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The Bicentenary of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

Mother Seton’s life shows us how to cooperate with grace no matter what station in life we might hold.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, patroness of Catholic schools in the U.S., is depicted instructing schoolchildren in a sculpture seen in front of Sts. Philip and James School in St. James, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

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.


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About Father Seán Connolly 53 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Ordained in 2015, he has an undergraduate degree in the Classics from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts as well as a Bachelor of Sacred Theology, Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Theology from Saint Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York. In addition to his parochial duties, he writes for The Catholic World Report, The National Catholic Register and The Wanderer.

9 Comments

  1. The fact that there are now only 2,000 mostly elderly Sisters of Charity down from 9,000 in 1975 [one is left to wonder how many there were in 1960] demonstrates the catastrophic effect of the Second Vatican Council on religious life for both women and men, as well as the diocesan priesthood.
    Let us withdraw from the narcotic of self-deceit.

  2. Thank you so much Father Connolly. I made a pilgrimage to Emmitsburg with my family years ago.
    That’s such a pity St. Elizabeth Seton’s order is shrinking but it’s good to know other religious orders like the Nashville Dominicans are filling the gap.

  3. Yuppi Skippy, when today the United States government regards the children of Yemen, Haiti, Iran, Syria, Mexico, and all of the Americas, US included, the American Children, all the same. When it comes to Children, Education of the children, the US ranks last in support toward education of major governments.
    Exterminating children, as in Yemen, is a top US priority, we have to question its own value of any lives, especially children, and education.
    Sports is a top spending toward children, on college level.
    Teachers in Education of the children in the USA and World are all Saints today..
    Most directly when the USA makes billions and sends billions in arms, weapons out to the World to exterminate families, children, and starve them to death (Yemen, Haiti, Middle East, Guatemala) but not food, and the US is now the number one food import dependent nation, so we have to take food from other nations children, to feed ourselves.
    The real Saints today are the Children who have to forgive the US for killing their parents, Brothers, Sisters, and Friends who are exterminated by the US, and work toward Peace the US has taken away from the World…

    • One is left to imagine a world without the democratic outreach and self-sacrifice of the United States, its military, its just immigration policies and the ample foreign aid our country provides the world.
      But then its appears we are about see the United States be subsumed in the atheistic globalist entity.

      • Under Clinton, Haiti was promised aid, but never delivered. Was it not the US that incited the over throw of Elected President Bertrand. This is not Democratic outreach to Mexico, nor aid. Nor was was the US over throw of Guatemala government in 1954 a democratic action, but the take over for United Fruit, for the Dulles Brothers, who where not Catholic, but their son, John came to be the first Cardinal of the US Catholic church.. Was that a conversion, or a take over?
        They also were tied to the US over throw of Iran, instilling the Sha of Iran over the people, who was the most murderous leader of the 1970’s.
        The Sha of Iran, exiled to the USA…
        The US over threw the leader of Syria, and today Al Assad murders the people of Syria, or they flee, their choice.
        As Haiti, all these countries HAD democracy destroyed, by the US..
        Where is the US aid to Mexico, a Catholic Country? As Haiti. or Guatemala?
        Clinton should have been held accountable for war crimes, as Trump.
        Iraq, under Saddam was sent large amounts of arms, Saddam gave thousands to Coptic Catholic churches in the US, and was given the key to the City of Detroit… Saddam was in full retreat from Kuwait… The largest world wide protest ever was against the US attack on Iraq, Saddam, who was in full retreat yet the US still attacked Iraq, and continues its actions of murder today..
        Misery, discontent, and discord, are the biggest exports from the US, proven by military arms exports, not democracy.

  4. lyle,
    I can’t speak about Yemen or some of the other nations you list in your comments but I had family who lived in Haiti & trust me, it’s the Haitians who have been inflicting damage on their own people, not America.
    It’s true that we intervened there many years ago but Haiti has suffered mostly self inflicted wounds for over two hundred years. And the same dozen or so Haitian families have controlled most of the wealth.
    St. Elizabeth Ann Seton may well have encountered Haitian refugees during her lifetime. It’s been an ongoing tragic saga. Which is sad because Haiti is a beautiful place with wonderful people, music, & food. There’s so much potential there.

    • The people did stand up for themselves, they elected a Catholic Priest, in a democratic election.. The US swooped in, and ousted him.. Today, Haiti is the poorest country in this part of the World, Yemen, the US contributes to genocide is the poorest of that region of the World..
      The US spends billions on arms and sends them out to the world, and gives billions to the richest nations, but to these two, as Mexico, Haiti, both predominately, Catholic, next to nothing. Now a Catholic is elected president, as Haiti elected a Catholic, and the “assumed” Catholic, rail against him… Interesting…

  5. Mother Seton’s life was truly heroic. I have read a breif summary of her life, it is truly amazing what she accomplished after having tradegy befall her, with her husband dying etc. Instead of wallowing in self pity, she ended up starting the parochial school system in the U.S.

    I always wonder why God allows some order of priests and nuns, founded by saints, to slide. As noted the Vatican II legacy as been disaster for so many religous communities.

    However today there are some flourishing religious orders like the Dominican Sisters of Mary of the Eucharist. It is a growing order that is increasingly sending out sisters to school across the country. Something to consider is to pray for God grace to reach more women’s hearts to consider such orders. Also to pray that Bishops truly support catholic schools, finding ways to bring to life new schools and protect those in financial trouble. We also need to pray to do our part to support the schools in our parishes.

  6. On YouTube there is a television movie about the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton starring Kate Mulgrew. It begins with a Vatican discussion concerning requisite miracles. It would take four. Several scenes allude to her love the Blessed Sacrament.

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