We sometimes think of our lives as small, mundane, tucked away in an insignificant part of the world and having little impact. So we wonder, “Have I accomplished anything worthwhile?” Yet, deep within ourselves, we know that if we have been open, listened to God’s call and pursued it, our lives have been significant.
Saint Elizabeth Bayley Seton, our first American-born saint (1774-1821), shared these same feelings of isolation and insignificance at times. After her arrival in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in 1809 when she founded the American Sisters of Charity, she told a friend, “Our mountains serve the limits of our world.” She found her meaning by continually seeking the will of God in her life and by attending to what she called “the grace of the moment.”
As described in Elizabeth Barkley’s article, “Elizabeth Ann Seton: A Profoundly Human Saint,” Elizabeth Seton was a native of New York, was married, widowed and the single mother of five young children when, at age 30, she decided to join the Catholic Church. By making this choice, she plunged herself into an entirely new social and religious environment. Most Catholics in New York were poor immigrants looked down upon as “a public nuisance” and “the off-scourings of the people.”
By associating herself with Catholicism, Elizabeth lost the support and sympathy she might otherwise have enjoyed from family and friends, and found it difficult to maintain herself and her family.
Encouraged by the Rev. William Dubourg and the Sulpician priests in Baltimore, in early 1808 Elizabeth moved her family to what was then the seat of the only Catholic diocese in the United States in order to open a school for girls. It was here that women from various cities around the country began to join her. Gradually, and with the endorsement of Bishop John Carroll, the idea of forming a religious congregation began to take hold.
Elizabeth wrote to her friend Julia Scott of her joy at the “prospect of being able to assist the poor, visit the sick, comfort the sorrowful, clothe little innocents, and teach them to love God!” And she told her sister-in-law Cecilia Seton that “the tender title of Mother salutes me everywhere.”
A Vision Realized
Circumstances began to fall into place that enabled the vision to become a reality: Samuel Cooper, a wealthy convert and seminarian, purchased property for an establishment near Emmitsburg where the Rev. John Dubois was in the process of establishing Mount St. Mary’s School for boys. The women joining Elizabeth were willing to follow her into this rural, mountainous area. The Sulpician priests were willing to serve as spiritual directors for the women. And finally, Elizabeth was able to secure financial assistance from several friends. Thus, Elizabeth Seton, with the women who had joined her in Baltimore and others who were waiting in Emmitsburg, founded the American Sisters of Charity on July 31, 1809.
Within one year, the community grew to 12 women and Elizabeth was telling her friend and benefactor Antonio Filicchi: “I have a very, very large school to superintend every day, and the entire charge of the religious instruction of all the country round. All happy to the Sisters of Charity who are night and day devoted to the sick and ignorant.”
The students in the school included poor mountain children from the area around St. Joseph’s Valley, as the sisters named their home. A boarding academy also attracted the daughters of wealthy Catholic and Protestant families from major cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.
Soon, the sisters accepted orphans whose only opportunity to succeed, they knew, was to get a good education. Tuition from the academy provided the sisters with resources to carry on other works. Their plans also included opening a spinning, weaving and knitting factory, and reception of the aged.
When an elderly woman from the neighborhood applied to the sisters to care for her, Elizabeth commented hopefully that perhaps this was “a precious beginning for our hospital.”
Elizabeth Seton built her community of charity on the spiritual tradition of 17th-century Sts. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, who understood successful leadership as building strong relationships and self-giving service on behalf of the poor and vulnerable. These characteristics that Elizabeth so remarkably modeled impressed many during her lifetime. Bishops, clergy and laity—students, their parents and Sisters of Charity—loved and admired her. They corresponded with her, shared their lives with her and carried her influence to every part of our growing nation.
Deep and Lasting Friendships
Elizabeth’s first contacts with Catholicism in the United States were with clergy. Through the intervention of her Italian mentor, Antonio Filicchi, she began corresponding with some of the most influential priests in the country—Francis Mantignon, John Cheverus and Bishop John Carroll. Initially, these men were touched by her plight as a penniless widow with five small children, but gradually they not only recognized her for the remarkable woman she was, but also came to believe she “was destined to take a great place in the United States.”
Gradually, Elizabeth came to know other priests, first through her parish in New York, and later as a result of her work in Baltimore and Emmitsburg. She respected them, honored their religious calling, heeded their advice and deeply valued their friendship. By the same token, they relied on her prayers, placed great hope for the future of the Church in the United States on her work and accepted her advice and admonitions.
When she found the Rev. John Hickey’s sermons “unintelligible” due to a lack “of preparation and connection,” she gave him a scolding he would long remember. Her deep spiritual friendship with the Rev. Simon Bruté yielded a mutually enriching relationship, which prompted the young priest to refer to Elizabeth as “you whom I like to call a mother here, as I call one in France.”
Elizabeth Seton had a gift for sharing deep and lasting friendships with many people she met along her way. Accepting people as they were, she valued these relationships, writing to one friend, “The longer I live and the more I reflect and know how to value the realities of friendship, the more precious that distinction becomes.” She was willing to invest time and emotion into her relationships, as evidenced by the many hours she spent with friends in need and by her dedication to keeping in touch through voluminous correspondence.
Within one short year in Baltimore, the people she met there became deeply connected to her and she to them. They supported each other in their trials and rejoiced together in their happy times. She regarded herself and Marie Françoise Chatard as having “one heart,” and shared her spiritual wisdom with George Weis as he dealt with his wife’s illness. Elizabeth offered some laity the opportunity to become more involved in Church ministry and collaborated with parents who sent their daughters to St. Joseph’s.
For the young women attending the school at Emmitsburg, Elizabeth was mother, teacher, spiritual director, nurse and counselor. She recognized the uniqueness of each young woman and loved her for it, as she wrote to her friend Eliza Sadler: “[Y]ou know I am as a Mother encompassed by many children of different dispositions—not all equally amiable or congenial, but bound to love, instruct and provide for the happiness of all—to give the example of cheerfulness, peace, resignation—and consider individuals as proceeding from the same Origin and tending to the same end than in the different shades of merit or demerit.”
Many of these young people developed deep attachments to Elizabeth, corresponded with her and returned to St. Joseph’s for visits and retreats. She told one, “Remember Mother’s first and last lesson to you—seek God in all things.” To Ellen Gottsberger in New York, Elizabeth wrote, urging the young matron to look after the happiness not only of her husband, but of her servants as well. She encouraged others to “give religion its proper place,” and to “love our Jesus in his poor.”
Elizabeth cherished her role as mother and educator. She told a former student: “[O]ur Lord who sees the deep heart knows with what pleasure I would give my life to prove my true love to any of you.” When they wrote to her in times of difficulty or crisis, Elizabeth responded with support and encouragement. These were lasting ties that influenced future generations of families touched by Elizabeth and the Sisters of Charity.
Establishing Her Legacy
Perhaps Elizabeth Seton’s most lasting role as mother was as founder of the American Sisters of Charity. As with any extensive project, a leader with vision, talent and the ability to attract others’ support is needed to bring it to fruition—and Elizabeth was the right person for the job. While plans unfolded for the establishment of the congregation, Elizabeth’s loving personality, her obvious spirituality and her enthusiasm for the project yielded the result that “many good souls capable of seconding [her] intentions stood ready to join her.”
Those who did join her were, for the most part, educated, mature and independent. The pioneer spirit propelling the expansion and development of the nation energized them as well. Elizabeth was the heart of the group, giving the sisters instructions, leading them in meditation and forming them into effective ministers for the Church.
In the process, a spirit of loyalty and devotion to each other prevailed. They formed strong bonds of friendship which lasted a lifetime. Elizabeth wrote of Sister Susan Clossy, “[I]f you ever wish to find a piece of myself, it will be in this dear [one].”
She called Sister Elizabeth Boyle, founding mother of the New York Sisters of Charity, her “dearest old partner of my cares and bearer of my burdens,” and referred to Sister Margaret George, founding mother of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, as having “a heart that is truly made to be loved.”
To a friend in New York, Elizabeth wrote, “You may suppose what [the sisters] are to my heart after so many years of care and pains and comfort together.” She described the sisters’ ties of affection as those of “a blessed family” who were “but one heart and one soul” ready “to go over our cities like a good leaven.”
The ministry at Emmitsburg grew rapidly, as did the number of sisters. The progress of their work did not escape others’ notice.
“Our blessed Bishop [John Carroll] is so fond of our establishment,” Elizabeth told Antonio Filicchi, “that it seems to be the darling part of his charge and this consoles me for every difficulty or embarrassment. All the Clergy in America support it by their prayers and there is every good hope that it is the seed of an immensity of future good.”
And that is what it proved to be. In five years, the sisters were called to manage St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum in Philadelphia. Soon they were collecting alms for the poor, making regular visits to the poorhouse and opening a day school.
The following year, in 1815, they took over the management of the infirmary and housekeeping departments at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg. Two years later, through the efforts of a parent of students at St. Joseph Academy, the sisters were invited to Elizabeth’s native city of New York where they took over the administration of the Catholic Orphan Asylum.
There, too, they soon opened a school and expanded their outreach to the sick and indigent in their homes. Elizabeth was overjoyed seeing the sisters “have the charge of a multitude of Poor children.”
Planting the Seeds of the Future
These works were only the beginning for Elizabeth Seton. Less than three months before she died, she told Antonio Filicchi, “[C]ould you but know what has happened in consequence of the little dirty grain of mustard seed you planted by God’s hand in America—the number [of] orphans fed and clothed.”
She eagerly anticipated, but never lived to see, the opening of new schools in Baltimore and elsewhere around the country. The mustard seed, an image Elizabeth often used to describe the work of the Sisters of Charity, was truly an appropriate one.
Within a few years of Elizabeth’s death in 1821 at age 46, the Sisters of Charity spread to many cities and towns around the United States, establishing orphanages and schools. Along with these ministries, they reached out to the poor, offering whatever assistance they could. In addition, and contrary to Archbishop John Carroll’s prediction that it would be a century before they became active in health-care ministry, the sisters began to work at the Baltimore Infirmary in 1823. One of the doctors described the sisters as “women of great intelligence, and for the time, superior education.”
These early sisters were the mustard seed that has produced a great abundance for our Church and our society over the last 200 years, spreading throughout North America and beyond.
Sister Judith Metz, SC, is the historian/archivist for the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati, Ohio. This article appeared in the July 2009 edition of St. Anthony Messenger.