The Conversion of Elizabeth Ann Seton: First American-born Saint

FATHER CHARLES P. CONNOR

In Elizabeth Ann Seton, we have a saint for our times. In Elizabeth Ann Seton, we have a woman of faith, for a time of doubt and uncertainty . . . a woman of love for a time of coldness and division . . . a woman of hope for a time of crisis and discouragement.


Elizabeth Bayley Seton, the first native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized a saint, was of English ancestry and grew up in a family that had settled in colonial New York. Her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, was a physician; her mother, Catherine Charlton, the daughter of an Anglican minister. Together they had three daughters: Mary, Elizabeth, and Catherine. After Catherine's birth, Mrs. Bayley died, and some time later, Dr. Bayley married Charlotte Barclay. Though primarily she was English, Charlotte Barclay's mother was also Dutch, a Roosevelt. Hence, through her stepmother, Elizabeth had a connection with both Presidents Roosevelt. She was also the aunt of a future archbishop of Baltimore, James Roosevelt Bayley.

Her Early Life

Elizabeth was born August 28, 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution. Raised in the Episcopalian faith, she was by all accounts a strikingly beautiful young woman. Trinity Church, Wall Street, very close to the present New York Stock Exchange, was in the late eighteenth century the spiritual nucleus of the city, drawing its social and cultural elite together. Elizabeth knew this fashionable world very well, and when she married William Magee Seton on January 25, 1794, she married into a society to which she was accustomed. She and her husband, a prominent partner in a merchant shipping firm, had a fashionable wedding, and, after living with the Setons for some time, moved into their own home, Number 27 Wall Street. The contrast between Elizabeth's and William's attitude toward religion is interesting:

She was earnest, sincere, only just sacramental, a Bible reader with a marked evangelical streak. Her husband, not very religious . . . belonged to a new breed of men. Today we would label him as an executive. For him trade came first. (1)

Elizabeth, then, was the religious one. There does not appear to be any time in her life when she lacked devotion, but in her married adult years her spiritual formation was greatly developed by a twenty-five-year-old High-Church curate serving at Trinity, John Henry Hobart, a scholarly man whose dynamic preaching bespoke conviction and deep spirituality. Hobart was the youngest of three associate ministers assisting Benjamin Moore, the rector of Trinity Church.

Hobart was described by one biographer as a man who "was short, disproportioned and wore thick spectacles" (2) He had met John Henry Newman in England, and the convert cardinal had been impressed with his intelligence. Elizabeth Seton and her sister-in-law Rebecca were two parishioners at Trinity who particularly came under his spell. In Elizabeth's case, Hobart had a complex personality to deal with:

Betty had amassed an amazing hodgepodge of belief and observance. Thus she wore a Catholic crucifix, looked kindly on the life of the cloister, subscribed to the doctrine of angels, liked Methodist hymns, the quietism of the Quakers and the emotionalism of Rousseau, read general Protestant works, practiced meditation, was inclined to the narrow Calvinism of her ancestors in the matter of sin and punishment, and attended the Episcopal Church. (3)

Despite Elizabeth's complexity or perhaps because of it, the two had an almost immediate spiritual attraction. Elizabeth Seton was in love with God, and Henry Hobart was the man charged in God's providence with bringing this love to a higher earthly potential. Not surprisingly, John Henry Hobart and his wife (who was the daughter of the minister who had officiated at the wedding of Elizabeth's parents) were frequent visitors at the home of the Setons. A letter Elizabeth wrote to a friend, Julia Scott (delivered by Hobart himself), gives us an even better glimpse of what Elizabeth thought of Hobart:

The bearer of this letter possesses in full the reality of the last description in my heart . . . The soother and comforter of the troubled soul is a kind of friend not often met with. The convincing, pious and singular turn of mind and argument possessed by this most amiable being has made him — without even having the least consciousness that he is so — the friend most my friend in this world, and one of those who, after my Adored Creator, I expect to receive the largest share of happiness from in the next. (4)

Some time later, because of the financial reversals of William Seton, the family moved from Wall Street to Number 8 State Street, a house at the geographical tip of Manhattan Island, with panoramic views of the river and the bay. Long Island was to the east, New Jersey to the west, and Staten Island to the south. (Today, Our Lady of the Rosary shrine church is located here.)

In Italy

In 1802, William Seton's health began to fail, and he was encouraged to go to a climate more conducive to his recovery. Leghorn (Livorno), Italy was chosen because, among other reasons, it was the home of the Filicchi family, old friends and business associates of William Seton. Filippo was the head of the Filicchi firm. His wife, Mary Cowper, was from Boston, and through marriage and the prestige of his own business firm, he had become very well acquainted with the United States. He was on friendly terms with such patriots as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, and he also knew John Carroll of Baltimore, the nation's first Catholic bishop. As proof of the esteem in which he was held, Filippo served as United States consul at Leghorn, most unusual for a native Italian. Filippo's brother, Antonio, was also a partner in the firm. His beautiful and charming wife, Amabilia, was to become very close to Elizabeth Seton.

The Filicchis were devout Catholics, though it is not known if in religious matters they ever made any impression on William Seton. William died in Italy in December 1803, and he is buried in the Protestant cemetery in Leghorn.

When the grace of Elizabeth's conversion began to crystallize is not clear. It is almost certain, though, that it began while she lived in Italy; there is nothing to indicate any strong attraction to the Catholic Church before, while she was still in New York. We do know that while in Italy she would go frequently with the Filicchis to the Shrine of Our Lady of Montenaro in Leghorn. We also know that on a trip to Florence, she went to visit the cathedral (the Duomo), the Church of San Lorenzo, Santa Maria Novella, and the Medici Chapel and that she was absolutely fascinated with their beauty.

Some time later she wrote to a friend:

How happy would we be, if we believed what these dear souls believe: that they possess God in the Sacrament, and that He remains in their churches and is carried to them when they are sick! O, my! . . . how happy would I be, even so far away from all so dear, if I could find You in the church as they do . . . how many things I would say to You of the sorrows of my heart and the sins of my life. (5)

Her praying so intently to God that she might find him seems strongly indicative that she wanted to believe in the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence.

Elizabeth began to confide in her friends the Filicchis, and they provided her with books, all of which she read thoroughly. We know that she read Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life, a polemical work called "The Unerring Authority of the Catholic Church", Bossuet's Exposition of Catholic Doctrine, and an orderly, step-by-step development of the Church's history, compiled and handwritten by Filippo with help from a priest friend, Father Pecci.

Back to America

Elizabeth returned, finally, to New York City, very strongly leaning toward Catholicism. On the lengthy sea crossing she traveled with Antonio Filicchi. He had given her Butler's Lives of the Saints, which she read voraciously. In addition, they practically made a retreat — praying, fasting, and observing feast days with particular devotion.

Her greatest undoing in New York came when she let people know of her interest in Catholicism. Basing their questions most often on their own superficial prejudices, they fired an incessant barrage of hostile queries at her. Elizabeth's former mentor, John Henry Hobart, was no less critical:

When I see a person whose sincere and ardent piety I have always thought worthy of imitation in danger of connecting herself with a communion which my sober judgment tells me is a corrupt and sinful communion, I cannot be otherwise than deeply affected. . . . If it should appear that you have forsaken the religion of your forefathers, not from prejudices of education, not for want of better information, but in opposition to light and knowledge which few have enjoyed, my soul anxiously inquires, what answer will you make to your Almighty Judge? (6)

Hobart lost no time in providing Elizabeth Seton with a copy of Thomas Newton's famous book Dissertation on the Prophesies, the main thesis of which is that all who follow the pope will land in the bottomless pit. And the book had its effect; it distressed Elizabeth's soul to no end. To balance it, she began reading books that Antonio Filicchi secured for her from a priest in New York: Robert Manning's England's Conversion and a second work entitled Reformation Compared.

Back and forth she swayed, still attending services in her own denomination, yet becoming less and less comfortable. She went to Saint Paul's Chapel on Broadway for Sunday service and reported to Amabilia Filicchi:

I got in a side pew which turned my face towards the Catholic Church in the next street, and found myself twenty times speaking to the Blessed Sacrament there, instead of looking at the naked altar where I was. (7)

Some time later, she wrote to Amabilia's husband, Antonio:

After reading the life of St. Mary Magdalen, I thought: "Come my soul, let us turn from all these suggestions of one side or the other, and quietly resolve to go to that church which has at least the multitude of the wise and good on its side"; and began to consider the first step I must take. The first step — is it not to declare I believe all that is taught by the Council of Trent? (8)

Conversion

One event that may have finalized her decision to convert was an action taken by the Anglican Church. In 1783, the church took as its official name the Protestant Episcopal Church. At the new church's first general convention, held in Philadelphia in 1789, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was revised. Among the significant revisions was this: the former Book of Common Prayer had stated that at communion "the Body and Blood of Christ . . . are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord's Supper." After the revision, it said the Body and Blood of Christ are "spiritually taken and received." (9)

The old wording explains Elizabeth's intense devotion to the Anglican sacrament and her eagerness to accept the uncompromising Roman Catholic belief in the Real Presence. To Amabilia Filicchi she wrote:

A day of days for me . . . I have been where? — to the Church of St. Peter with the cross on the top instead of a weather-cock! . . . When I turned the corner of the street it is in — "Here, my God, I go," said I, "[my] heart all to You." (10)

Mrs. Seton was received into the Catholic Church by Father William O'Brien on March 14, 1805, at Saint Peter's Church on Barclay Street. She paid dearly for her action. Her former friends and fellow parishioners thought she was mad, and they developed a bitter opposition to her. Many of them tried to persuade parents to remove their children from a small boarding school she had opened for her own livelihood. Eventually, she left New York and with her children went to Baltimore, where she engaged in similar work.

The rest of her story is known worldwide. A group of like-minded women whom she had gathered around her became the core, the nucleus, of the Sisters of Charity. On Paca Street in Baltimore, one can still visit the chapel where Elizabeth Bayley Seton and the others professed their vows.

From Baltimore, Mother Seton and her community moved to the small hamlet of Emmitsburg, Maryland, not far from the Pennsylvania border. Today, one may visit here the tomb of this very American saint, enshrined in a beautiful basilica on the grounds, as well as the graves of two of her five children in an adjoining cemetery. In this quiet, peaceful corner of rural America, Catholic education in the United States had its beginnings. Here, too, was the start of five major divisions of the Sisters of Charity in the United States and Canada. All this exists because of one woman's thirst for the Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

At the time of her canonization in 1975, in his foreword to a biography of Mother Seton, Terence Cardinal Cooke summed up her legacy:

In Elizabeth Ann Seton, we have a saint for our times.
In Elizabeth Ann Seton, we have a woman of faith, for a time of doubt and uncertainty . . . a woman of love for a time of coldness and division . . . a woman of hope for a time of crisis and discouragement.
Thanks be to God for this saintly daughter of New York, for this valiant woman of God's Church. (11)

END NOTES

  1. Bernard Basset, S.J., Saint Elizabeth Seton (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1975), 4.
  2. Joseph I. Dirvin, CM., Mrs. Seton: Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity, New Canonization Edition (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1962, 1975), 84.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Elizabeth Seton to Julia Scott, cited in ibid., 103.
  5. Elizabeth Seton, cited in ibid., 137.
  6. John Henry Hobart, cited in Annabelle M. Melville, Elizabeth Bayley Seton (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951), 85-86.
  7. Elizabeth Seton to Amabilia Filcchi, cited in Dirvin, Mrs. Seton, 154.
  8. Elizabeth Seton to Amabilia Filcchi, cited in ibid., 155.
  9. Elizabeth Seton to Antonio Filicchi, cited in ibid., 155.
  10. Elizabeth Seton to Amabilia Filicchi, cited in ibid., 164.
  11. Terence Cardinal Cooke, cited in ibid, xiii.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Charles P. Connor. "The Conversion of Elizabeth Ann Seton: First American-born Saint ." Catholic Dossier 7 no. 4 (July - August 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.

THE AUTHOR

Father Charles P. Connor, a pastor in the diocese of Scranton, is an expert in Church history. This article is based on a chapter of his book Classic Catholic Converts (Ignatius Press).

Copyright 2001 Catholic Dossier


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