‘Eye on Eternity’: The Legacy of Mother Seton
Celebrating the 45th Canonization Anniversary of St. Elizabeth Ann, the First US-Born Saint
By Joseph Pronechen
“The day dawned with a beautiful blue sky, bright sun and no clouds — a result of prayers for good weather,” remembers Sister of Charity Betty Ann McNeil about Sept. 14, 1975, when she attended the canonization of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
“The words of St. Paul VI still reverberate in my mind: ‘Elizabeth Ann Seton is a saint! Elizabeth Ann Seton is a saint,’” Sister Betty Ann clearly recalled to the Register. This year marks the 45th anniversary of that event, when Mother Seton became the first US-born person to be canonized.
Sister Betty Ann was chosen to attend through a lottery the Daughters of Charity conducted. “The idea was to share firsthand accounts of the canonization for generations to come,” she said. “I’ve been retelling stories of the life and legacy of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton ever since.”
An acknowledged Seton scholar, Sister Betty Ann has written and spoken extensively on Mother Seton (1774-1821), was involved in the publication of her writings, and teaches courses on her at Chicago’s DePaul University. On this 45th anniversary, she and other specialists reflected on St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s enduring contributions and continuing influence.
One of those enduring messages is that Mother Seton “was a courageous woman of faith, whose trust in God and reliance of divine Providence allowed her to live a virtuous life in hope, which enabled her to overcome adversity, continually seek to do God’s will, and fulfill her call with love,” explained Sister Betty Ann. “The real presence of the Eucharist drew her like a magnet, and Mary, Mother of God, became her prism of faith. She was particularly drawn to theMemorareand theAnima Christi. Psalm 23 was her favorite Psalm throughout life.”
Catherine O’Donnell, a professor of history at Arizona State University and author ofElizabeth Seton: American Saint, introduces Mother Seton into a course on the early republic. For one of Mother Seton’s enduring messages, O’Donnell said, “She writes, ‘Fear nothing so much as not to love enough.’ That to me is absolutely an essential message of her life. She cared very much about the specific teaching of the Church. And especially in the last decade of her life, what mattered most was being an example of compassion, love and patience. That message is so moving and accessible to everyone.”
Rob Judge, executive director of the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (SetonShrine.org) in Emmitsburg, Maryland, sees a threefold message in her holy example — her “eye on eternity, belief in the Real Presence and belief in God’s providential care. She lived her life in the light of eternity. She used to write the word ‘eternity’ on many of her letters and put a little cross in front of the word and behind the word. That message — that we’re not made for this life; we’re made for the next, and to live your life for that every day — is an enduring message.
“Second, she believed God had a plan for her. It gave her great hope. That is part of believing in God’s providential care. Third, she believed in the Real Presence. People don’t think of her as a Eucharistic saint, but she absolutely was.”
‘My Friend in Heaven’
Some of Mother Seton’s biggest contributions were anchored upon service to the People of God.
Sister Betty Ann began with Mother Seton’s “commitment to female education” that grew quickly into “religious formation and academic instruction blended in Sisters of Charity schools” and into “care and education of orphans.”
She founded the congregation with a “mission of service of impoverished persons, particularly through education [and] establishing the first apostolic community for women native to the United States.”
Sister Betty Ann also sees Mother Seton providing “a model for women of all ages in fulfillment of their life roles as wife, mother, widow and apostle of charity,” all of which the saint was at different times.
O’Donnell said her talks on Mother Seton strike a chord with audiences because people find her relatable.
“One thing I find people respond to is the fact she did struggle even as she thrived as a faithful person,” she said. “She struggled over her conversion. This woman, a saint, didn’t have a sudden moment when everything was clear and she absolutely knew everything was easy. Her faith took work. That touches other people who are living in faith and also living with doubt and struggles. She suffered through this period of spiritual dryness. We have her letters about this and how she understood those periods of spiritual dryness but as another season of her life with God. That appeals to people who are trying to live faithful lives.”
Judge first focused on her sisters’ impact.
“We talk to so many people who were educated by her sisters, nursed by them in hospitals, taken care of them in orphanages,” he said. “For so many, her sisters have been the face of Christ for them in times of great anguish, whether in a health [situation] or a child in the schools. That has been an incredible gift to the Church in this country.”
Judge also hears “from people all the time who are close to her and love her. They call her ‘my friend in heaven.’ That’s beautiful because friendship during her entire life was very important to her.”
“Mother Seton’s life experiences — hopes, joys, struggles, when boiled down — are not unlike our own,” he said. “She understands the uncertainties of life. She knows what it feels like to have the pressure of supporting a young family. She worried about her children, their physical health and their spiritual well-being. This makes her the ideal intercessor for us. Truly, we all have a special friend in heaven in Mother Seton.”
Outdoor spaces honor the saint at the shrine in her honor in Emmistburg, Maryland.(Photo: Courtesy of the Seton Shrine in Emmitsburg, MD)
Devoted to Family
Mother Seton experienced trying family times but overcame them; her experiences can serve as a lesson for the faithful. Sister Betty Ann described Elizabeth Bayley’s early childhood sadness, losing her mother before she was just 3 years old.
But as a wife and mother herself, Elizabeth “enjoyed her children and family nights. Her husband would play the violin, she the piano, and everyone would sing.”
When husband William’s health deteriorated, and the family business was failing financially, the couple went to stay with friends in Italy, hoping for a cure. But he died weeks after their arrival. However, Elizabeth’s religious conversion was sparked there, encouraged by her Italian friends’ Catholicism.
Sister Betty Ann noted that Elizabeth “returned a widow at 29 with a Catholic heart, yet her religious aspirations met objections. Months of anguished discernment followed until her decision to convert on March 14, 1805.”
She determined to convert once she came to understand the Eucharist was the actual Body and Blood of Christ, despite knowing she would experience rampant religious bigotry against Catholics in those days. She was even denied employment as a teacher because of her Catholic faith. She wrote to a friend, “[T]hey do not know what to do with me, but God does — and when His blessed time is come, we shall know.”
“Her family was always central to her, and she also pursued this as she pursued the spiritual purpose of hers,” O’Donnell added. “Constantly throughout her adult life she worked to be true to all those needs — to fulfill her role as Mother, with capital ‘M’, Seton, and also be an actual mother to her children entering into their young adulthood. She knew as a family horrific loss. Loss of her mother was her first memory. Her stepmother had trouble nurturing Elizabeth, and Elizabeth nonetheless treated her with kindness and compassion. When her stepmother had alienated most people and was dying, she took care of her.”
When Mother Seton’s own extended family struggled over her conversion from Episcopalian to Catholic, it became “a period of estrangement with family,” O’Donnell said. “She worked very hard to knit those bonds back together. She could not let differences of opinion sever family ties.”
Judge focused on how her children always came first even as she founded her religious community. It was apparent in her writing, “whether it was the care and concern for her boys and whether they were staying on the straight and narrow,” he said. “She cared for them spiritually. And caring for them materially was a lot of what brought her to education. Widowed and bankrupt, she needed to find a way to support them.” So she became an educator. At the same time, “she saw education as a way to pull poor girls out of poverty and also educate wealthy students to support her children.”
“There’s a powerful message there,” Judge said, “because in today’s society children are often not put first. Bringing up children as a priority in the family is important. She did both — took care of her children and took care of the poor — and founded a religious community.”
Timely Model for Education
“Elizabeth Seton and her Sisters of Charity were pioneer Catholic educators,” emphasized Sister Betty Ann. In 1810, St. Joseph’s School in Emmitsburg, Maryland, became “the first free Catholic school for girls staffed by religious women in the country.”
As the will of God was foremost for her, she taught all her pupils, “The first end I propose in our daily work is to dothe will of God— secondly, to do it in the manner he wills it — and thirdly,to do it because it is his will.”
O’Donnell pointed out that Elizabeth Seton can be a current patron amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Her husband, two children and other relatives died of tuberculosis. “Tuberculosis was a threat to the school and community she ran. There is the parallel of contagion and plague.”
With her father being a doctor, she believed in the science of the day and “tried to get the best possible care for the people in her life and had to — and did — carry on when the answers could not be found and science could not help. [For us] the idea that of a contagion that was not understood and could not be contained seemed old-fashioned until March.”
Mother Seton was also intent about offering an education that would emerge from her Catholicism, teach Catholic students in the sisters’ care, and also benefit other students, such as Protestants attending her school.
O’Donnell added that she thrived in this “pluralist, diverse environment, even though she herself had deep Catholic beliefs.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is shown in a portrait praying the Rosary.(Photo: Courtesy, Daughters of Charity Province of St. Louise, St. Louis, MO)
Sister Betty Ann’s connection to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton providentially began as a child. Citing how, as a little girl, Seton lost her mother, she recounted, “I lost my father when I was very little. Her father called her Betty, and she lived by the beach. Seton was Episcopalian; my mother was Episcopalian.” When her mother went back to teach to support the family, “she found a school I could walk to, run by the Daughters of Charity. As I got older, I felt God calling me to a community.”
As a youth, Sister Betty Ann visited Emmitsburg and was “standing by Mother Seton’s tomb when the bells of the town and valley started ringing the announcement of her beatification.” Entering the Daughters of Charity, she said, “I was given my own name,” Betty Ann.
After almost 10 years reading and rereading the documents from Mother Seton’s life, O’Donnell was “most moved” by how “through her whole life she would see everyone in as generous a light as possible and treat every individual with as much compassion as she could muster.” As a professor, O’Donnell is inspired by how Mother Seton “would look at every student and try to relate to that person as a full human being,” more than a task to fulfill. “I think all the time to emulate that characteristic of hers.”
The saint has also meant much to Judge, starting when he attended Mother Seton School in Emmitsburg. Her simplicity is a major inspiration to him. “Through her whole life, Mother Seton did what was in front of her in the ordinariness of her life and looked for God’s will,” he said. “She just took one day at a time, whether experiencing joy with family, or different times, losing her husband William, her children. She just looked for God’s providential care in these moments. God used those little things to do beautiful things in the world, whether through her or her sisters, to serve the poor, help in hospitals and schools.”
A Mother Seton Miracle
A major miracle for her canonization was the cure of 4-year-old Anne Theresa O’Neill. Born in Baltimore, the child developed advanced leukemia in 1952. Despite doctors trying every possible treatment, she grew more sick. Her case was considered hopeless. She suffered terribly and could not eat, and during Holy Week all signs indicated she would soon die. Doctors told her parents it would be within two weeks. But the nun supervisor of the children’s ward at St. Agnes Hospital was devoted to Mother Seton. She gave Anne’s mother, a woman of faith, prayers for Mother Seton’s intercession and had her give them to relatives and friends. She pinned a cloth touched to Mother Seton’s remains onto Anne’s hospital gown. During the novena, the child began to improve, even sit up and eat, and a month later was discharged. Constant tests over ensuing years showed everything to be normal with her health. At 53, Anne, her husband and children attended the canonization of Mother Seton in Rome. —Joseph Pronechen
“St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is an American. All of us say this with spiritual joy, and with the intention of honoring the land and the nation from which she marvelously sprang forth as the first flower in the calendar of the saints. … Rejoice, we say to the great nation of the United States of America. Rejoice for your glorious daughter. Be proud of her. And know how to preserve her fruitful heritage.” — Pope St. Paul VI, canonization homily of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton