St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Pray For Us!

When faced with grief and pain, Mother Seton courageously sought truth over comfort.

Amabilia Filicchi, “Elizabeth Ann Seton,” 1888
Amabilia Filicchi, “Elizabeth Ann Seton,” 1888 (photo: Public Domain)

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s journey to Catholicism was not a dramatic Damascene conversion. A woman of lifelong pious devotion in her childhood Anglican faith, she joined the Church not due to blinding light or sudden revelations, but because her suffering showed her there was nowhere else for her to turn but Rome.

Born into a prominent New York Anglican (later Episcopal) family, she was raised to pray, read Scripture and give charitably. She brought these habits into her marriage when she wed a wealthy businessman. Her peaceful, prosperous world soon took a drastic turn as first her husband’s business went bankrupt and then he passed away from tuberculosis, leaving her widowed with five children and no means of supporting them. 

Providentially, shortly before her husband’s death, in a final attempt to save his health, the couple had journeyed with their eldest daughter to Italy in search of a more forgiving climate. Although Elizabeth’s husband died shortly after their arrival, she stayed in the country for some time, living among Italian family friends who introduced to the full beauty of the Catholic faith. 

While in Italy, she realized what had been absent from the religion of her youth. As a child she had been told to pray and to do good works. However, devoid of the absolute truth, these platitudes, however virtuous, could not alone fortify her against her grief. Instead, she found lasting comfort in the 1,800-year-old traditions and teachings of the Catholic Church.

Three particular truths of the Church immediately drew Elizabeth in. The first was the veneration of Mary. Having lost her own mother very young, Elizabeth was immediately taken by the supreme blessing of Mary and her motherhood, a gift which she had never received in her Protestant upbringing. Secondly, Elizabeth could not ignore the beauty of the Eucharist. Having grown up in a faith that rejected that the Eucharist was truly the body and blood of Christ, she was overwhelmed by the sheer love of a God who would choose to be consumed by the faithful in order that they may partake more fully in his grace. Finally, after a lifetime of reading scripture faithfully, Elizabeth could not deny the truth of Apostolic Succession found within Catholicism. She became utterly convinced that Catholicism was the true Church, established by Jesus himself.

A faith that severed her from her holy mother in Heaven and from the body of Christ in the Eucharist could not sustain her. Shortly after returning to New York, Elizabeth joined the Catholic Church (at that time only recently allowed to operate openly in America) in March 1805.

Elizabeth eventually founded a religious community and numerous schools, the precursors to the modern parochial school system in America, while raising her children without her family’s support. Many former friends and acquaintances could not understand how she could choose social ostracization, and often tried to compel her to return to her Anglican roots and the connections she had previously enjoyed.

Thankfully this remarkable woman, who would become the first American-born saint in 1975, was undeterred. Throughout the rest of her life, Elizabeth’s hardships would continue. By the time she died in 1821, she had lost two of her daughters in addition to her beloved husband’s death. Yet as her worldly suffering increased, so too did her unyielding faith. In her spiritual writings she proclaimed:

Oh! If I did not see our Lord in all and trust it to Him, what an aching heart should I have. But not so, I look all the while to our purification, and then to our Eternity, so long — for love and enjoyment.

Elizabeth’s life is a testament to the resilience of a faith that has not been diluted for comfort or ease. Rather than reject God when tragedy struck her family, she instead strove to know him more and to unite herself more fully to his will. Ultimately this meant her recognition that only the one, true, Catholic and apostolic church could grant her peace and consolation amid her suffering. Her conversion may lack the drama of a St. Paul or the complete moral pivot of a St. Augustine, but still we thank God for this holy woman who, when faced with grief and pain, sought truth over comfort. 

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us!