Tom Nash is a Contributing Apologist and Speaker for Catholic Answers, a Contributing Blogger for the National Catholic Register, a Contributor for Catholic World Report and a Research Associate at Ave Maria Radio. Tom formerly served as a Theology Advisor at EWTN and is the author of What Did Jesus Do?: The Biblical Roots of the Catholic Church (Incarnate Word Media) and The Biblical Roots of the Mass (Sophia Institute Press). He is also a Regular Member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
As we celebrate Catholic Schools Week, I fondly remember my own educational heritage. I was blessed to go to Father Gabriel Richard High School, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and St. Mary of Redford Grade School in Detroit, which is now closed, though the parish thankfully endures. And St. Thomas the Apostle School in Ann Arbor, the school of my present-day parish, is getting ready to celebrate its 150th anniversary next year.
Nuns used to be the backbone of Catholic education in America, and I received a solid Christian formation by a good number of the IHM Sisters who taught at St. Mary’s. And it was another nun, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who blazed a trail for Catholic education in America that endures to the present day, serving as a role model for both lay teachers and men and women religious, as well as for the faithful in general.
Like St. Paul and many others, Elizabeth experienced God’s perfecting power amidst her weakness and suffering (see 2 Cor. 12:8-10). Elizabeth experienced trial and tragedy early in her life, first in losing her mother at age 3, and then in by being rejected by her stepmother when her father remarried. Following the death of her own husband—William Magee Seton—after nine years of marriage and five children, Elizabeth’s journey to the Catholic Church began. It started in Italy, where she, her husband and her oldest daughter Anna Maria had gone to seek a better climate to treat William’s tuberculosis, staying with devout Catholic relatives of her husband’s business associate, and then back in Boston with the business associate himself— Filippo Filicchi—and his family.
When she returned to her native New York, Elizabeth’s love for and trust in God helped her overcome the ostracization by family and friends when she converted in 1805: “Alas, where is my star?” she once wrote to a Catholic friend in Italy. “I seek but God and his Church and expect to find my peace in them.”
And God did not let her down. In time, with the assistance of Sulpician priest Father Louis Dubourg and Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, she opened St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School in Emmitsburg in 1810, the first free Catholic School for girls staffed by woman religious in the United States, and some of her children were its first students. And that religious community which she founded—the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s—was the first one birthed on U.S. soil.
In addition, Elizabeth’s wisdom as a school teacher has even more relevance today: “If I had to advise parents, I should tell them to take great care about the people with whom their children associate. . . . Much harm may result from bad company, and we are inclined by nature to follow what is worse than what is better” (emphasis added).
Beyond a radical trust in God’s will, Elizabeth was fueled by her beloved Eucharistic Jesus: “Our Lord Himself I saw in this venerable Sacrament,” she once exulted. “I felt as if my chains fell, as those of St. Peter at the touch of the Divine messenger. My God, what new scenes for my soul!” And reflecting on the trials of her own life and those of other Catholics, she said, “Can you expect to go to heaven for nothing? Did not our Savior track the whole way to it with His tears and blood?”
Elizabeth died in 1821, and, as her national shrine in Emmitsburg proclaims, “Her enduring legacy now includes six religious communities with more than 5,000 members, hundreds of schools, social service centers, and hospitals throughout America and around the world.” At the time of her canonization in 1975, Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York, summarized her life well:
In Elizabeth Ann Seton we have a saint for our times. . . . a woman of faith for a time of doubt and uncertainty . . . a woman of love for a time of coldness and division . . . a woman of hope for a time of crisis and discouragement. Thanks be to God for this saintly daughter of New York, for this valiant woman of God's Church!
Amen. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us.