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BY Susan Baxter
Sometimes, a saint won't wait to be asked.
I was a senior in high school in a little Pennsylvania coal-mining community. My father was gravely ill, my mother struggling to feed eight hungry mouths and make the payments on a hefty mortgage. There was very little to eat, and our clothes made us easy targets for ridicule at our public high school. I was a mess in more ways than one — not only disheveled, but a lousy student, too.
In April of my senior year, I realized that most of the kids I knew were all set to start college in the fall. They had been accepted, had scholarships. I was the only one in my orbit with no goals. Then, one day, a catalog arrived in the mail from Seton Hill College, a small Catholic school in Greensburg, Pa. At the time, it was a woman's college. I didn't notice my mother watching me as I leafed through the catalog, turning the idea of college over in my mind. In the book's center was a picture of a student walking past a white marble state of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton — then Blessed Elizabeth Ann — who was shrouded by a swirl of blowing snow.
“Wonder who that is,” I thought. “Must be some saint or something.” I tossed the book aside.
“What do you think of that college, honey?” my mother asked.
“It's a girl's school,” I huffed. “Plus it looks like only snobby little mucketymucks get to go there.”
“Well, it has an application in the back,” she said. “Why don't you fill it out, just for the heck of it?”
I scanned the form, sneering when I saw that it cost $25 just to send it in, and told my mom that she might just as well flush her money right down the toilet because no decent college would take me. Besides, even if by some miracle I actually got accepted, how would we pay for it? It was four times more expensive than the local junior college and scholarships only go to smart kids. At her insistence, I filled out the application and forgot about it.
Three weeks later, my guidance counselor informed me that I had been accepted. I scoffed. “Yeah, and who's going to pay for it?” I said. “You?”
“I believe there's a reason you have this chance,” he said. “You have to admit it's pretty amazing they even took you. Your parents filed an application for financial aid. Accept this offer, and I believe the same power responsible for this miracle will make certain it's paid for.” I knew he was a Catholic but I was still a little surprised to hear him talking about the situation in religious terms.
I scoffed again. But he was right. Two weeks after I said yes to Seton Hill College, I heard from the Sister of Charity who was director of financial aid. She sent me a pink paper showing a series of dollar figures all the way down the page. I didn't understand, but when my father took a look, his eyes filled with tears.
“I don't believe it,” he said. “They've covered everything. With the work-study job they've given you in the cafeteria, even your books will be paid for.”
The following winter, I found myself in front of the statue, in the snow. She was more beautiful in person, and her living sisters, my teachers, were geniuses. Tough as diamonds and twice as brilliant. They taught me many important lessons, not the least of which was that college was for me. I quickly recognized that education isn't just valuable; it's priceless. I worked hard and, at the Fall Honors Convocation, was recognized for earning high grades.
By Christmas on “The Hill,” I noticed an odd affinity for this little community of sisters. Despite still-frequent mistakes, I found myself drawn to the story of the founder, Blessed Elizabeth Ann, and those brave women who followed her. One night, in the middle of the night, the chapel bell began to toll. We all jumped out of bed like children on Christmas Eve: Our foundress was no longer a blessed. She was a saint.
After the 100 rings from the old bell had ceased, I stared out the window at the moon, and spoke to the quiet, jubilant air: “Mother Seton, are you the reason I'm here? Saint Elizabeth Ann, did you help me, did you pray for me before I even knew how to ask?”
I knew then that she'd chosen me. Before I even knew enough to cry for help, she'd gone to the Father and said, “This one. I'll take this one.” She prayed for me and never gave up. She'd picked me to be one of her miracles not because it would be a provable, measurable miracle for her portfolio in Rome. She did it because, without knowing it, I needed her. That's what saints do.
I made more mistakes. I was granted a full fellowship to graduate school and blew it. I did eventually get a master's degree, but not without a great deal more drama than was necessary.
Two years ago, I brought my husband and children to Emmitsburg, Md., where the Sisters of Charity were founded. Among the monuments at the shrine to St. Elizabeth Ann, there's a big rock, “Mother's Rock,” where the saint taught on Sunday afternoons. I was struck with awe as I realized: There, on that rock, Saint Elizabeth Ann taught women who became sisters who taught other women who became sisters who taught me. And on this rock God has built my faith.
She is still with me, of course, praying my children through their school years and interceding for me daily. Sometimes I fail to see her loving hand in the business of my days, but, now and then, God provides a reminder.
Recently, we moved to a city where my children could attend Catholic school. I was so excited, but just a little disappointed that the parish and school didn't bear my patron saint's name. Oh, well, I thought. Maybe I'm being led to another patron for the next phase of my life.
It wasn't until after the kids had been there a month that I saw God's little love note: Our parish and school take up an entire city block. The two streets that border the complex have familiar names: Elizabeth Street ... and Ann Street.
Amen, OK? I get it. My kids are in good hands, and the Church's communion of heroes is always way ahead of us — always watching for us, always praying. Always leading us deeper into life in Christ.
Susan Baxter writes from Mishawaka, Indiana.