First Native Born U.S. Citizen to be Canonized
One of the most well-known converts in my home country of the United States, is St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774 - 1821). In her lifetime, she went from being born into a prominent and wealthy Episcopalian New York family to marrying, having five children, becoming a widow, converting to the Catholic Church, and founding the Sisters of Charity of St. Josephs' which was committed to educating the young. She would become the first native born U.S. citizen to be canonized and found the first religious order in the United States. However, this story is not as much about her conversion as it is about friendship, especially spiritual friendship.
A Widow with Young Children
In 1804, Elizabeth returned to her hometown of New York City from Italy along with her oldest daughter Anna Maria. She had left less than a year before with her husband William Seton in a last ditch effort to help him recover his health in the warmer climate of the Apennine Peninsula. In a blow to Elizabeth who was only twenty-nine, her husband had succumbed to tuberculosis and died.
Thus, Elizabeth was now a widow with five young children. All might have been well if she had chosen the conventional path of getting married or remaining within her social realm. However, Elizabeth had a secret in her heart as she disembarked from the ship and was greeted by friends and family. Elizabeth the devout Episcopalian was about to become Elizabeth the devout Catholic.
During her months in Italy, Elizabeth had been introduced to the Catholic Church by her hosts Antonio and Amabilia Fillichi. When she learned about the truths of the Faith, she was enamored and interested. Then, when she understood that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, she was amazed and convinced.
Becoming Catholic and Facing Persecution
In general, in the United States, there was a great deal of anti-Catholic sentiment. The pope was considered a foreign ruler who would only cause Americans to split their loyalty. And, many Catholic countries in Europe were considered no better than the monarchy of Great Britain which the Americans had fought and won to be free from its tyranny. On top of that, the society to which Elizabeth and been born and into which she had married with her late husband was firmly Episcopalian in sentiment, if not practice, and brooked no favors to Catholics. To her family and social circle, Catholics were the rough and ill-mannered immigrants with a foreign religion.
Thus, in spite of those obstacles, on Ash Wednesday of 1805 at St. Peter's Church in lower Manhattan, Elizabeth was received into the Catholic Church along with her five children. She took a step of faith and made a break. To say that her conversion was poorly received by many of her friends and family would have been an understatement. She received everything from being ridiculed to being shunned.
For the next several years, Elizabeth would struggle, not in her commitment to the Catholic Church, but in supporting her young family through her teaching. However, like many converts, she was filled with zeal. And Elizabeth's zeal combined with her gift for friendship proved to be a magnet for at least one of her family members.
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A Very Good Friend Indeed
Elizabeth had the gift of friendship. She was very good at making and keeping friendships. One of her secrets is that she was unabashed about letting her friends know how much she appreciated them for who they were. The other traits that shined forth in her friendships was that she was very loyal, kindhearted, and made important connections, particularly spiritual ones with her friends.
Some of her best friends turned out to be her sisters-in-law Harriet and Cecilia Seton. They both became quite devoted to her after the death of their father William Seton, Sr. when Elizabeth had served as a mother figure to both of them. Cecilia, in particular, because she matched Elizabeth in her religious devotion, had bonded very strongly with Elizabeth before she had left for Italy.
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Keeping in Touch
The Seton family was wary of too much contact with Elizabeth now that she was Catholic, and they exiled Cecilia by having her live with her older brother in his house on the Hudson River where the present day Forty-Third Street is located. Their concerns, from their perspective, were justified as Cecilia was growing more interested in the Catholic Faith. Despite the family disapproval, Cecilia was not afraid to keep up her pursuit. She had never been one of great health, but despite her physical frailty, she possessed good spiritual perseverance which might be attributed to the Seton family stubbornness.
Although not allowed to meet face-to-face, Elizabeth and Cecilia maintained a continuous dialogue through daily notes that were sent to one another usually through Cecilia's brother Sam who was more loyal to his sister than to the family line against Elizabeth.
The notes from Elizabeth were filled with remarkable spiritual direction. Only a convert of several months and only familiar with the teachings of the Church for not too much longer than that, Elizabeth quickly absorbed and assimilated what she learned. Using this knowledge along with her gift for teaching, she would apply this spiritual wisdom to meet Cecilia where she was. The teaching was concise and appropriate and answered Cecilia's questions, but even more so helped her grow spiritually as she learned the tenets of the Catholic Faith.
Cecilia and Elizabeth also had fun with their surreptitious notes. They gave humorous nicknames to people even as they shared about matters of the most importance.
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Illness, Threats, and Being Received
Then like so many Setons, Cecilia's health grew worse with symptoms of tuberculosis, and Elizabeth was in a quandary. She was concerned for the child's soul, but knew that too much effort to help with Cecilia might shut the door completely to her access to her. After getting the advice from a friendly priest on how to go about addressing the issue delicately, Elizabeth was prepared. However, Cecilia quickly rebounded from her illness.
Finally, Cecilia who was all of sixteen years of age announced to her family her intentions to enter the Catholic Church. The news was like a bombshell and the threats in response were dramatic. The family was aghast that their own flesh and blood would become a Catholic. Elizabeth was only connected through marriage, but this was one of their own.
The family threatened to send Cecilia to the West Indies and to completely shun Elizabeth and her children. Because some of the family were members in the legislature, there were threats to have a law passed that would exile Elizabeth and her children from the state of New York. Cecilia stood firm and maintained that the decision was all her own. She left her brother's home leaving a note of explanation and then went to Elizabeth. Three days later she was received into the Catholic Church. She had come home.
Frail in body, but firm in spirit, Cecilia would remain loyal to the Catholic Church and she would remain loyal to Elizabeth. Several years later, she would join Elizabeth in Baltimore, Maryland as the foundation for the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's was being set. Sadly, however, her poor health would catch up to her, and Cecilia would die less than a year before the order was formally started.
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