From Protestantism to Catholicism through the Eucharist:
Saint Elizabeth Seton
IN November, American Catholics will celebrate with splendour the bicentenary of Baltimore’s Cathedral, which was the first in the United States. John Paul II had blessed the project of this commemoration, recalling to the current Archbishop, Cardinal Keeler, « that your American Basilica was with all its light the symbol of religious freedom in the entire world. » In fact, the American clergy can pride itself on having respected the social right to religious freedom, which was written in the American Constitution long before the Second Vatican Council would in turn recognise it, marking thereby a complete rupture with the traditional teaching of the Church.
However, a more attentive study on the outstanding expansion of the Catholic Church in the land of our southern neighbours should moderate the infatuation for religious freedom. If, at the beginning, it favoured her development, it soon ended up in shutting the Church into an impasse. It seems to us that it is appropriate to recall these historical facts as Pope Benedict XVI himself calls into question the infallibility of « the spirit of the Council », by stating that he only allows an « hermeneutic of continuity » in the interpretation of the conciliar texts, including that on religious Freedom.
By way of introduction to this study, let us evoke the figure of Elizabeth Seton. Beatified in the course of the Second Vatican Council and canonised in 1975, she was the first American women to be raised to the altars. Her sanctity illustrates the heroic foundation of the American Church.
UNDER TRIUMPHANT PROTESTANTISM
She was born in New York on 28 August 1774. At that time, the town only numbered 30,000 souls, including slaves, and the houses, entirely of wood, often only had two floors! But it was already an important town that would become the British staff headquarters for the whole of the War of Independence, which began in 1775.
Elizabeth’s father, Richard Bayley, was a young doctor – he was thirty years old – who was already of high renown. A member of the Episcopalian Church, he did not, however, show any interest in religion. He was a humanist for whom medical science was a priesthood. The war with its miseries gave him the opportunity to practise his profession, and he spared no effort at it, neglecting somewhat his young wife, who would die far from him in 1777 while giving birth to their third child.
Dr Bayley did not remain a widower for long. After one year, he remarried with a young nineteen-year-old girl from whom he would have seven children in ten years. Unfortunately she would feel no affection for the children of the first marriage. The very sensitive heart of little Elizabeth would suffer much from it, despite her father’s demonstrations of tenderness.
The child, who was denied maternal affection, took a keen interest in Holy Scripture, which her excellent Protestant education made known to her when she was very young. The private diary that she kept faithfully from the age of seven bears witness to this. Among pages devoted to a little girl’s principal interests, we are surprised to read thoughts of astonishing depth that reveal a soul very anxious to do good.
There is related in this diary a minor event that illustrates the very anti-Catholic religious climate of that time. In fact, in New York, as in all the rebel Colonies of the Eastern coast, Catholics were persecuted and, since 1704, banned from civil services. Children were told to avoid these people, who were considered to belong to a sub-species. Nevertheless, one fine day, Elizabeth wrote: « I drew lots for a poor person [to visit with her father] and got the old O’Togarty. She is said to be a Catholic; I have never seen one of them. First visit: Why are Catholics so different from others? What is this Rosary? » She also wrote the words of gratitude that this poor dying woman said to her father who, not without merit in such a climate, obtained for her the grace of being visited by a priest: « I shall tell the Mother of God to take you under Her azure mantle. » The prayer would be answered!
The help Louis XVI brought the Rebels had, however, the happy result of enabling Catholic worship to appear officially. Consequently, when the hostilities with England ended, Pope Pius VI, taking advantage of the situation, wished to appoint a Bishop as soon as possible. To do this, he asked the twenty-four Catholic priests who lived in the United States at that time, to gather in Baltimore and to elect him. They chose John Carroll, a former Jesuit whose brother was a friend of George Washington; the future would reveal that the choice was judicious.
The first concern of the new Bishop was to increase his clergy. In 1790, during a stay in Europe for his consecration, he launched an appeal to the French priests who had taken refuge in England to escape the Revolution, but he did not receive any response. Thus, he willingly accepted the proposition of Fr. Emery, the Superior General of the Sulpicians, to found an overseas branch of his famous seminary. The Sulpicians thus prepared themselves a refuge in the event that in Paris the Revolution should threaten them more. On the other hand, these newcomers were priests of quality and would providentially strengthen the American Church : they would be the spearhead of Catholicism in the United States. About thirty Sulpicians disembarked there in 1794, the very year of Elizabeth’s marriage.
A SHORT-LIVED MARITAL BLISS
In fact, Elizabeth was not yet seventeen years old when she was noticed by William Seton, who was twenty-three years of age and the eldest son of a rich banker of the city. Coming back from a long stay in Italy, he was immediately subjugated by the charm of the young lady, whose beauty and piety was equalled only by her cheerfulness. Her goodness was what really won his heart: although it was an unusual thing in the society of that time, she manifested a love for the poor in imitation of her venerated father.
She experienced the most perfect human happiness with her dear William as bear witness her numerous letters; they have been carefully preserved until today because they are radiant with happiness but also with intelligence and good nature. In May 1795 she gave birth to her first daughter. Five other births would follow. She had no domestic worries; she got on perfectly with her husband’s family and remained her father’s consolation and pride. She had two passions: accompanying her father to the bedside of the most wretched sick and reading... Voltaire and Rousseau! Yet, this strange company did not prevent her from taking time to meditate on Holy Scripture after a fine reception. Who could have foreseen that this young Episcopalian woman, this scintillating matron, who entertained the high society of New York with so much charm, would fifteen years later be the foundress of the first Catholic Religious community in the United States!
Without her realising it, the long path of pain and suffering that would make this transformation possible opened before her in January 1798 when her father-in-law died, leaving the young couple with the responsibility for a family of thirteen children and for his business. Unfortunately, William did not have his father’s calibre. He left the greatest part of the family fortune invested in France, so when Napoleon confiscated the American nationals’ wealth in order to punish the young American Republic for not associating itself with his blockade of England, the Setons were unable to avoid bankruptcy. Elizabeth, who then had six children, to whom were added her young brothers- and sisters-in-law, remained impressively calm. She remained unfailingly at her husband’s side, witnessed the sale of the family house and the scattering of the furniture, and suffered the disgrace of bankruptcy.
A few months later, during spring 1801, her father, Dr Bayley, was in turn carried off by a fever epidemic. She was more afflicted by this bereavement than by the ruin because her filial affection was so great. Yet she fortunately found enough strength not to be disheartened, for her husband’s health deteriorated and required all her care.
In the midst of all these trials, she also had the solace of one of her sisters-in-law, Rebecca, at her side. Elizabeth called her « the sister of my soul », and the letters she regularly addressed to her were a veritable intimate diary. Now, Rebecca had married Reverend Henry Hobart, who was a great preacher and the future Episcopalian Bishop of New York. He was also the spiritual adviser of the Setons. He approved of the idea of a trip to Europe to improve William’s health. Elizabeth did not delude herself, but she gladly accepted to accompany her husband and their eldest daughter. On 2 October 1803, they left New York and set off to Genoa in Italy.
The crossing went off smoothly, and William seemed to be regaining his strength when the ship was put in quarantine off Genoa and its passengers were compelled to settle in a lazaret without the slightest comfort. Despite the good care that their Genoese friends, the Filicchis, gave them, they were unable to protect themselves sufficiently against the cold and humidity; William’s health then deteriorated dangerously.
The admirable letters that Elizabeth wrote to Rebecca relate very simply all her trials and reactions. She showed astonishing self-abnegation and piety that command admiration. It was so true that later on, after Rebecca’s death, Protestants laid their hands on her letters and published them in the hope of proving that Elizabeth’s holiness was prior to her conversion to Catholicism! Here, for example, is what she wrote on 1 December: « My poor William! When he hears that I am singing the psalms of our triumph in God or when I read to him with all my soul the words of St Paul, which are fiery with faith in Jesus Christ, I feel that his spirit draws life from them; he applies to himself what he just heard, and all our sadness changes into joy. Ah! I have really every reason to love God and devote all my soul to serving Him! As long as I live and as long as I breathe, I shall sing the praises of God, in time and for all eternity. »
At the end of the quarantine, on 12 December, William regained enough life to be taken to the Filicchis. Yet, on the 24th, his state suddenly deteriorated. In his room, she and he then celebrated the Protestant Lord’s Supper and were comforted by it, for if they did not believe in the Real Presence, this act meant in their eyes that Christ was present at their sides. William gently passed away on 27 December, at the age of thirty-five. Elizabeth, who was twenty-nine years old, found herself a widow and mother of six children, ruined and far from her family!
ATTRACTION FOR THE REAL PRESENCE
She was saved by the friendship of the Filicchis. The Filicchis were first of all Filippo and his wife, but also the young brother, Antonio, with whom Elizabeth would form in all purity a spiritual friendship that would be decisive for her conversion and her vocation. In fact, the Filicchis, who were ardent and intelligent Catholics, would reveal the splendours of the truth of our religion to her with delicate charity. They showed her around Pisa, and especially Florence with its magnificent churches and convents. She attended some ceremonies, not without being impressed by them. She did not hesitate to question her friends but she was not taken in either by their innocent tactics that were aimed at interesting her in Catholicism, and believed that she was impervious to it. Actually one thing appealed to her above all: the Real Presence of Christ in the Catholic Churches, a presence to which the liturgy and architecture bear witness.
One day, in the course of a Mass that Elizabeth attended with her friends, an Anglican stood up at the moment of the Consecration and caused a public scandal by mocking the Real Presence. Filled with indignation, she bowed low with the other faithful and St. Paul’s words then came to mind: « they do not discern the Body of the Lord. » How could St. Paul say these words, she thought, if He were not present! For the first time, she reacted as a Catholic. Yet, she added at once, « these thoughts vanished among those of my little children at home. »
Nevertheless, shortly after, she wrote to Rebecca: « My God, how happy we should be if we believed what these dear friends believe, namely that they possess God in the Blessed Sacrament, that He remains in their churches, and that He is taken to them when they are sick! Ah! my dear! when the Blessed Sacrament is taken and goes by beneath my window, and when I feel my isolation and my distress, I can not hold my tears back. My God, how happy I would be, even being far from those I love, if I could find You in the Church, as the Filicchis find You in their chapel. The other day, in a fit of anxiety, I went down on my knees without thinking about it, when the Blessed Sacrament went by, and, in a kind of agony, I begged God to bless me if He were really present. My soul longs for Him only. »
As Jesus longed for the soul of Elizabeth, faith in the Real Presence in the Eucharist would lead her to the fullness of the Catholic religion.
When she returned to New York in spring, and was providentially accompanied by Antonio Filicchi, who went there for his business, she was not yet Catholic, but she was no longer Protestant. During the crossing, the thought of seeing Pastor Hobart again gripped her ever more. Until these last months, he was the adviser to whom she paid heed, now she knew that she could no longer tell him everything. Therefore, she resolved to write him a touching letter bathed in tears, to ask him to respect her sincerity, « and although you consider that I am mistaken and even reprehensible because of my change of religion, I know that in your affection, divine Christian charity will speak in my favour. If, however, you no longer want to be my brother, if your friendship and your esteem, which are so dear to me, must be the price of my fidelity to what I believe to be the truth, I can have no doubt about God’s mercy who, by depriving me of the dearest bond I have on earth, will surely draw me nearer to Him. » She would not be disappointed in her expectation.
Her return to New York, which was already saddened by the mortal disease of her dear Rebecca, marked the beginning of a long calvary. Following Antonio’s advice, she announced without delay to her husband’s family her intention to convert even though she had not yet made up her mind to do it. The reactions were violent, to say the least, so much so that Elizabeth renounced living with her family and found outside New York a poor house, a part of which she had to rent out to survive. One must not forget that she was without resources.
As for Pastor Hobart, he affected his kindness, for he still hoped to convince his sister-in-law of her error. His captious arguments, which she was unable to refute for lack of sufficient doctrinal knowledge, succeeded in convincing her that the Episcopalian Church was actually only a branch of the Catholic Church, that is to say, the universal Church, and that the separation could be explained by the turpitudes of the Roman Church.
Elizabeth continued therefore to attend the Episcopalian temple, but she did not do so only because of Hobart’s explanations. It was above all because she did not dare to enter into the wretched Catholic church of New York dedicated to St Peter. Lacking all character and dark, this building had nothing of the splendour of the churches she had admired in Italy. As it was only attended by poor people, Elizabeth was terribly repelled by it, the fear of gossip and scandal if she were ever seen going in it! Nevertheless, she did not cease to feel the attraction for the Real Presence! In the temple, she managed to sit on a bench... that was turned towards the Catholic church, and from there, she spoke to the God of the Tabernacle.
« I teach the Catholic religion to my children without making any decisive move, and my great consolation is, in my imagination, to take refuge in a Catholic church. » Yet, her soul knew no rest. « The awful things that still come to mind trouble it and shake my faith. Even if God is good enough to give me the most entire certitude that through the name of Jesus my prayers will eventually be answered, the fact remains nonetheless that at present, a cloud veils my way, while I continually ask Him where the true path is... Yes, really, when the recollection of my sins and of my lack of sanctity before God starts striking my memory and intruding on it powerfully, I just wonder how I can expect so great a favour from Him: the light of His Truth before repentance for my past life inclines His mercy full of pity to grant it to me. »
Fortunately, her friend Antonio was in Boston and in numerous letters, she confided to him the fears of her soul and the consolations that her children gave her. The reading of the life of saints and especially that of St. Francis of Sales, was a great but short-lived comfort to her for she felt separated from them. « Antonio! Antonio! Why can I not be convinced that your religion is still today the religion that was theirs? »
THE TRIUMPH OF JESUS THE HOST
At the end of December 1804, for the first anniversary of William’s death, she was in the depths of despair. She knew the darkest days of her life until, on the day of Epiphany, she opened the writings of Bourdaloue and read this sentence that was a light for her: « It follows that when we no longer discern the star of the Faith, we have to search for it only where it can be found, with those, who hold His Word. There are Doctors and priests in the Church of God as there were formerly, there are men, who are constituted to lead you. It is up to you alone to listen, and they will tell you what you have to do. » Her resolution was taken to go and see the priest of the Catholic parish of New York, but he was absent. This was providential for, following the advice of Antonio, she wrote to the priest of the Boston parish, who was one of those brilliant Sulpician priests: Fr. Jean-Louis de Cheverus. Through his precise doctrinal responses based on Holy Scripture, and his direction marked with the most Salesian gentleness and firmness, he completed the work of grace and would put Elizabeth once and for all on the way to holiness.
On 27 February 1805, she had the courage to enter St Peter’s Church for the first time. It was Ash Wednesday; Astounded, she attended a ceremony which was unknown to her. Yet, as she was irresistibly attracted by the Tabernacle, she knelt down: « Ah my God! she said, allow me to remain here! » On 14 March, she solemnly recanted, made her First Communion on Annunciation Day, and received Confirmation on 26 May. She was more peaceful and happy than ever.
However, all her family ties were broken, and persecution was unleashed. The small primary school where she taught as a schoolmistress was forced to close because of a cabal against it! In order to live, she opened a boarding house for pupils of a Protestant school, but she was continually watched.
Actually, her conversion caused quite a stir, and it was not without reason that the Episcopalian authorities feared the contagion’s spread. Her young, 14-year-old sister-in-law, Cecilia, was the first to follow her. Seriously ill, she asked to see Elizabeth again, and for the occasion, the family council agreed to take up again with the one they had been avoiding like the plague; when they were alone, the child confided to Elizabeth her firm intention to become Catholic. She put Cecilia in contact with the father of her soul. On 25 July 1806, the young girl was welcomed into the Church. When the family learned of it, it was as though it were the end of the world. Chased out of the family home, Cecilia took refuge at Elizabeth’s house. There were more and more conversions in New York, and St Peter’s Church became too small for the Catholic community, which was constantly growing. At Easter 1806, for example, six Protestants recanted there.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth was so persecuted that she considered exiling herself to Quebec or Montreal, where her children could study in Catholic schools, but Fr. de Cheverus forbade her to do so: « Remain in the United States; you are, I think, destined to do considerable good. »
In the autumn of 1806, Antonio returned to Italy. They would not see each other again here below. He had been her guardian angel. Now he could leave; she was no longer alone.
AT THE SERVICE OF THE DIVINE SPOUSE
One day in August 1807, Elizabeth’s life would take an unexpected direction. At St Peter’s Church, at the moment when she advanced to receive Communion, the celebrant, Fr. du Bourg, who did not belong to the parish, received an inner illumination. It showed him in this young widow whom he did not know the cornerstone of the religious community that he desired so much to found. Thus, he sent for her immediately after Mass: without hesitation, he asked her if she would agree to follow him to Baltimore in order to found a school for young girls!
Life had become so painful for her and her children that Elizabeth had no difficulty accepting this proposal straightaway. The school would be officially opened in Mgr Carroll’s Episcopal town, on 9 June 1808 for... six pupils.
Fr. du Bourg, who had understood the influence and the attraction that a religious community could exert in this Protestant society, devoted himself to recruiting other young girls. He found six of them who accepted to put themselves under the direction of her who from then on was called Mother Seton. On 2 June 1809, they pronounced their first vows before Mgr Carroll. It was the first religious congregation for women that was founded in the United States.
As the ardent Sulpician had foreseen, pupils and postulants came to the little house of Baltimore, which served as a cradle to the community, so that an extension had to be quickly planed. However, where would they find financial means, since most of the faithful had no resources? Providence would provide it: one fine day after Mass, Mother Seton was doing her thanksgiving when she distinctly heard a voice saying to her: « Go and address yourself to Mr. Cooper, who will give you what you need to start. » When she informed Fr. du Bourg about this, he wisely refused this entreaty and stated peremptorily: « If this is God’s will, He Himself is able to inspire Mr. Cooper to show himself! » Now, on the very evening, Mr. Cooper, who was a recent convert, knocked on Fr. du Bourg’s door. He enthusiastically explained to the priest that he had just suddenly understood the necessity of opening schools for young girls in order to educate future mothers of families, that it was an essential work for American Catholicism to be able to put down roots and develop, and therefore, he was willing to put his wealth at the disposal of the Church with that aim. After having done an investigation to assure himself that Mother Seton and Mr. Cooper had not consulted each other, Fr. du Bourg faced the facts: God wanted this work!
This was how the nascent community of Mother Seton and the seminary were able to be established in a magnificent domain at Emmitsburg, in the blue mountains, a few miles from Baltimore. The work was entrusted to St Joseph. As the intention of Fr. du Bourg and Mgr Carroll was to found a community similar to that of the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, the latter were asked to send a copy of their Rule, since they could not come themselves. In the meantime, the novices were trained in religious life marked with the greatest poverty and with penance, but also with joy, following the writings of St Francis de Sales. Mother Seton composed textbooks drawing inspiration from French books that she translated. This first nucleus of the American Church was, in fact, most Francophile.
The first winter was very harsh. The sisters visited the sick in the vicinity. The death of Henrietta, one of her sisters-in-law, who had entered the community not long before, was the first bereavement that afflicted the young congregation. Some weeks later, the young Cecilia, the first one who had followed Elizabeth’s example by converting, was called by God.
One day in October 1810, a priest appeared at the parlour. Mother Elizabeth, who did not recognise him, fell to her knees when she heard how he introduced himself: « I am Fr. de Cheverus ». They had been corresponding for six years, she owed him her conversion and her courage in all adversities, and they had never met each other! Appointed Bishop of Boston, he came with the new Bishop of Philadelphia, Mgr Egan, to spend two days in the company of Mother Elizabeth. We can easily imagine their spiritual joy.
Shortly afterwards, good news arrived: The Sisters of Charity of Paris agreed to pass on their Rule. Nevertheless, Mgr Carroll and Fr. du Bourg preferred in an initial stage that Mother Seton’s community abandon the care of the poor in order to devote itself to the education of young girls. They perspicaciously understood that by this means the sisters would have tremendous influence and that they would quickly recruit, which would later enable them to take charge of charity works.
In autumn 1811, the Bishops began to ask for women religious for the dioceses that the Holy See had newly erected in order to support the rapid expansion of the Church in the United States.
TO THE ENCOUNTER WITH THE SPOUSE
Elizabeth would still live eight years in perpetual worries caused by the development of her community, which was still deprived of resources, and amidst persecutions that she and her sisters had to suffer from the Protestants. She also worried greatly inwardly about her two sons, whose education had been difficult. Fortunately, her friends, the Filicchis, would help her by boarding them in Italy for two years; on their return, both would enlist as officers in the US Marines.
She was not spared bereavement. In particular, losing her daughter Anna in 1812 would be especially cruel to her, although she died a holy death; she was only 16 years old and was a novice in the community. In 1816, her youngest daughter, Rebecca, gave up her soul to God like a predestined child, after three months of terrible suffering.
One remains astounded by the work carried out by these first American women religious. Besides caring for her community, training novices, and running the school, Mother Seton also watched over the First Communion preparation of the little black children, which alienated many owners. She also founded a training college for Catholic schoolmistresses.
On top of this already heavy burden, there were difficulties with the ecclesiastical Superiors of the community, who were constantly changing due to the fact that they succumbed to the task of being at the same time parish priest and superior of the seminary. After the departure of Fr. du Bourg, who was appointed Bishop of New Orleans, Mother Seton suffered much from Fr. David, who plotted to send her away from her community in order to control it better. This way of the cross lasted eighteen months until Mgr Carroll understood the situation and replaced him with Fr. Dubois, whose devotion edified the whole community. However, it was especially with his successor, Fr. Bruté de Rémur, that the heart of Mother Seton, ardent and entirely given to Jesus, found the support of a deep spiritual friendship.
Since the meditation of Holy Scripture had made her long for the Holy Eucharist, as it were, before knowing it, we shall not be surprised to see Mother Seton spending long hours at the foot of the Tabernacle. It is from there and from Communion that she drew all the necessary strength to carry out her work and all the virtues, especially that ever so delicate charity, the fragrance of which has reached us through her numerous letters. An answer from the worthy Mgr de Cheverus, the future Cardinal Archbishop of Bordeaux, makes us grasp it: « I read your letter more than twenty times, with ever keener feelings of sadness, affection, admiration and true devotion... Your lines are received as a treasure by the heart of him who is sincerely devoted to you in Our Lord. »
One should, however, not imagine that she had always been filled with consolations. Like all saints, she knew moments of terrible dryness; her correspondence bears witness to this.
During the spring of 1820, when she was only forty-six, she fell seriously ill for the first time. She recovered, but, weakened, she was no longer able to accomplish all her tasks. Fortunately, Providence had brought to her side sisters who were very capable of taking over from her. This did not prevent her from experiencing great missionary desires that she confided to Fr. Bruté de Rémur: she would have liked to go everywhere, and even to China, in order to convert the infidels and die as a martyr.
In winter, the illness came back with an abscess in the lung. She was aware that her days were numbered and was not frightened by it. « If I could only hear the collapse of the walls of my prison, I really do not know how I could bear my joy. » One day, when bringing her Communion, Fr. Bruté de Rémur found her moved to tears. « Mother, he said to her, here is the Lord of peace, do you have some grief? – No, no, just give Him to me! » she answered, revealing thus the fervour of her desire.
On 1 January 1821, Mother Seton took Communion for the last time and received the last sacraments the next day. Despite her exhaustion, she begged pardon of her sisters who were gathered at her bedside and recommended them to remain very united and faithful to the Rule. Then, she very distinctly repeated twice: « Be children of the Church ». It was her felicity; she wanted it to be theirs for all eternity. She gently passed away on 4 January 1821 at 2 a.m. after having repeated the names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
As for her community, it continued to develop. In 1850, it united with the Company of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. They had already been following their Rule from the beginning of the foundation. Mother Seton’s daughters adopted at that time their habit and thus the famous cornet. Before the Council, there were 10,000 sisters in charge of a thousand parish schools, thirty-six orphanages, one hundred six secondary schools, and a hundred seventy hospitals! In addition to this community, there were the 1500 Sisters of Charity, known as the « white bonnet » Sisters, a congregation that resulted from the split that the Bishop of New York caused in 1841 but that still claims to be followers of Mother Seton.
This extraordinary fruitfulness was in the image of that of the Church in the United States, which knew at the same time, the same prodigious extension that was based on Eucharistic devotion and the practise of charity. This will be the subject of our next study.