When the first American-born saint was canonized in 1975, Pope Saint Paul VI called on American Catholics to “Rejoice for your glorious daughter. Be proud of her. And know how to preserve her fruitful heritage.”
Today’s feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton marks the bicentenary of her death in 1821. Though Mother Cabrini was the first citizen of the United States to be canonized, she of course, was born in Italy. Mother Seton on the other hand, is “wholly American” as Pope Saint Paul VI said at her canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square on September 14, 1975. She was born in New York City on August 28, 1774, one year before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. As Paul VI continued, the American Church should “Rejoice for your glorious daughter. Be proud of her. And know how to preserve her fruitful heritage.”
Since this call from Christ’s Vicar fifty years ago, the exact opposite has happened. Rather than the preservation of Mother Seton’s fruitful heritage, there has been a steady undoing of it.
In 1809 Mother Seton founded the first religious community here in the United States called the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph. At the time of her death at the age of 46 their numbers grew to more than 50. Perhaps Mother Seton’s greatest legacy is to be remembered as “The Foundress of the Parochial School System in the United States.” During her lifetime her sisters set up a free school for poor girls in Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1810 that was quickly followed by another one there for boys and another for German Catholic children in Philadelphia in 1818 and yet another in New York just before her death in 1820.
At the time of Mother Seton’s canonization when Paul VI called for the preservation of her fruitful heritage, her spiritual daughters in the Sisters of Charity were the face of the Catholic Church in America. There was probably no image more synonymous with the American Church at the time than the “parochial school nun.” When she was raised to the altar in 1975 there were nine thousand Sisters of Charity directing schools from colleges to day nurseries and other charitable works from hospitals to infant asylums.
Now the ranks of the Mother Seton’s congregation has been reduced to 2,000 mostly elderly sisters.
At the time of Paul VI’s call, under the aegis of Mother Seton’s inspiration in making the creation of parochial schools a lifetime cause, the Catholic schooling system in this country had blossomed to over 1,700 high schools and more than 8,500 elementary schools with well over two million students. Yet over the past decades American Catholics have had to experience the sad reality of an avalanche of Catholic school closures across the country.
To allow this disappointing course of events to disincline us from answering Paul VI’s call to rejoice in Mother Seton, to be proud of her and to preserve her fruitful heritage, would be to make the mistake of reducing her legacy to her accomplishments. The true legacy of a saint lies rather, in their holiness. Mother Seton’s sanctity is her greatest legacy and as the first daughter of America to be canonized it is also our country’s greatest glory.
Her life shows us how to cooperate with grace no matter what station in life we might hold and demonstrates the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness where “…all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and the perfection of charity” (Lumen gentium 40).
Mother Seton wrote: “We know certainly that our God calls us to a holy life. We know that he gives us every grace, every abundant grace; and though we are so weak of ourselves, this grace is able to carry us through every obstacle and difficulty.”
She knew this important truth from experience. In her short 46 years of life Mother Seton was all of these things: wealthy, an Episcopalian, a wife and a mother of five before becoming a widow, poor, a Catholic, and a religious sister as well as a Mother Superior and Foundress of the first American religious community while still remaining legal and maternal guardian of her children. Throughout she had a total dedication to God, the Church, her country, the Christian education of the young, the poor and both priests and religious. Two hundred years after her death devotion to all of these things is in crisis. We need something of her spirit to rekindle within the American Catholic heart and new love and devotion to them.
There is much of her fruitful heritage then, still left for us to become familiar with and to preserve. This bicentenary year of the first American-born saint provides a golden opportunity for us to do so.
I look forward to publishing a series of four CWR articles on Mother Seton’s life and legacy over the course of this year that I hope will contribute to this cause. These essays will cover her early life and conversion, foundations in Emmitsburg, shrines in the United States and Italy, and holiness according to each rank and status.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!