“I remain the daily subject of that boundless Mercy. The mists of Night and darkness dispersed, and if even at the Eleventh hour, Yet permitted to share in the Vineyard and gather the fruits of Eternal Life. Glory, glory, glory forever, forever, and forever.”1
As we begin the new calendar year, we celebrate the Feast Day of one of the recognized saints in the Vincentian tradition, Elizabeth Ann Seton (née Bayley). She is the namesake of DePaul University’s residence hall, Seton Hall.
Born August 28, 1774, Elizabeth was a daughter of Colonial New York. Married to William Magee Seton, a Manhattan businessman, Elizabeth had five children and helped start the first charitable association managed by women in New York City, the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. However, Elizabeth was shortly to undergo great hardships. The Seton family business went bankrupt, and then, in 1803, her husband died while on a visit to Italy. It was there that Elizabeth was introduced to Catholicism, which she converted to in 1805. In 1809 Elizabeth moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, the first society of religious women established in the United States. Soon thereafter she became known as Mother Seton.
Mother Seton modeled the society’s foundation on the Daughters of Charity, begun two centuries earlier in France by Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Louise de Marillac. She became a pioneer in Catholic education for young women from impoverished families. In establishing St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, she made tuition-free education accessible for poor girls in rural Maryland. Mother Seton died at Emmitsburg two hundred years ago this week, January 4, 1821. Remembered for always seeking to know and do the will of God, in 1975, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton became the first native-born North American canonized by the Catholic Church.
Today, as we contemplate the year ahead, and undoubtedly utter a sigh of relief as we leave 2020 behind us, how might the life of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton offer us some seeds of wisdom?
Clearly, Elizabeth endured trials, loss, and much suffering during her lifetime. One can only imagine the enormity of being widowed and left alone to raise five children at the young age of 29 and in the wake of the failure of the family business. What fears and concerns might Elizabeth have experienced in that moment as she confronted the precariousness of her family’s situation and the uncertainty of their future? How was she able to find enough light amidst the overwhelming shadows to begin to map a pathway ahead?
Elizabeth weathered such storms by relying on her endurance and faith, which clearly played an integral role in shaping her future path. Over time, Elizabeth was able to find her way out of the shadows through her mission to open new doors of opportunity for young women on the margins, doors that had previously remained firmly shut. Enabling access and attainment of quality education for those in need meant that their dreams could become reality. Elizabeth’s legacy continues today in a vast network of Setonian schools that share the spirit our Vincentian mission.
At the dawn of this New Year, as we continue to wrestle with the impact of the pandemic, where do you find glimmers of light amidst the shadows? What opportunities do these glimmers of light reveal to you about the pathway ahead? In what ways, might the darkness of last year be preparing you to embrace the promise of today?
1 4.55, Spiritual Journal to Cecilia Seton, August 10 to October 16, 1807, Collected Writings, 1:475.
Reflection by: Siobhan O’Donoghue, Director of Faculty and Staff Engagement, Division of Mission and Ministry
For more on St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, see the following:
- Vincentian Heritage article by Betty Ann McNeil, D.C.: Elizabeth Seton—Mission of Education: Faith and Willingness to Risk
- Special Issue of Vincentian Heritage dedicated to Seton: Vincentian Heritage 14:2
- Podcast: The Woman Elizabeth Ann Seton: 1804–1812
- Podcast: Elizabeth Seton: Her World and Her Church
- Mission & Ministry Lecture Series video: Elizabeth Ann Seton: American Saint
- Downloadable biography by Annabelle M. Melville: Elizabeth Bayley Seton 1774-1821
- Three volume series of Elizabeth Seton’s writings: Elizabeth Bayley Seton: Collected Writings Vols. 1-3