After living through a quarantine, epidemic, and anti-Catholic prejudice, this American saint is a fitting intercessor for our time.
Today marks the 200th anniversary of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s death. It also marks the 46th anniversary of her canonization, at which Pope St. Paul VI declared her—a wife, mother, teacher, religious sister and foundress, and Catholic convert—America’s first native-born saint.
Elizabeth Ann Seton led an extraordinary life. Her “yes” to God bore incredible fruit, but she faced hardship after hardship. She lived during a time of disease, unrest, and economic and political instability. She experienced quarantine, death of her closed loved ones, persecution for her faith, and obstacles to her work. Yet, she always “looked up,” accepting God’s will, holding fast to Him, giving herself entirely to those she was called to love and serve. She is an ideal saint for today’s American Christian who may feel discouraged, fearful or overwhelmed.
Here are three lessons we can take from her life as we begin a new year.
1Holiness is possible in any station in life
Elizabeth Ann Seton has been through it all! Among the saints, she’s unusual for her experience with just about every station in life. At various points, she was a popular socialite, a happy bride, a busy mother of five young children, a destitute and heartbroken widow, a religious sister, a teacher, and the head of a growing religious order.
No matter what’s going on in your life, chances are Elizabeth walked the same road. She understands what you’re going through, and can intercede for you from Heaven.
Most importantly, she loved Christ through all the many changes of her life. She is a radiant example that we too can choose to follow Him, no matter our external circumstances.
2God brings good out of evil
Bad things happen to good people: It’s an inevitable part of life, although it’s hard to accept. But faith can help us “spin straw into gold” and turn our unavoidable trials and suffering into something good.
Sometimes, when we “take up our crosses” as Christ asked us to do, we end up benefiting from the experience or realizing a profound truth. But other times, there’s no silver lining visible. All we can do is offer up this suffering as a prayer and sacrifice, but even this small act has immense redemptive value.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life demonstrates that God can bring good out of evil. She shows us how to pick up our crosses, as Christ did, and use these trials to grow closer to God.
When she traveled to Italy in an attempt to improve her husband’s poor health, the family was instead confined to a torturous quarantine that hastened his early death, because of the yellow fever epidemic in her native New York (which had killed her beloved father). But this miserable period and subsequent time spent in Italy became a blessing: The people she met on the trip led her to convert to Catholicism.
Later, she met with anti-Catholic rejection and persecution in New York. This rejection led her to accept an invitation to move to Maryland, where she established a Catholic school that was free and open to all, with a focus on the poor (at the time, public schools charged tuition and were only available to the well-to-do). Her work began the parochial Catholic school system in the United States.
Suffering can make a person harsh and bitter, or compassionate and understanding. Which response an individual person will have is a bit of a mysterious alchemy. But openness to God’s grace, and turning toward Him to carry the burden with us, seem to make a difference, helping us to be sanctified by hardships.
In each trial of her life, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton showed resilience and cooperation with grace. She clung to God and trusted Him to bring good out of suffering, a model for all of us living through the trials of the pandemic.
3We are called to serve others, however we can
From childhood, Elizabeth found ways to serve those in need, even in the busiest phases of her life.
As a young woman, she nursed the sick and dying among family, friends and needy neighbors. As a young wife and mother, she helped found The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children.
Her efforts to help others, however, really took off after she became a religious sister. She and her order established schools, orphanages, medical missions, and many other charitable institutions.
It’s amazing to see how many different projects came from this one woman! But she always did her utmost to love and serve those around her, and she inspired others to do the same. Then God multiplied those efforts like the proverbial mustard seed.
Her lifetime of service reminds us to seek out ways to help, however we can. Like her, our best efforts, given to God, will be multiplied beyond our imagining.
Be sure to check out the new short film made about the extraordinary life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.