bankrupt after the loss of a ship at sea and the family moved to the rented house on State Street, our first stop on our tour.

Elizabeth Seton’s father, Doctor Richard Bayley, was the first Health Officer for the port of New York; (1796) he dealt with many of the first immigrants and travellers passing through here.

His job was to keep New York City safe from disease, and one of his tasks was to keep travellers who were dangerous health threats isolated. So, quarantine stations were set up for immigrants with yellow fever, cholera and small pox.

On our way through the harbor we saw some of the harbor’s early quarantine stations at Bedloe’s Island (1758-1796), Governor’s Island (1796-1799), Thomkinsville in Staten Island (1799-1858), just south of the St. George ferry station.

In the summer of 1801, Elizabeth was staying with her father at the Thomkinsville quarantine station when a boatload of sick Irish immigrants were brought in. She describes the dreadful conditions in a letter:

“I cannot sleep–the dying and the dead possess my mind. Babies perishing at the empty breast of the expiring mother…Father says such was never known before: twelve children  must die for want of sustenance…parents deprived of it as they have lain for many days ill in a ship without food or air or changing…There are tents pitched over the yard of the convalescent house and a large one at the death house.” (Letter July 28, 1801)

That same year, Richard Bayley died from yellow fever contacted while caring for a boatload of Irish immigrants off Thomkinsville. He’s buried in the family plot next to the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew in Richmond, Staten Island.

From Mother Seton’s shrine and house on State Street we walked to Trinity Church and then St. Paul’s Chapel, the Anglican parish she belonged to until her conversion to Catholicism in 1805. She lived her early years as a happily married woman with five children on Wall Street and Stone Street, close by these colonial churches.

As a devout Anglican, Elizabeth devoted herself to her family and to the poor. In 1797 she and other public-spirited church women began an aid society for destitute women and their children. “The poor increase fast: immigrants from all quarters come to us. And when they come to us they must not be allowed to die.” (Description of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows and Small Children.)

Looking eastward down Wall Street from Trinity Church on Broadway , you can see many of the founding institutions of America: the docks and slave market (no longer visible) on the East River  the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal building, a short walk from Broadway, and finally Trinity Church and King’s College on the western side of Manhattan. King’s College built on lands belonging to Trinity Church became Columbia University after the Revolutionary War, and later relocated in northern Manhattan.

Our final stop on our visit to Elizabeth Seton’s New York was St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Barclay Street, near to World Trade Center. Here she was received into the Catholic Church.

In June 1808, she left New York City with her family for Baltimore, where she founded a school on Paca Street, the beginning of the Catholic parochial schools system in the United States. Shortly after, Mother Seton moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where other women gathered around her and took vows as the Sisters of Charity. Her religious followers continued her work through schools, orphanages and hospitals found throughout the United States.

Mother Seton died at the age of 46 in 1821. She was canonized on September 14,1975

Yesterday, from St. Peter’s Church we walked to Broadway and then down Wall Street to catch the 3 PM ferry for the Atlantic Highlands.

No Nest, No Den

We’re reading from the 9th chapter of Luke’s gospel this Sunday. (Luke 8,51-62) Jesus has completed his mission in Galilee, in the small towns around the lake, and sets out for Jerusalem. That’s how today’s gospel begins:

“When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled,
he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”

Luke doesn’t describe a journey from place to place. Rather, Jesus gathers disciples on the way. He’s not making this journey alone, or just with the twelve. He’s calling many others to experience with him the mystery of his death and resurrection.

It’s a hard call. You have to go through tough places, Jesus says, like the Samaritan town that he and his disciples passed through, where you’re not accepted. You may not feel powerful or secure. If you follow me, Jesus says, you won’t have nests like the birds or dens like the fox. You’ll meet circumstances and difficult situations that may seem unreasonable.

But don’t worry, by following Jesus you’ll made the journey.

Last week I had some visitors from Australia and I took them on a tour of downtown New York, to visit a saint who once lived on Wall Street. She’s St. Elizabeth Seton, Mother Seton; she lived with her family on Wall Street and a number of other places downtown in colonial times. One of the last places she lived in New York City is on State Street, right across from the Staten Island Ferry. A church honoring her is built over that house.
Setonshrine - Version 2

She’s a good example of what it means to follow Jesus, according to today’s gospel.
1.Elizabeth Seton 1797

I took my visitors on the Staten Island Ferry to show them where the quarantine stations were in the harbor. Mother Seton’s father, Doctor Richard Bayley, was New York City’s first health officer and his job was to isolate and care for people with diseases like yellow fever who were coming into the country on ships from overseas.
Quarantine 1833

In the summer of 1801, his daughter described the conditions at the quarantine station at Tomkinsville, Staten Island, where she was staying with her father. A boatload of Irish immigrants with yellow fever had just been taken off a ship:
“I cannot sleep–the dying and the dead possess my mind. Babies perishing at the empty breast of the expiring mother…Father says such was never known before: twelve children must die for want of sustenance…parents deprived of it as they have lain for many days ill in a ship without food or air or changing…There are tents pitched over the yard of the convalescent house and a large one at the death house.” (Letter July 28, 1801) Her father contacted yellow fever himself then and died shortly afterwards.

Through her life, Mother Seton experienced hard things like that. She was four years old when her mother died, and her father quickly remarried. Her stepmother never had much time for her, but neither did her father, a good man absorbed in his work as a doctor and away a lot.

She describes how lonely she was as a child. What kept her going was looking up into the clouds and believing that God was her father and he loved her.

Her fortunes changed dramatically when as a young woman Elizabeth Bayley met William Seton, one of the wealthiest young men in New York. They got married and had children and became part of New York’s high society. Alexander Hamilton was a neighbor, George Washington lived down the street. They were on top of the world and blissfully happy.
Wall St. 1825 copy

William Seton was one of the venture capitalists of his day. He was into banking and shipping. But as we know venture capitalists can go bankrupt as well as make millions. That’s what happened to the Setons. They went bankrupt, he died of sickness and his wife became a widow with five kids.

Elizabeth Seton went through a spiritual crisis. She was attracted to the Catholic faith, but the Catholic Church then was looked down on by New Yorkers. She lost most of her friends when she decided to become a Catholic. She had to leave New York and go to Maryland where she began a school and a religious community of women, the Sisters of Charity.

Her school was the beginning of Catholic Parochial School system in the United States and she’s honored as our first native born American saint. In the new United States Catholic Catechism for Adults she’s presented as an example of how our search for God takes place. Sometimes we’re on top of the world, other times we’re like birds without nests and foxes without dens.

Sometimes we may think that the gospel is an old book about things from long ago. But if you look at it with yourself in mind you can see how it applies. There are times when our lives are transfigured, as the lives of the disciples were when Jesus took them up the mountain. At other times we are not sure where we are. Sometimes we can feel like we’re going through a Samaritan town where nothing makes sense. To follow Jesus is like that.

Saints like Elizabeth Seton are good guides too. Take a look at them. They’re better guides to life than movie celebrities, and more real.

Reasoning to faith

I mentioned in my last blog how Elizabeth Seton came to believe in the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. She offers a an example of how ordinary reasoning leads to faith. “She thought of the Filicchis’s devotion and asked how God created her ‘ and how a hundred other things I know nothing about? I am a mother, so the mother’s thought came also. How was my God a little babe in the first stage of his mortal existence in Mary?’”

Three simple things influenced her: the Filicchis’s belief in the Eucharist, the many mysteries she found in her own life and could not explain, and finally the mystery of the Incarnation itself. Humbly, Jesus became flesh in the womb of Mary. Could not the One who “emptied himself and took on the form of a slave” choose to be really present in bread and wine?

Commentators say that the long narrative in the 6th chapter of John’s gospel on the miracle of the loaves and fish is meant to meet questions that arose in his church in the last decade of the 1st century. The first disciples and eyewitnesses are gone. Some Christians, probably influenced by Gnostic pessimism, questioned the Incarnation of Christ. Would God become human and part of our created world? The authors of John’s gospel use the miracle of the loaves and fish and Jesus’ words that he is “the bread of life” to assert that he works through creation. He is the Word made flesh.

Elizabeth was raised an Episcopalian and belonged to Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan. From my reading it seems that her church at the end of the 18th century was emerging from the heavy influence of the Enlightenment, which stressed a rational approach to religion. Then, Henry Hobart,a new ministerarrived and began to preach a biblical message based on the words and ministry of Jesus; Elizabeth responded warmly to his message.

I like best her simple reasoning for belief in Jesus present in the Eucharist: “I am a mother, so the mother’s thought came also. How was my God a little babe in the first stage of his mortal existence in Mary?”

The Amos Principle

In our Sunday reading from the Old Testament (Amos 7, 12-15) the priest Amaziah tells Amos, a poor shepherd, uneducated and without training, not to speak up in the temple at Bethel. In fact, he should leave there right away. He doesn’t have the credentials.

But the Prophet Amos replies:  God calls him to speak out. That’s all the credentials he needs. Obviously, the reading is meant to support Jesus’ call of his twelve apostles in our gospel. (Matthew 6, 7-13) They’re not educated either, but God calls them.

The example of Amos can be applied to more than the twelve apostles, however. Let’s call it “The Amos Principle.” It can be applied to us all. We’ve all been called to live our faith and bring it to others.

Now Amos the prophet was a man; the apostles were all men. How about women? Let’s not  forget what part they played in Jesus’ life and the part they play in the church today.

Consider some recent statistics from Rome. There are about 460,000 priests and men in religious orders in the church worldwide today. There are over 740,000 religious women. In many unsung ways, these women represent our faith to others. Do they get  much recognition?

Though the gospels pay more attention to men, my guess is that more women than men supported Jesus in his lifetime.

Look at the gospels. Who was the closest to Jesus through his life? Wouldn’t it be Mary his mother? She was with him from the beginning, at his birth, in the years at Nazareth, as he suffered on the cross. She buried him in the tomb and saw him risen. St Luke says, “ She treasured all these things and kept them in her heart.” So much of what we know of Jesus comes to us from this woman.

The gospels tell of other women who believed in him. As an infant, Anna, the prophetess, sung his praises when he’s brought into the temple. The Samaritan woman (John 4,1-39) came to believe in him at the well and then brought her whole village to see him. The Syro-phoenician woman (Mark 7,24-30) calling him to help her daughter, the woman who touched his cloak in the crowd (Matthew 9,20-22), the woman who came looking for pardon for her sins represent the many women who believed in him.

When he came to Jerusalem for the feasts, Jesus must have stayed in nearby Bethany with his friends Martha and Mary and Lazarus. When Mary poured perfume on him in Bethany before his burial, Jesus says she will be remembered forever for her love, when that story is told.

In his parables you can see the high regard Jesus has for women. He praised the poor widow who gave her little coin in the temple, the woman who searched so earnestly for her lost money, the widow who looked for justice from the unjust judge.

St. Luke in his gospel speaks of the many women who followed Jesus from Galilee and actually supported him from their means. Luke names some of them: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and “many others,” (Luke 8, 2-3)

All the evangelists say that women were with Jesus during his last hours. They did not abandon him when he was taken prisoner, condemned and was crucified. His twelve disciples fled, but they didn’t. Mary Magdalen, one of his staunchest disciples, stayed with him during his passion and was the first one to go to his tomb on Easter morning. He meets her and sends her as witness and announcer of his resurrection the others. She’s called “the apostle to the apostles,” because of her faith.

The picture didn’t change in the early years of the church. True, Paul and Peter are featured in that early history, but look closely and you can see there were women with them. They were there at the beginning of the church and they have been with the church ever since.

A few days ago I took some visitors to the shrine of Elizabeth Seton on State Street in lower New York City, near the Staten Island Ferry. She is one of the founders of the Catholic Church in this country, the foundress of our system of Catholic schools and of a religious community of women, one of many, that worked tirelessly to establish the immigrant church. Not far from her shrine, Mother Cabrini cared for poor Italian immigrants who came to this country and sought their livelihood in a strange land.

We should not forget these women from our past, and we should not forget the women who belong to our church today. They have been called.

Mission: Wednesday Evening–Elizabeth Seton

St. Elizabeth Seton

Here’s a biography of Mother Seton: http://emmitsburg.net/setonshrine/

How can she help us see Jesus today?

1. She tells us to seek God faithfully day by day.

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (pages 1-8) offers her as an example of the human quest for God. “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.” (Augustine, Confessions)

In the changing times and circumstances of her 46 years of life, Elizabeth Seton followed God’s call, from the loneliness of her youth, to the prosperity of her life as a happily married woman with a good husband and five children, to the suffering of financial loss and her husband’s death, to the search to serve a small church that became her spiritual home. She thirsted for God and sought to do his will.

Life changes for us too. We face an unknown future, not only personally, but as a world and as a church. Elizabeth Seton says to us: find God as you go through life.

2. Find God in the world you live in.

Elizabeth Seton was born into a privileged world. Her father, Richard Bayley (1744-1801), was a distinguished physician who taught medicine at Kings College, later Columbia University, and was first Health Officer of the Port of New York.

Dedicated to medicine and medical research, he traveled back and forth to England to learn the latest in his field. He was a health-care crusader, who fought against diseases like yellow fever that regularly infested the city, especially its vulnerable immigrant population.

Her husband William Seton was part of a family that made its fortune in banking and shipping. Elizabeth and her husband belonged to a world that included Alexander Hamilton and other members of the America’s elite. She enjoyed the cultural and social benefits status brought her.

William’s shipping interests gained the family a fortune, but shipping was a risky business and just as easily could collapse and bring financial disaster. In 1802, it did.

From great wealth the Setons were plunged into bankruptcy. Elizabeth sought to bolster her husband, now failing in health, by a sea voyage to Italy to visit some business friends, the Filicchis, in Livorno.

Her husband died in the quarantine station in Livorno, with Elizabeth and her little daughter at his side; Elizabeth was left a widow with no financial resources.

What spiritual resources did she have to draw upon?

A childhood loneliness led her to look to God for support. She found God in the beauties of nature and in devotional books that she found comfort in.

The church to which she looked for support was Trinity Church in downtown New York City. The Bayleys and Setons were Anglicans, and Trinity Church, with its annex St. Paul’s Church, was the parish church of the city’s elite.

In her time the Anglican Church in America was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, a movement that put its hopes in human reason and science.

By the later colonial period, writes Anglican historian, David L. Holmes “Following the lead of the left wing of the Enlightenment (of which Benjamin Franklin represents a prime example), large numbers of Anglican gentry came to believe that reason and science provided all-sufficient guides for believing in God and living morally; any special revelation that occurred through Scripture, they decided, was superfluous or in need of radical pruning. They were intent on returning humanity to a primitive natural religion consisting in belief in the existence of God and a simple morality.” (A Brief History of the Episcopal Church , Valley Forge, PA 1993 p 40)

Alexander Pope expressed the opinion famously:

Know thyself,
Presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.

Elizabeth’s father and her husband were men of the Enlightenment, who were completely absorbed in their careers and their business. Revealed religion, prayer,  were not important to them.

Elizabeth said that the only time she heard her father mention the name of God was on his deathbed.  She complains that her husband Will never shared in her own religious insights, until he came to die in Italy.

The two men most dear to her belonged to the church, regularly attended its services, but saw it mainly as an institution for upholding moral principles rather than as a place of God’s revelation.

However, as a married woman, here in Trinity Church, Elizabeth’s spiritual life grew. A new assistant minister, John Henry Hobart, came to Trinity in 1800 and he brought a reforming movement that gradually influenced the Anglican church.  In the mid 1800’s it’s most prominent expression was the Oxford Movement, one of whose leaders was John Henry Newman.

Reverend Hobart lead Elizabeth to a life of daily prayer, the reading of scripture, a devotion to Jesus Christ, and a life of charity, helping widows and orphans from Trinity church.

Today we still experience the effects of the Enlightenment. Commentators say we living in an age of secularization. (Charles Taylor, An Age of Secularization, Harvard University, 2002) One of our greatest challenges today is to engage those who, like Richard Bayley and William Seton, are deeply involved in the world, but have little interest in any revelation of God or in church.

Elizabeth and Catholicism

After the death of her husband in Livorno the Filicchi family took Elizabeth and her little daughter into their home there and treated her with exquisite kindness. They were devout Catholics and invited their American guests to church with them. The liturgy of the church was a revelation to Elizabeth, especially the Mass. She wrote home to a friend:

“How happy we would be, if we believed what these dear souls believe–that they possess God in the Sacrament, and that He remains in their churches and is carried to them when they are sick…O God! How happy I would be…if I could find You in the church as they do…”

The Catholic Church, which was only a poor tiny congregation in her native New York, suddenly became for her a place that revealed Jesus Christ.

When she returned to New York City, she decided, against the strong objections of her friends and family, to become a Catholic.

In his history of the Catholic Church in the United States, “A Faithful People” (2008) James O’Toole describes the Catholic Church that Elizabeth Seton entered in 1805 as a “priestless, popeless” congregation, held together by believers who kept the Catholic faith alive in their homes and through occasional visits from the few priests that had come to the New World.

It was a “popeless church” because the popes of the late 18th and early 19th century struggled under the crushing control of Europe’s monarchs and could pay little attention to the faithful at the far ends of the earth.

It is extraordinary that Elizabeth Seton would enter the Catholic Church at this time, with few resources, few members and largely seen as a suspect religion in American eyes.

Can we in a declining American church today, as priests become fewer and parishes close, find her faith in the church an example?

After a few hard years as a Catholic in New York City, Elizabeth was invited by Bishop John Carroll to go to Maryland, where there were more Catholics to establish a school and support her family.

Elizabeth’s years in Maryland marked the beginning of a new period in American Catholic history. Not only did she establish a small school, but she began a community of religious women, the Sisters of Charity. Eventually her community, joined by others, would establish networks of schools, hospitals and social endeavors that became the backbone of the church in America.

As millions of Catholic immigrants arrived in America in the mid 1800’s  growing numbers of women religious welcomed them to the Catholic Church and formed the great immigrant church that became the face of Catholicism in America. American women religious were at the heart of a growing church. We owe them an enormous debt.

Elizabeth Seton invites us to look at our own role in the world we live in and in our church. She was a woman of prayer and we invites us to be people of prayer. So many of her decisions came through prayer. Ours must come through prayer too.

She reminds us that our quest for God takes place in the life and the world where God places us. We live in a secularized world; how do we engage it? We live in a changing church; how do we help it fulfill its divine destiny? As children of the church we must draw close to her .

This is our time to seek God.