The Holy Eucharist was the focal point of St. Elizabeth’s conversion.
After witnessing the widespread and warm devotion to the Eucharist during her stay in Italy, she found herself inextricably drawn to the Blessed Sacrament. After her first Communion, the Eucharist became the cornerstone of her remaining 16 years of life.
From the Liturgy of the Hours:
Elizabeth Seton was born on August 28, 1774, of a wealthy and distinguished Episcopalian family. She was baptized in the Episcopal faith and was a faithful adherent of the Episcopal Church until her conversion to Catholicism. In 1794, Elizabeth married. William Seton and they reared five children amid suffering and sickness. Elizabeth and her sick husband traveled to Leghorn, Italy, and there William died. While in Italy Elizabeth became acquainted with Catholicism and in 1805 she made her profession of faith in the Catholic Church. She established her first Catholic school in Baltimore in 1808; in 1809, she established a religious community in Emmitsburg, Maryland: Having watched her small community of teaching sisters expand to New York, and as far as Saint Louis, she died on January 4, 1821, and was declared a saint by Pope Paul VI on September 14, 1975 .
Elizabeth was always very concerned about the eternal destiny of her many loved ones, and she would try to direct the attention of dying friends to the next life. Fear and concern for her own and her children’s eternal destiny, and desire for eternity, were always before her mind; these motives would eventually lead her into the Catholic Church.
Due to her husband’s illness and having had it recommended that he go to another climate, Elizabeth and William Seton had traveled to Italy to visit some business friends. But the change in climate did not grant the hoped for cure and William died in Italy.
At this time in her life Elizabeth was assisted by the Filicchi brothers, who were impressed by the young widow’s beautiful soul. The Catholic Filicchis-Antonio and Filippo (and his wife Amabilia)-were the embodiment of kindness and consideration for Elizabeth. She wrote to a friend, “Oh, my! The patience and more than human kindness of these dear Filicchis for us! You would say it was our Savior Himself they received in His poor and sick strangers.” During this time in Italy, Elizabeth became interested in the Catholic Faith, and over a period of months the Filicchis guided her in Catholic instructions and one brother accompanied her home to America.
When her friends in New York realized that Elizabeth meant to convert to Catholicism, they rushed to re-instruct her in the Episcopalian faith. Especially poignant were the conversations she had with the minister Mr. Hobart, a forceful and intelligent man, eloquent preacher and friend of Elizabeth, who used many arguments to dissuade her from conversion. Filippo Filicchi, on the other hand, gave her Catholic books to read and tried to impress on Elizabeth her obligation of making a serious investigation and search for the true religion. A year of uncertainty and inner anguish for Elizabeth followed.
Elizabeth’s desire for the Bread of Life was to be a strong force in bringing her to the Catholic Church. To her dear sister-in-law Re, her “Soul’s Sister,” she wrote, “How happy would we be, believed what these dear souls believe: that they possess God the Sacrament, and that He remains in their churches and is to them when they are sick! … The other day, in a moment of excessive distress, I fell on my knees without thinking when the Blessed Sacrament passed by, and cried in an agony to God to bless me, if He was there-that my whole soul desired only Him.”
Having lost her mother at an early age, Elizabeth felt great comfort in the idea that the Blessed Virgin was truly her mother. She asked the Blessed Virgin to guide her to the True Faith. Elizabeth was also attracted to the Catholic teaching that suffering can expiate sins.
Elizabeth also noticed the difference between Catholic and nonCatholic deathbeds. She wrote to Mrs. Filicchi that in assisting at non-Catholic deaths, “I go through an agony never to be described;’ while a Catholic dying person is consoled and strengthened by every help of religion, and the priest, “the one you call Father of your soul, attends and watches it in the weakness and trials of parting nature with the same care you and I watch our little infant’s body in its first struggles … on its entrance into life.”
Finally, after much interior anguish, Elizabeth decided, “I will go peaceably and firmly to the Catholic Church: for if faith is so important to our salvation, I will seek it where true Faith first began, seek it among those who received it from God Himself.” She looked forward with great anticipation to receiving the Sacraments for the first time, saying she would even be ready to make her confession “on the housetops” in return for absolution.
After her First Communion she wrote, “At last…at last, GOD IS MINE AND I AM HIS! Now, let all go its round-I Have Received Him.”
Thus Elizabeth finally joined the Catholic Church in 1805. When her sister-in-law converted to Catholicism, Elizabeth became the object of suspicion and distrust, so it became very difficult for her to remain in New York; this city, like most places in the young American nation, was decidedly prejudiced against Catholicism. During her few remaining years in New York Elizabeth tried to establish several ventures in order to become self-supporting, but they all failed.
The president of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore suggested that Elizabeth come and start a school in that city. A natural teacher, Elizabeth gladly accepted the chance to educate and to spread Faith. She added religion to the curriculum at St. Mary’s, and s two other young women came to help with her work. This would eventually evolve into the formation of a Sisterhood known as the Sisters of Charity. There would be many trials and personal sorrows and difficulties but placing her trust in the will of God, Mother Seton grew in holiness. She died on January 4, 1821 and later would be the first natural-born American Saint, being canonized in 1975.
Some sayings of the Saint:
We must pray without ceasing, in every occurrence and employment of our lives – that prayer which is rather a habit of lifting up the heart to God as in a constant communication with Him.
What was the first rule of our dear Savior’s life? You know if was to do his Father’s will. Well, then, the first purpose of our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner he wills; and thirdly, to do it because it is his will.
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.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on CE on Jan 4, 2008
image: Stained glass image of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton/Wikimedia Commons