St Elizabeth Ann Seton

Foundress of the Sisters of Charity of St Joseph (entered heaven this day in 1821)

Dear Eliza,

Never fear, Uncle Eddy is here.  I have the perfect motto for your New Year – though I have to admit I didn’t invent it; today’s saint did.  Here it is: Do God’s will each moment, as he wills it, because he wills it. Here’s how Mother Seton put it in her own words: “What was the first rule of our dear Savior’s life? You know it was to do his Father’s will. Well, then, the first purpose of our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner he wills; and thirdly, to do it because it is his will.”  How’s that for simplicity? I know your next question: but how do I know what God’s will is? Don’t be complicated, my vivacious niece. You know God’s will. It’s living as Christ lived: following the commandments (which means knowing what they entail), finding ways to serve your neighbor, treating people as Christ would have you treat them, keeping up a robust life of prayer, fulfilling the duties of your state in life (which happens to be that of a single woman studying in college), and responding to life’s challenges with faith and ingenuity.  Your conscience will help you, and the Holy Spirit will guide you if you let him. Mother Seton can also help, both by her intercession and by her example.

Her story is remarkable.  In many ways, she reminds me of you.  She was a beautiful and elegant young woman, who received the finest education through her Episcopalian parents, who were both members of New York’s social elite.  She knew her reading, writing, and arithmetic, but she also was an excellent musician, an accomplished equestrian, a fluent French speaker, a model of fashionable good taste, and a favorite conversationalist among her circles.  It’s no wonder William Seton fell in love with her, and she with him. They were married and had five children, but difficulties soon marred the marriage. First, William’s finances crumbled, and they were forced into bankruptcy.  Then her eldest son took ill. Then they had to move into her father’s house (they had nowhere else to go). He in turn soon fell victim to rampant yellow fever, while her husband’s tuberculosis only worsened. They were advised to travel to Italy, where a change of climate might help him.  Instead, they were quarantined in the port where they anchored, due to the yellow fever epidemic. Forty days of freezing cold, cramped and wet quarters, and minimal nourishment finished William off.

Elizabeth spent the next months with family friends in Italy, under whose influence her interest in the Catholic Church grew, especially because of the doctrine of the Real Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist.  When she returned to the States, she already wanted to become a Catholic herself, but doubts assailed her – along with opposition from all her friends, families, and acquaintances. Living off of handouts from these very friends, she still found the courage to follow where Jesus was leading her and was received into the Catholic Church.  It caused a wave of scandal throughout New York’s high society.

More alone than ever and caring for her four children on no regular income, the bishop of Baltimore (the famous John Carroll) invited her to come to his diocese and start a school for girls.  She accepted the offer gratefully, though it was painful to uproot herself permanently from her native New York. Thus began the parochial school system that has become the pride of the Church in the US.  Elizabeth not only opened a school, but she eventually started a religious order, the Sisters of Charity of St Joseph, which numbered 7000 by the American Bicentennial in 1976. But yet another litany of suffering awaited her between her arrival in Baltimore and her slow, painful death by tuberculosis in 1821 at age 47.  Her two sisters-in-law (who had also converted and joined her) fell sick and died, as did two of her own daughters. Seething invectives from New York tracked her down in Baltimore. Exceeding poverty weighed heavily on her first schools, along with opposition and envy from clergy, ballooning demand for more sisters, and an unpropitious spiritual director.  Through it all, she persevered.

And how?  By following her rule.  It will have more of an impact now that you know how much suffering its author had to undergo in order to fulfill God’s will.  Here it is again: “What was the first rule of our dear Savior’s life? You know it was to do his Father’s will. Well, then, the first purpose of our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner he wills; and thirdly, to do it because it is his will.”  It’s a motto that filled St Elizabeth with joy and meaning and fruitfulness among this earthly life’s twists and turns. I think it could do the same for you. Why not give it a try?

Your loving uncle, Eddy

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