The heroism and love of Elizabeth Seton
By HILARY KNIGHT
TODAY I am going to tell you about Elizabeth Seton--not a canonised saint, but a valiant woman.
She was born in New York in 1774, one of three sisters. Her mother died when she was three, and her father, who was a doctor, died in 1801, when she was a young married woman.
Boatloads of poor Irish immigrants were arriving at the port of New York at that time, and on arrival they had to go into quarantine, usually for yellow fever. Elizabeth's father used to go and tend them.
Writing about this to her cousin, Elizabeth says: "Rebecca, I can no longer sleep, The dead and dying obsess my mind. Babes perishing on the empty breasts of expiring mothers. This does not proceed from my imagination; it is the very scene that lies about
me. My father says that no one has ever seen the like of it . .
0 God, Merciful Father, how gladly would I give to each of these poor little creatures a part of the inheritance of my own child . ."
Elizabeth's father wouldn't let her wean her own baby (her fifth) so as to feed the starving; but very soon he had caught his patients' fever, and died.
ELIZABETH'S busband, William Seton, whom she had married at the age of nineteen, was tubercular, and had been advised to go to Italy. Thither he and Elizabeth and their eldest child, Anna (8), went in the autumn of 1803, sole passengers in a little brig under the command of Captain and Mrs. O'Brien.
After a crossing of 56 days there was another quarantine drama, for the Setons were clapped into a "lazaretto" on arrival in Leghorn, where they had to stay for 30 days (precisely because of the yellow fever that was known to be infecting New York). Their room seems to have been a sort of dungeon, cold and damp.
THROUGHOUT this ordeal Elizabeth's inspiring love of, and trust in, God (she was a "Trinitarian"), was her mainstay:
"Read and jumped the rope to warm myself; looked round our prison and found our situation was beautiful; comforted my William all I could, rubbed his hands, wiped his tears, and gave words to his soul, which was too weak to pray for itself. Heard Anna read while I watched the sun setting in a cloud; after both were asleep. read and prayed again till eleven , Once out of the "lazaretto", and in lodgings in Pisa, William died (December 27). Elizabeth recorded in her diary : "I did not take a mouthful all that day, which was passed on my knees by his bedside."
After William's death, Elizabeth and little Anna stayed on with Italian friends, and Elizabeth became acquainted with the Catholic Church.
ON her return to New York (in a boat called the "Flamingo" commanded by Captain Blagg, again taking nearly two months), Elizabeth grappled• for two years with the claims of the Catholic Church, which was against all the traditions of her own and her husband's family. The central thing with her was the Eucharist; once she
believed in transubstantiation, there seas no other problem : everything was peace and bliss.
She was received into the Church in March 1805, and her five children too. But she was ostracised by many old friends. and life was very hard, especially as her husband had left her almost penniless. She tried, without success, to start a school for her own children and others. She was now 31.
Then a French priest, Fr. Du Bourg, came into her life. He was from Baltimore and said he wanted her to start a school there. So off she went. with the children, delighted to see the last of New York.
DACA STREET, Balti more, and Emmitsburg in the country nearby, saw the first free Catholic schools in the United States. But that was by no means the end of Elizabeth's achievement. She introduced St. Vincent de Paul's Sisters of Charity into the United States, who were almost the first nuns to be there. It happened like this. The school at Pace Street found itself becoming a centre, too, for young girls who wanted to be nuns— Cecilia O'Conway, Maria Murphy, Susan Classy and others—not to mention Elizabeth herself. And as there was not a tradition of nuns yet in the States, Elizabeth asked Fr. Do Bourg's advice as to what sort of congregation they should he. And he suggested the Sisters of Charity.
DEATH, in those terrible days. of tuberculosis. still dogged heroic and most lovable Elizabeth — or Mother Seton as she should now he called. Two of her daughters died—little Anna (by now a postulant), and the youngest, Rebecca, aged 14.
Mother Seton died of T.B. at the age of forty-seven in 1821 (the year we associate with Keats's death), having lived a life of quite incredible dedication, love and achievement.