It is something of a matter of course that the fairy-tale heroine who finds herself locked up in a lonely, faraway tower is sure to find a husband and happiness. There was, once upon a time, a real-life heroine who was locked up in a lonely, faraway tower and lost her husband and happiness, but, in the end, found a Bridegroom and a beatitude that are only dreamt of in fairy tales. And it was in her agony and emergence from that isolated tower that Elizabeth Ann Seton gained the all-American tenacity to ease her countrymen of hardship.
Yesterday, January 4, 2021, marked the bicentennial of Elizabeth Ann Seton’s death—or rather, her birth into life everlasting. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton stands as a towering figure of American Catholicism as the first canonized saint born on what would become US soil. While devotion to her remains strong for all that she did for the cause of education and religious communities, her example is of particular interest for Americans in the chilling grip of the widespread Covid-19 quarantine. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s legacy as a teacher, foundress, and saint was in many ways occasioned by an excruciating quarantine that she endured early in her life.
Early life was at first wonderful for Elizabeth Ann Bayley. Born to a privileged Episcopal New York family in 1774, she grew up like a kind of princess, wearing expensive clothes, learning French, riding horseback, playing the piano, and attending fine parties and elegant balls. She met her true love in a dashing young businessman named William Seton and the starry-eyed couple were soon married. But their fortunes were doomed to fail. While raising a young family in Wall Street, William’s health and business both began to decline rapidly. Before long, their financial resources were exhausted and, with the terror of debtor’s prison perpetually upon him, William was seized with yellow fever.
A doctor urged a sea voyage to improve William’s health and, selling all the goods she had, Elizabeth set out with her husband and daughter from New York to Italy. Arriving at the port of Leghorn, authorities were concerned about the spread of the epidemic and quarantined them in a stone tower for forty days. It was in that dark, bitterly cold tower that Elizabeth felt alone for the first time as she wiped the blood from her husband’s trembling lips and desperately tried to amuse her frightened child. William died, and Elizabeth felt isolated from God Himself.
As she waited to return to America, the young widow went to churches in Italy to pray for peace and strength—and they were Catholic churches. There she learned of the belief in the Real Presence and suddenly realized that she was not alone anymore. She had found God again and more intensely than ever before. The doctrine of the Blessed Sacrament delivered her from the darkness that had stayed in her soul like a sickness once she left that terrible tower.
Back home in New York, Elizabeth ran into the arms of the Catholic Church and got to work to support her family, opening an academy for schoolgirls and a boardinghouse for schoolboys. When these ventures failed, she secured a teaching position at St. Mary’s College in Baltimore before moving to Emmitsburg. There, Elizabeth founded the United States’ first free Catholic school, St. Joseph’s Academy, and first religious congregation of sisters, the Sisters of Charity, and lay the groundwork for the parochial school system in America.
Mother Seton used to say that her troubles taught her to comfort others, and she did this by teaching people to find the comfort of Our Lord as she had. “Let your chief study be to acquaint yourself with God,” she wrote. The torture of that tower of isolation was what made her strong, leaving Mother Seton bearing that rough and ready American attitude of rolling up one’s sleeves and getting to work. This born-and-raised American saint lived in a world gripped in sickness, fear, and difficulty, but all of that only served to make her all the more resolved to alleviate suffering because she knew what suffering was.
Coupled with a founder’s zeal, Elizabeth Ann Seton helped lay the very foundation of American culture at a time when the American dream was just taking shape, ensuring that it would solidify on those indispensable aspects of any civilization: religious education and religious life. As President Donald Trump said in his stirring and surprising December 29 proclamation for the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, “A society without religion cannot prosper. A nation without faith cannot endure—because justice, goodness, and peace cannot prevail without the grace of God.” By that grace of God, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton made justice, goodness, and peace prevail with presence and vibrancy, and the effects of her labors of love are alive to this day.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton came out of her quarantine and brought the people of God into His presence. Every American Catholic should prepare to quit their quarantine, both physically and spiritually, and re-enter society with the indomitable, soldiering spirit of Elizabeth Ann Seton. In fact, the United States may need such pioneers and missionaries more today than it did 200 years ago.
There are few saints who should be more alive in the minds and hearts and prayers of American Catholics nowadays, especially as we huddle under strange and sudden mandates and watch the rise of radical liberalism loom large over religious formation and religious liberty. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton gave her labor, life, and love for the spiritual good of the people of this great nation and we should pray to her—especially as the run-off vote for Senate control takes place in Georgia on January 5 and the highly contested Electoral votes are certified by a joint session of Congress beginning on January 6.
But whatever the results, and whatever the future might hold, we should all follow the beautiful example of this beloved saint who taught us that the worst experiences should bring out the best in us. So may we all rise from these days of disease and darkness with renewed life, refreshed faith, and the gritty determination to build even among the ruins. Mother Seton was only 46 years old when she died of tuberculosis on January 4, 1821. After striving to bring the God she found to others through education and the consecrated life, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s mission spread across the world by the guiding light of her legacy and her loving patronage from heaven where she lives happily ever after.
image: Canonization portrait of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)