January 4: Elizabeth Seton, Founder of the American Sisters of Charity, 1821

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About this commemoration

Elizabeth Ann Seton was the founder of Sisters of Charity, the first community of sisters native to the United States. She was also a wife, a widow, a single mother, an educator, a social activist and a spiritual leader.

Elizabeth Ann was born in New York in 1774. She endured a turbulent childhood and suffered severe bouts of depression. She survived by immersing herself in poetry, piano lessons, and devoted participation in the Episcopal Church.

In 1795 she married William Seton. Samuel Provoost, the first Episcopal Bishop of New York, presided. Three years later, her fatherin-law died leaving her husband with the responsibility for a large family and a struggling family business and Elizabeth with a large, inherited family to care for. In 1801 the business failed and the Setons lost everything.Her husband showed the symptoms of tuberculosis and in 1803, they set sail for Italy in the hopes that the warm climate would cure his disease. The Italian authorities fearing Yellow Fever quarantined them in a cold stone hospital for the dying. William soon died and left Elizabeth Ann a young widow with five children and few resources. While in Italy, she discovered Roman Catholicism.

Returning to New York, she encountered bitter opposition to her new religious leanings. With five children to support, she felt alone and estranged. She turned to Roman Catholic clergy for support and in 1805 she formally converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1806, she met Father Louis Dubourg, S.S. who wanted to start a congregation of women religious, patterned after the French Daughters of Charity.

In 1809 Elizabeth Ann took vows and became “Mother Seton” to a small community of seven women dedicated to teaching. The sisters were given land in rural Maryland and in 1810 they opened St. Joseph’s Free School to educate needy girls. The Sisters intertwined social ministry, education and religious formation in all their varied works. Mother Seton dispatched sisters to operate orphanages in Philadelphia and New York.

Elizabeth Ann Seton remained the Mother of the Sisters of Charity until her death on January 4, 1821.

Collects

II Holy God, who didst bless Elizabeth Seton with thy grace as wife, mother, educator and founder, that she might spend her life in service to thy people: Help us, by her example, to express our love for thee in love of others; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

II Holy God, you blessed Elizabeth Seton with your grace as wife, mother, educator and founder, that she might spend her life in service to your people: Help us, by her example, to express our love for you in love of others; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Lessons

2 Esdras 2:15–24

Romans 16:19–20

Luke 14:15–23

Psalm

119:105–112

Preface of  a Saint (2)

Text from Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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16 Responses to January 4: Elizabeth Seton, Founder of the American Sisters of Charity, 1821

  1. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    What happened to her 5 children? How old would they have been when she took vows? I assume they were adults or on the way, but that is a niggling thread that needs to be sewn in to the narrative. No doubt she did good works, but she also left the Episcopal Church to do them.

  2. Michael Hartney says:

    Readings. New Testament reading: 2 verses? That’s it. Two verses?
    Gospel: And why did we omit verse 24 – as it completes the parable?

    Bio. 1st paragraph: ‘… the first community of sisters native to the United States.’ Native? Do we mean that ‘originated in the United States’? Native is an awkward word.

    2nd paragraph: She was born in New York. Upstate? On Long Island? In the Adirondacks? The Bronx? Of course it means New York City. Just say it.

    3rd , 4th and 5th paragraphs: She returned to New York (New York City, please )… married at 21 in 1795, her father-in-law died in 1798, they lost everything in 1801, went to Italy in 1803, began talking with New York Roman Catholic clergy in 1805, converted in 1806, took vows in 1809, opened the school in 1810, and died at age 47 in 1821. Phew. Such a whirlwind. All of this information doesn’t read smoothly, IMO.
    Were there two ‘large’ families to inherit (a ‘large family’ as her husband’s responsibility and a ‘large, inherited family’ for Elizabeth to care for)? There were 5 children in Italy; so large = 5?

    Editorial spacing error in the printed edition between the words New and York in the 2nd line of the 2nd paragraph.

    5th paragraph: She operated orphanages in Philadelphia and New York (New York City, please).
    Her ‘small’ community = seven women whereas her ‘large’ family = five. This is a case where small = large.

    6th paragraph: Was she the ‘Mother’ of the Sisters or the ‘Mother Superior’ of the Sisters?
    In this bio sometimes sisters is capitalized and sometimes it is lower case. Which is right? Both?

    Though Mother Seton was baptized (I presume she was though it doesn’t say so.) in @1774 in the Church of England and the then nascent PECUSA, why is this ‘near’ Roman Catholic saint being included in HWHM? If we do shouldn’t there be at least a balance of Roman Catholics becoming Episcopalians in our commemorations? It seems only fair.

  3. Nigel Renton says:

    The title, as well as the Collects, show her name as “Elizabeth Seton”. It is appropriate that her second name be included once in the bio: I have suggested that this be in the second paragraph, since the first paragraph is largely redundant. I suggest that she should simply be referred to as “Elizabeth” in the tenth line of the third paragraph and the third line of the fifth paragraph. Using her full name in the final paragraph seems more acceptable.

    Here again we have an entry which summarizes the career in the first paragraph, instead of “starting at the beginning, continuing to the middle, and then going on to the end”.

    Delete the first paragraph, some of which is in the subtitle, and some of which should come later.

    Line 1, second paragraph: add “Seton” after “Ann”.

    Line 1, second paragraph: add “on August 28” after “York”.

  4. John Robison says:

    Cynthia: Her children were not adults at the time of her taking vows. They were raised under the same conditions as the children she took in. One of her sons went on to help shape the American Navy, which is why she is also the patron of the American Sea Services.

  5. Celinda Scott says:

    Is anything known about her maternal grandfather, who was an Episcopal priest? His last name would have been Charlton, since that was her mother’s maiden name (according to a Wikipedia article).

  6. Celinda Scott says:

    I just found some information about Charlton, and the church where he (and earlier, Samuel Seabury) was rector. Here it is:

    “The Church of Saint Andrew was founded in 1708 and chartered by Queen Anne in 1713. Construction of the first church began in 1709. The Church of Saint Andrew served as a hospital and headquarters for the British soldiers as the New Colonies fought for their freedom. The Rev. Richard Charlton served as the Rector of Saint Andrew’s during this time. He was the maternal grandfather of Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, who was the first canonized American Saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Along with her grandparents; her father, brother and sister are buried in the church cemetery. The Rev. Samuel Seabury was called to be the first Bishop of the Episcopal Church while he was serving as Rector of the Church of Saint Andrew from 1777-1780.=

  7. Celinda Scott says:

    Also found this quotation in a review of Joseph Dirvin’s _The Soul of Elizabeth Seton_:

    “Growing up as a child, Elizabeth Seton had a deep devotion to God while as a member of the Episcopalian Church. Early on, she had written of ‘passionate wishes that there were such places in America as I read of in novels, where people could be shut from the world and pray, and be good always.’ “Pg 123.

    There are such places in the Episcopal Church today, and many ways to meet regularly with other Episcopalians whose faith is nourished by membership in associations where one can pray with others about one’s deepest concerns. I am thinking of Cursillo, Daughters of the King, AFP, and so on. Sadly, the rift in TEC has contributed to the weakening of those associations in some places. The ones I know of are struggling to continue, and I think TEC is encouraging them. Interesting, I think, that Seton said she wanted to be “shut from the world and pray,” but her prayer life led to her being anything but “shut from the world.”

  8. Steve Lusk says:

    She’s a great Christian, but she’s already in the Roman calendar. Have we really run out of Anglicans who are worth remembering?
    I’d vote for no post-Reformation Roman Catholics — and especially none who were apostate Episcopalians — in our calendar until the Church of Rome is in full communion with us and has added Tyndale, Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley to its calendar. If we’re going to honor Newman and Seaton, let’s go whole hog: add Flavius Claudius Julianus (June 26, 363) and Tomás de Torquemada (September 16, 1498). And save a date for Martyn Minns.

  9. Celinda Scott says:

    Steve brings up an interesting point. Is the purpose of the Post-Reformation calendar to build up the Anglican church, or the “church universal”? Should we be like the Roman Catholics in having a calendar dedicated to strengthening our own particular denomination, implying that’s the only real way to be a Christian, or is our purpose to extend Christ’s kingdom in general? If the former, perhaps should rename our calendar “Holy Anglicans.”

  10. John LaVoe says:

    Elizabeth Seton, Founder of the American Sisters of Charity, 1821
    .
    Does it matter who presided at her wedding? (I’d omit “Samuel Provoost, the first Episcopal Bishop of New York, presided.” Nothing of consequence follows from its inclusion.)
    .
    “inherited family” – Is there another kind? (Omit “inherited” even though it may mean more than her own children, e.g., her late husband’s siblings?)
    .
    (“leaving her husband with the responsibility for a large family and a struggling family business and Elizabeth with a large, inherited family to care for.”) It would be simpler as, “leaving Elizabeth and her husband with the responsibilities of both a large family and those of their struggling business.” [Omit, “ and Elizabeth with a large, inherited family to care for.”)
    .
    “she formally converted to Roman Catholicism” – Since she was a Christian as an Episcopalian and in changing communions remained a Christian, “converted” seems inaccurate, even though it is the customary term used by Roman Catholics when anyone, Christian or not, so affiliates. (There’s a touch of religious chauvinism in the word choice.) Say this without saying “converted”—e.g., “transferred to,” “was received into,” “embraced,” “was confirmed as (or re-baptized as?) a Roman Catholic,” ”formally joined,” etc.
    .
    “In 1806, she met Father Louis Dubourg, S.S. who wanted to start a congregation of women religious, patterned after the French Daughters of Charity. In 1809 Elizabeth Ann took vows and became “Mother Seton” to a small community of seven women dedicated to teaching.”
    (These two sentences are now in separate paragraphs but they belong together. Otherwise, the first sentence, while containing relevant information, seems to hang like an unresolved chord. The 1806 date isn’t particularly important in itself. Explaining the term “Mother” is difficult. The bio at the website for her national shrine says it was given her by the person before whom she made her vows, but doesn’t explain why. At that point, apparantly, it did not indicate “Mother Superior.” At a later date she became “Mother Superior” (if I read the shrine’s bio correctly). I think it’s just not worth the ink in our commemoration to explain it, or even to mention it, because it doesn’t matter that much in our remembrance of her life, faith, and ministry. A blend of the two sentences could simply say: “In 1809, with the encouragement of Father Louis Dubourg, S.S., Elizabeth took vows as part of a religious community of seven women, patterned after the French Daughters of Charity, dedicated to teaching.”
    .
    The Collect is adequate enough given its truncated format. I would prefer saying, “that she might ‘find’ her life,” not just “spend” her life, in service etc. Both are true enough. The string of “wife, mother, educator and founder” strikes me more as eulogy than what we need in a prayer prayed by the church. Where does our faith and life “track” the KINDS of things in hers – not just replicate hers? She brought her faith into her home life (wife, mother), her engagement with a wider community of people (hers happened to be as educator, in part), and into her specifically religious community (founder). I know I’m wearing out my soapbox about collects, but if it’s too much of a eulogy it loses ground as a prayerful response of the church’s people. Could the collect be worded with those praying in mind, not just the one remembered?
    .
    The Readings: 2 Esdras and Psalm selections are fine. Romans is oddly short, but more than that, it’s an odd choice (God will crush Satan under Mother Seton’s feet?).
    .
    Luke strikes me as one story off. The point may be in filling up the eschatological banquet with “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” but the story ends with forcing people in so that the banquet is full; and, as Michael previously noted, it leaves off the canonical conclusion (“none of those invited will taste my dinner”). I can see why you wouldn’t want that conclusion, but it sort of comes with the rest of the passage. To simply edit it out is cherry-picking and proof texting, “und ve don do dat heah.” Back up one story and use Luke 14:7-14 (or 12-14). (PS – And neither Jesus nor Mother Seton ever FORCED people into their respective “banquets.”)

  11. Celinda Scott says:

    I like this comment of John LaVoe’s about collects: “…..if it’s too much of a eulogy it loses ground as a prayerful response of the church’s people. Could the collect be worded with those praying in mind, not just the one remembered?” But rightly or wrongly, I like anything in a bio that helps sets the historical context–like the reference to Bp Samuel Provoost, the first Episcopal Bishop of NY, who presided at her wedding (which would have been in 1793, if she was 19 at the time). Her maternal grandfather, the Rev. Richard Charlton, had been the rector of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church on Staten Island during the Revolutionary War (the church was headquarters and hospital for the British). Samuel Seabury was rector there “when he was called to be bishop,” which would have been before his consecration in 1784. Provoost, on the side of the Patriots (in contrast to Seabury, at least at first), was consecrated in 1787, I think. (I would love to know more about why Elizabeth Seton eventually found the Episcopal Church inadequate. Was it more vulnerable to political and doctrinal controversy than the Roman Catholic church was at that time?)

  12. Celinda Scott says:

    Correction in my post above: Seabury wasn’t rector of St. Andrew’s at that time, he was missionary to the British troops there, if I understood correctly. And he was there, I think, because he couldn’t go home to CT, either because he was on the outs there because of his support for the British, or because travel home would not have been safe for the same reason. Anyway, that whole era was pretty tumultuous and loyalties were constantly being tested. From what I’ve read about Seabury (Marshall’s biography), he was dedicated, a good pastor, more knowledgable about liturgy than most, etc.

  13. Philip Wainwright says:

    There’s nothing in this bio that explains why she would be commemorated all this time later, even by the RCs. There must be something more ‘heroic’ in her story than simply founding a society that did good things. The word ‘founder’ in the collect sounds odd when used without reference to what she founded.

  14. Does anybody have AN ANSWER to the question about how she took care of 5 chikdren while founding a religious order???

  15. lorettamatson says:

    If you are going to list marital and parental status for one, will you do it for all, including the men? Isn’t it interesting to now whether a holy man was a husband and father along with everything else he did?

  16. Pingback: January 4 – Elizabeth Seton : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

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