St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. John Neumann, and “The Spirit of 1884”

Mother Seton and Bishop Neumann were persons of a deep and abiding faith in Divine Providence. They didn’t conduct massive and expensive feasibility studies to determine the potential success of their projects. Indeed, had they done so, not a single Catholic school would have been opened.

Left: Statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Statue in St. Raymond's Cemetery Bronx, New York; right: Photo of St. John Neumann [Wikipedia]

Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by Father Stravinskas at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan on January 4th, the liturgical memorial of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

The first week of January is a sanctoral hit-parade for the Church in the United States. Today we honor St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and tomorrow, St. John Neumann. Both of them have connections to New York City.

Mother Seton, of course, was a New Yorker of the upper class, a communicant of Trinity Episcopal Church on Wall Street. By a somewhat circuitous path, she came into full communion with the Catholic Church at St. Peter’s on Barclay Street. I am sure most of us have been to St. Peter’s and also have visited her former residence, now part of her shrine at Our Lady of the Rosary at the Bowery.

John Neumann was a Bohemian (ethnically, not socially!), who came to the United States as a missionary and was ordained in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. His pastoral responsibilities took in most of Upstate New York and portions of Pennsylvania – all done on horseback even though, due to his short stature, his feet couldn’t reach the stirrups! Sixteen years after his priestly ordination, he was consecrated the fourth bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. Here in New York, we call him “Noyman” (the correct German pronunciation), while Philadelphians call him “Newman.”

As you undoubtedly know, Elizabeth Seton was a wife, mother, and widow. After her conversion, the first bishop in the United States, John Carroll, urged her to open a Catholic school in Maryland and then to found the first community of women religious in the young nation. Little did he or she know that they were sowing the seeds of the first parochial school system in the history of the Church. Less than a century later, Bishop Neumann embarked on the first diocesan school system in the country. When he became the Ordinary, there was one Catholic school in his diocese; when he died (eight years later), there were 200 schools!

Interestingly, Mother Seton only lived to the age of 46; Bishop Neumann, to the age of 48. As a birthday card advised me some years ago: “Better to burn out early than rust out late.” I am proud to note that I was taught by Mother Seton’s Sisters of Charity from kindergarten through fifth grade at St. Rose of Lima School in Newark and then attended and taught for years at Seton Hall University, named for her by her nephew, James Roosevelt Bayley, the Bishop of Newark. My elementary education was completed by the Franciscan Sisters of Philadelphia, founded by John Neumann. What wonderful heavenly patrons to have had securing my growth in the knowledge of God and His world.

Mother Seton was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975; Bishop Neumann, by the same Pontiff in 1977. In the canonization homilies, the Holy Father highlighted the work of both saints in the establishment of Catholic schools in our country. They were the second and third American citizens to be canonized. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was the first – she likewise made a mark on New York and was also instrumental in the growth and development of Catholic schools. Coincidentally or providentially, Mother Cabrini founded sixty-seven institutions in her lifetime – of sixty-seven years. It should come as no surprise that the next three American saints were all promoters of Catholic education: Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne, Mother Katharine Drexel, Mother Théodore Guérin. This nexus between the growth of the Church in America and Catholic education was underscored by Blessed Paul VI in his message to the Church in the United States on the occasion of our national bicentenary: “The strength of the Church in America is in her Catholic schools.”

You might be tempted to say at this point, “Well, that’s nice history, Father, but what does all this have to do with us today?” Let me draw out some implications.

First and most importantly, Mother Seton and Bishop Neumann were persons of a deep and abiding faith in Divine Providence. They didn’t conduct massive and expensive feasibility studies to determine the potential success of their projects. Indeed, had they done so, not a single school would have been opened.

Secondly, they were people of vision. They realized, with Archbishop John Hughes of New York, that without schools, there would be no future for the Church in this country. In their time, the threat to the faith came from vicious Protestant anti-Catholicism, which burned Catholic churches, schools and convents. Today, the threat comes from a virulent secularism which controls the so-called “public” schools, destroying the souls of our children, responsible for the loss of faith in Catholic children by sixth grade – according to the latest and most reliable surveys.

Are Catholic schools perfect? Of course not. They are not and never were, but they are still the finest means available to the Church for the work of evangelization – of not one, but two and even three generations at the same time. Sociological surveys consistently show that graduates of post-Vatican II Catholic schools continue to be markedly different from their public school counterparts, especially in regard to Sunday Mass attendance, thoughts on abortion, willingness to consider a priestly or religious vocation, and generosity to the local parish (both in service and donations). Please note I am speaking here about Catholic elementary and secondary schools, not colleges and universities – which, for the most part, constitute a horror story in terms of Catholic identity and mission. In truth, barely thirty of the 230 or so Catholic institutions of higher learning can honestly claim the adjective “Catholic.” But that is a topic for another time.

If all of this is true, then why are our schools not bursting at the seams? Well, first of all, it is important to say that in many parts of the country, there is a real flowering of Catholic education, and over half the Catholic schools nationwide actually have waiting lists. But why is that not universally so?

The first and saddest reason is a lack of faith, which leads to a lack of commitment – on the part of all in the Church, clergy and laity alike. When was the last time you heard a homily by a priest or read a pastoral letter by a bishop declaring the necessity of support for our schools by the entire Catholic community (not just parents) and the necessity for parents to enroll their children in our schools? St. Paul asks, “And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Cor 14:8). It is not enough for clergy to say nice things about Catholic schools once or twice a year. Where is the challenge to the priorities of parents, who prefer 300 cable channels to a very modest tuition for a Catholic school? The next time Catholic New York has its supplement on Catholic high schools, check out the tuition rates. Most parochial and diocesan high schools cost less than $7000; you couldn’t get a baby-sitting service for that money. How is it that the most affluent Catholic population in the history of the Church cannot maintain an educational system begun by penniless immigrants? Faith – or the lack thereof – is the answer, pure and simple.

Can you also explain to me how the little Diocese of Wichita is able to offer tuition-free schools from kindergarten through high school? Should we be surprised that the Diocese is ordaining ten priests a year – more than the three largest dioceses in the country?

My guess is that 90% of you at Mass this evening are the products of Catholic education. At the end of this month, we shall celebrate Catholic Schools Week. Make it your business to visit your local Catholic school. Resolve to be a vocal supporter and promoter of Catholic education. In gratitude for the gift of faith nurtured through your Catholic schooling, make a generous contribution to a Catholic scholarship fund.

Let me conclude with some very insightful observations of the convert-monk and poet of the twentieth century, Thomas Merton. Reflecting on some years of his boyhood spent in France between the two world wars, he contrasted, in The Seven Storey Mountain, the state school in the village with the Catholic one:

When I think of the Catholic parents who sent their children to a school like that, I begin to wonder what was wrong with their heads. Down by the river, in a big clean white building, was a college run by the Marist Fathers. I had never been inside it: indeed, it was so clean that it frightened me. But I knew a couple of boys who went to it. They were sons of the little lady who ran the pastry shop opposite the church at St. Antonin and I remember them as exceptionally nice fellows, very pleasant and good. It never occurred to anyone to despise them for being pious. And how unlike the products of the Lycée they were!

When I reflect on all this, I am overwhelmed at the thought of the tremendous weight of moral responsibility that Catholic parents accumulate upon their shoulders by not sending their children to Catholic schools. Those who are not of the Church have no understanding of this. They cannot be expected to. As far as they can see, all this insistence on Catholic schools is only a money-making device by which the Church is trying to increase its domination over the minds of men, and its own temporal prosperity. And of course most non-Catholics imagine that the Church is immensely rich, and that all Catholic institutions make money hand over fist, and that all that money is stored away somewhere to buy gold and silver dishes for the Pope and cigars for the College of Cardinals.

Is it any wonder that there can be no peace in a world where everything possible is being done to guarantee that the youth of every nation will grow up absolutely without moral and religious discipline, and without the shadow of an interior life, or of that spirituality and charity and faith which alone can safeguard the treaties and agreements made by governments?

And Catholics, thousands of Catholics everywhere, have the consummate audacity to weep and complain because God does not hear their prayers for peace, when they have neglected not only His will, but the ordinary dictates of natural reason and prudence, and let their children grow up according to the standards of a civilization of hyenas.

My dear friends, we need to revive what I like to call “The Spirit of 1884,” in which the bishops of our nation issued their clarion call to have every Catholic child in a Catholic school. In that way and only in that way, shall we stave off the emergence of another generation growing up “according to the standards of a civilization of hyenas.”

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. John Neumann, pray for us and our Catholic schools.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 121 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

3 Comments

  1. When I studied at Fordham I assisted at St Peter’s Lower Manhattan. I learned it was the oldest church in New York State and the pro Cathedral of New York prior to St Patrick’s uptown. It’s a short walk to Battery Park and Mother Elizabeth Seton’s residence where she taught with her fledgling community. It was the Reagan era and the emptying of mental institutions to conserve spending. Many poor souls searched garbage barrels for food. One white bearded old man would kneel by his park bench ‘residence’ when the chapel bell rang for the Angelus. I mentioned it to the pastor at St Peter’s who told me about Venerable Pierre Toussaint. “Born 27 June 1766 Died June 30, 1853. He was a former slave from the French colony of Saint-Domingue who was brought to New York City by his owners in 1787. There he eventually gained his freedom and became a noted philanthropist to the poor of the city”. I heard many stories thereafter about his sanctity, his daily attendance of Mass at St Peter’s, his assistance to the destitute. “When New York was hit with the plague, Pierre risked his life and nursed the sick and dying without regard to his own safety. His sister Rosalie said, ‘You think of everyone but yourself. Now that you are free, you are still acting like a white man’s slave’. Pierre answered, ‘I have never felt I am a slave to any man or woman but I am a servant of the Almighty God who made us all. When one of His children is in need, I am glad to be His slave'” (Roman Christendom).

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