St. Elizabeth Seton: a Saint of Wall Street
Why talk about Elizabeth Seton on the first night of our mission at St. Margaret’s Church? She’s an American saint who lived in a crucial period in our country’s history; she actually lived on Wall Street for awhile. She faced some of the things we face today in American society.
In her 46 years of life, she experienced many changes. As we face changes today, many similar to hers, we can learn from her to keep searching for God through them all.
Here’s a biography of Mother Seton: http://emmitsburg.net/setonshrine/
1. She tells us to seek God faithfully day by day.
The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (pages 1-8) offers her as an example of the human quest for God. “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.” (Augustine, Confessions)
In her 46 years of life she experienced loneliness in her youth, prosperity as a happily married woman with a good husband and five children, suffering brought by financial loss and her husband’s death,
In her religious search, first as an Anglican, then as a Catholic she tried to serve God as well as she could. She thirsted for God and sought to do his will.
Life changes us too. We may face an unknown future, not only personally, but as a world and as a church. Elizabeth Seton says: seek God through these experiences.
2. She’s an example of finding God in the world you live in.
Elizabeth Seton was born into a privileged world. Her father, Richard Bayley (1744-1801), was a distinguished physician who taught medicine at Kings College, later Columbia University, and was first Health Officer of the Port of New York.
Dedicated to medicine and medical research, he traveled back and forth to England to learn the latest in his field. He was a health-care crusader, who fought against diseases like yellow fever that regularly infested the city, especially its vulnerable immigrant population.
Her husband William Seton was part of a family that made its fortune in banking and shipping. He was a classic American entepreneur. Elizabeth and her husband belonged to a world that included Alexander Hamilton and other members of the America’s elite. She enjoyed the cultural and social benefits status brought her.
William’s shipping interests gained the family a fortune, but shipping was a risky business and just as easily could collapse and bring financial disaster. In 1802, it did.
From great wealth the Setons were plunged into bankruptcy. Elizabeth supported her husband, now failing in health, by taking him on a sea voyage to Italy to visit some business friends, the Filicchis, in Livorno.
Her husband died in the quarantine station in Livorno, with Elizabeth and her little daughter at his side; she was left a widow with no financial resources.
3. What spiritual resources did she draw upon?
A childhood loneliness led her to look to God for support. She found God in the beauties of nature, in the scriptures and in devotional books that brought her comfort.
The church that first supported her was Trinity Church in downtown New York City. The Bayleys and Setons were Anglicans, and Trinity Church, with its annex St. Paul’s Church, was the parish church of the city’s elite.
In her time the Anglican Church in America was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, a movement that put its hopes in human reason and science.
By the later colonial period, writes Anglican historian, David L. Holmes “Following the lead of the left wing of the Enlightenment (of which Benjamin Franklin represents a prime example), large numbers of Anglican gentry came to believe that reason and science provided all-sufficient guides for believing in God and living morally; any special revelation that occurred through Scripture, they decided, was superfluous or in need of radical pruning. They were intent on returning humanity to a primitive natural religion consisting in belief in the existence of God and a simple morality.” (A Brief History of the Episcopal Church , Valley Forge, PA 1993 p 40)
Alexander Pope expressed the opinion famously:
Presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
Elizabeth’s father and her husband were men of the Enlightenment, absorbed in their careers and their business. Revealed religion, prayer, were not important to them.
Elizabeth said that the only time she heard her father mention the name of God was on his deathbed. She complains that her husband Will never shared in her own religious insights, until he came to die in Italy.
The two men most dear to her belonged to the church, regularly attended its services, but saw it mainly as an institution for upholding moral principles rather than as a place of God’s revelation.
However, as a married woman, in Trinity Church, Elizabeth’s spiritual life grew. A new assistant minister, John Henry Hobart, came to Trinity in 1800 and was part of a reforming movement that gradually influenced the Anglican church. In the mid 1800’s it’s most prominent expression was the Oxford Movement, one of whose leaders was John Henry Newman.
Reverend Hobart led Elizabeth to a life of daily prayer, the reading of scripture, a devotion to Jesus Christ, and a life of charity, helping widows and orphans from Trinity church.
Today we still experience the effects of the Enlightenment. Commentators say we are living in an age of secularization. (Charles Taylor, An Age of Secularization, Harvard University, 2002) One of our greatest challenges today is to engage those who, like Richard Bayley and William Seton, are deeply involved in the world, but have little interest in any revelation of God or in church.
Elizabeth and Catholicism
After the death of her husband in Livorno the Filicchi family took Elizabeth and her little daughter into their home there and treated her with exquisite kindness. They were devout Catholics who knew their faith well and invited their American guests to church with them. The liturgy of the church was a revelation to Elizabeth, especially the Mass. She wrote home to a friend:
“How happy we would be, if we believed what these dear souls believe–that they possess God in the Sacrament, and that He remains in their churches and is carried to them when they are sick…O God! How happy I would be…if I could find You in the church as they do…”
The Catholic Church, which was only a poor tiny congregation in her native New York, suddenly became for her a place that revealed Jesus Christ.
When she returned to New York City, she decided, against the strong objections of her friends and family, to become a Catholic.
In his history of the Catholic Church in the United States, “A Faithful People” (2008) James O’Toole describes the Catholic Church that Elizabeth Seton entered in 1805 as a “priestless, popeless” congregation, held together by believers who kept the Catholic faith alive in their homes and through occasional visits from the few priests who had come to the New World.
It was a “popeless church” because the popes of the late 18th and early 19th century struggled under the crushing control of Europe’s monarchs and could pay little attention to the faithful at the far ends of the earth.
It is extraordinary that Elizabeth Seton would enter the Catholic Church in America at this time, which had few members, little status and was thought of largely as a suspect religion.
Can we in a declining American church today, as priests become fewer and parishes close, find her faith in the church an example?
After a few hard years as a Catholic in New York City, largely abandoned by family and friends, Elizabeth was invited by Bishop John Carroll to go to Maryland, where there were more Catholics to establish a school and support her family.
Elizabeth’s years in Maryland marked the beginning of a new period in American Catholic history. Not only did she establish a small school, but she began a community of religious women, the Sisters of Charity. Eventually her community, joined by others, would establish networks of schools, hospitals and social endeavors that became the backbone of the church in America.
As millions of Catholic immigrants arrived in America in the mid 1800’s growing numbers of women religious welcomed them to the Catholic Church and formed the great immigrant church that became the face of Catholicism in America. American women religious were at the heart of a growing church. We owe them an enormous debt.
Elizabeth Seton invites us to look at our own role in the world we live in and in our church. She was a woman of prayer and she invites us to be people of prayer. So many of her decisions came through prayer. Ours must come through prayer too.
She reminds us that our quest for God takes place in the life and the world where God places us. We live in a secularized world; how do we engage it? We live in a changing church; how do we help it fulfill its divine destiny? As children of the church we must draw close to her .
This is our time to seek God.