Americans traveling to Italy, quarantined to prevent the spread of a deadly disease! Essential medical services denied in the name of public health! Death resulting from the denial of these services! Conversion to Catholicism!
Wait. Up until that last sentence, this story could have been ripped from today’s headlines. These medical and spiritual events come instead from the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821), whose feast day (January 4) we celebrate this week. Often identified as the foundress of Catholic education in America, Mother Seton followed a life and bequeathed a legacy that touches on a much broader range of issues, including conversion, evangelization and, yes, public health.
Canonized by Paul VI in 1975, Seton was in many ways a saint for a certain moment in the history of the post-Vatican II Church in America. The decade following the Council was a very Americanist moment and Mother Seton was the first U.S.-born saint. The Italian-born Mother Cabrini preceded her as the first canonized U.S. citizen in 1946, but more than country of origin separated the two great women religious. Each stands for distinct eras of the Church in America: Cabrini for the immigrant, ethnic urban Church of the period roughly from 1830 to 1950; Seton for the Church of the early republic, from the Founding to the 1820s. The Church of Seton’s time was small in numbers, relatively elite in class standing and, in the spirit of its leader, Bishop John Carroll, very concerned to fit in with the mainstream American—that is, Anglo-Protestant—culture. That Seton was a convert from that culture made her all the more appealing to Catholics trying to fit in with America during 1970s.
Historians coming of age at this time consistently held up Americanizing converts such as Orestes Brownson and Isaac Hecker as the fairest flowers of the Church in the nineteenth century. In the decade preceding and following the Council, high-profile convert writers such as Thomas Merton and Walker Percy, along with Flannery O’Connor (a Southern writer so marginal to mainstream Catholic life as to be an honorary convert), often served as the preferred Catholic ambassadors to non-Catholic America. For those following this path to acceptance, Seton seemed, dare I say, heaven sent.
Mother Seton herself was not looking for acceptance. She was searching for the truth.
She began her search in the Anglican/Episcopal church of her birth. A serious Anglican as a young girl growing up in New York City, she was also from an early age a spiritual seeker whose quest for communion with the divine constantly pushed at the boundaries of formal Anglicanism; Elizabeth’s eventual conversion to Catholicism would reflect her early quest for a more robust sacramentalism and concerns about Anglicanism’s claim to historical continuity with the early Church.
As an adolescent, these theological controversies would take a back seat to the seemingly more pressing issues of courtship, marriage and family. In 1794, at the age of nineteen, she married William Magee Seton, a successful young businessman who worked for his father in a thriving import-export business. The young couple were fixtures of New York Episcopalian high society. Elizabeth nonetheless bore five children in quick succession while still finding time to care for the poor of New York City. She and her sister-in-law, Rebecca Seton, helped to found the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Young Children. With a mix of deliberate sarcasm and accidental prophecy, friends dubbed them “the Protestant Sisters of Charity.”
Such virtue would not be rewarded, at least in any conventional worldly way. At the height of the young couple’s worldly success, they would quickly see events spin out of control and destroy their domestic bliss. In the late 1790s, tensions between England and revolutionary France disrupted trans-Atlantic trade, compromising the Seton family’s livelihood; loss of one especially valuable shipment brought financial ruin. William Seton declared bankruptcy in 1800. Matters took a turn for the worst as William contracted tuberculosis. The family retained enough personal wealth to pursue a treatment available only to the rich: a trip to Italy to take in the good Mediterranean country air.
It was on this trip that the Setons would encounter the quarantine mentioned above. In October of 1801, William, Elizabeth and their eldest daughter Anna Maria sailed from a New York City that at the time was experiencing an outbreak of yellow fever. Italian officials detained the family in facilities seemingly designed to induce rather than contain disease; whether from this detention or simply the inevitable progress of his illness, William died of tuberculosis, eight days after the family’s release from quarantine. The newly widowed Elizabeth and her daughter could not even seek comfort in the consolation of their extended family. Bad winter sailing weather make trans-Atlantic travel impossible.
God’s ways are not our ways. He brings good from evil, victory from defeat. Like the cannonball that crushed Ignatius of Loyola’s dreams of martial glory, financial ruin and disease destroyed the charmed domesticity of a New York City society matron, yet prepared her for something greater. If ultimately providential, it was far from accidental that Elizabeth faced this turning point in Italy. The world is full of fresh country air to ease the sufferings of the tubercular but the Setons chose Italy due to the friendship between William Seton and his Italian-Catholic business associates, Filippo and Antonio Filicchi.
Since his early years of involvement in trans-Atlantic commerce, Filippo Filicchi had developed a strong interest in promoting Catholicism in the United States. He was a close friend of bishop John Carroll and had extended credit to Carroll for the funding of various Church projects. He was far more aggressive and open about promoting the faith than Carroll himself, who retained much of the old colonial Maryland mindset that the faith was best served by nurturing it within an existing Catholic community rather than seeking converts among the largely Protestant population of Anglo-America. Filicchi had longed to draw the Setons to the faith before the tragedy of William’s death. He also no doubt saw in the newly widowed Elizabeth a vehicle for spreading the faith among American Protestants—the very sort of evangelization that Carroll feared would backfire on his fledgling Church.
Following William’s death, Elizabeth and her daughter Anna stayed with the Filicchis through the winter of 1804. Elizabeth spent those months in a profound spiritual struggle growing out of her life-long spiritual quest, the recent tragic loss of her husband and her location in the cross-fire of a still-lively Anglican-Catholic apologetic war. As Filippo presented Elizabeth with a variety of arguments for the truth of Catholicism, she carried on a correspondence with her long-time Anglican spiritual director, John Henry Hobart, of New York’s Trinity Church. Resisting pressure from both men, Elizabeth nonetheless found herself increasingly convinced that Anglicanism offered communion with Christ only as a metaphor, while Catholicism, with its doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, offered reality.
Elizabeth returned to New York in the late spring of 1804. The influence of the Filicchi brothers and a broader network of emigré Catholic priests in America led Elizabeth to take the final steps of confession and communion in 1805. After this, she wrote to a friend, Antonio Filicchi’s wife Amibilia: “At last, Amibilia—GOD IS MINE and I AM HIS—Now let all go its round—I HAVE RECEIVED HIM.”
Despite having personal ties to the Seton family, John Carroll had kept his distance from Elizabeth as she discerned her conversion, hoping to avoid accusations of proselytizing. With Elizabeth’s conversion complete, Bishop Carroll finally overcame his reticence. He, like Filippo, understood Elizabeth as a woman of exceptional gifts who could be of great service to the Church in America. Carroll believed that a public, Catholic commitment to education would be the best way to overcome anti-Catholic prejudice; to this end, he had long sought to attract a religious order of teaching sisters to America.
At the same time, Elizabeth, rejected by her wealthy family because of her conversion, was trying to support herself and her children by operating a school that catered to wealthy New York families. Carroll and Seton’s visions met, with the founding of the Sisters of Charity in January of 1812. Elizabeth and her new community initially staffed the St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School in Emmitsburg, Maryland. For her work at St. Joseph’s Academy, Seton has won the title of patroness of Catholic schools in America.
Still, this connection is more symbolic than historical. The free-standing academy school was institutionally distinct from the parochial school system that developed in the urban parishes of the immigrant city. Far from Carroll’s vision of genteel, elite academies softening American anti-Catholicism, the parochial school of the later nineteenth century became ground zero of a Catholic-Protestant culture war fiercer than anything we experience today. The parochial school was the symbol of Catholic tribalism, of a people who refused to become American.
The Sisters of Charity would nonetheless build bridges in unexpected ways, particularly through their care for the poor and the sick. Though eventually staffing the bulk of the parochial schools in New York City, the Sisters arrived in New York in 1817 first to establish an orphanage, St. Patrick’s Orphan Asylum; by 1849, they were operating the city’s first Catholic hospital, St. Vincent’s, in Greenwich Village. In between, they distinguished themselves in the eyes of all New Yorkers, Catholic and Protestant alike, by their heroic service to the sick and dying during a series of cholera epidemics that swept through the city in the first half of the nineteenth century. Then as now, a public health crisis incited conspiracy theories—with poor Catholics the most convenient scapegoats to explain away the problem. Faced with hate, the Sisters of Charity responded with love. Like their foundress, they turned an experience of sickness and disease into an occasion of conversion. Would that we Catholics today could follow their model.
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