St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
was a typical American woman in almost every respect and reflected in her life many of the qualities that we associate with American Catholicism at its best. Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in New York City of non-Catholic parents and was brought up in the doctrine and practice of the Episcopal Church. Even as a child and a young girl, she gave evidence of seriousness of purpose and a piety out of the ordinary. As we might expect from her background and the time in which she lived, Elizabeth Bayley’s spirituality was largely rooted in the Scriptures.
At the age of nineteen, she married William Magee Seton, a wealthy and socially prominent gentleman. Their married life was exceptionally happy and was blessed by five children, but after only ten years it was ended by the death of her husband in Italy. During the illness that brought him to the grave, the Setons were the guests of an exemplary Catholic family, the Filicchis of Leghorn and Pisa. The young widow remained with this family for some time after her husband’s death and in these Catholic surroundings, was drawn to the Catholic faith. After her return to America, her attraction to the Catholic faith increased, though for a time she continued to belong to the Episcopal Church. On the feast of the Epiphany in 1805, she determined to seek instruction in the Catholic faith and entered the Church on March 14, 1805 at the age of 31.
By embracing the Catholic faith and abjuring Protestantism, she cut herself and her children off from any support from her family. For a time, she opened a school in New York to earn money for the support of her children. In 1808 she accepted an invitation to come to Baltimore and open a school for girls near St. Mary Seminary. Other young women came to join her in this work and gradually, almost without being aware of it, they formed a kind of religious community. At the urging of Bishop Carroll and Fr. Dubourg, Mrs. Seton formed these women into a definite sisterhood with a rule and a religious habit. They were the first native American community of sisters. Their rule was an adaptation of the rule of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and they called themselves Sisters of Charity. In 1809, they moved to their new home at Emmitsburg. There, Mother Seton, as she had now become, passed the remaining years of her life, enduring great hardships with courage and joy. She was distinguished for her spirit of prayer and her love of the cross. The small band of women that first joined her grew, even in her lifetime, into an expanded community, and its real development took place after her death. Today, thousands of religious in all parts of the United States regard her as their foundress and her spirit lives on in the many-sided apostolate of hospitals, schools, orphanages, and other institutions staffed by her spiritual daughters who draw inspiration and guidance from this truly valiant woman.
St. Vincent de Paul
was a shepherd boy who became a priest and a great Apostle of Charity. Born in Southern France in 1581, he was educated at Toulouse where he was ordained to the priesthood. First a country pastor, then a missionary in rural districts of France he was later appointed chaplain to the galley slaves. In 1625, he founded the Priests of the Mission (C.M.), called Vincentians after him, to evangelize the people in the country districts. In 1632, he founded the Daughters of Charity, the first modern congregation of sisters, devoted, as their name shows, to all the works of charity. He was one of the founders of the seminary movement in France and dedicated himself to the training of the clergy. He died on September 27, 1660 at the age of seventy-nine and was canonized in 1727.
St. Catherine Labouré
is chiefly famous for being the one who received the vision of the well-known Miraculous Medal in 1830. She was a Daughter of Charity, born in France in 1806 and died in Paris seventy years later. There was little of the extraordinary in her life. She seems to have been distinguished only for her fidelity to the rule of her congregation.
St. Louise de Marillac,
born in Paris in 1591, was married in 1613 to Antoine Le Gras and widowed twelve years later. Under the direction of St. Vincent de Paul, she founded the Daughters of Charity in 1629 and spent over thirty years in this work. She died with a reputation for holiness in 1660.
(drawn from a document prepared by Reverend William O’Shea, D.D. for the dedication of the First Solemn Mass in Saint Ambrose Church, Cheverly Maryland)