Celebrating the life of St. Elizabeth Anne Setton

Shrine to St. Elizabeth Setton
Photo: KJM
Today would be the memorial of St. Elizabeth Anne Setton but obviously the second Sunday after Christmas takes precedence. Given my love of the saints, I count myself very blessed to have been able to visit many saints tombs, birth places, places of conversion and strong spiritual experiences.

During my stay in New York last Christmas 2013 I had the opportunity to visit the Shrine to St. Anne Seton there. It is quite a strange architectural juxtaposition against the dizzying skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline. Located directly across from entrance to the Staten Island ferry, it is hard to miss and definitely merits a visit. It is a beautiful red-brick stately building which pays homage to St. Elizabeth Anne Setton.
Her story is quite interesting.

Convert to Roman Catholicism; foundress of the American Sisters of Charity, which was the first sisterhood native to the United States; a wife, mother, widow, sole parent, foundress of the American Parochial school system, educator, social minister, and spiritual leader, she was the first person born in the United States to become a canonized saint! That is quite the biography!


Sadly she was widowed in 1803 with five children, but at the age of 29, she was inspired to convert to Catholicism after receiving aid from her husband's business associates, the devoutly Catholic Fillichi family. An Irish priest, Fr. Matthew O'Brien, received Elizabeth's profession of the Catholic faith at Saint Peter's Church, Barclay Street in lower Manhattan, on the 14th of March 1805. She received her First Communion two weeks later on the 25th of March. Bishop John Carroll (1735-1815, later archbishop), whom she considered her spiritual father, confirmed her the next year on Pentecost Sunday. For her Confirmation name Elizabeth added the name of Mary to her own and thereafter frequently signed herself "MEAS," which was her abbreviation for Mary Elizabeth Ann Seton. Accordingly the three names, Mary, Ann, and Elizabeth, signified the moments of the mysteries of Salvation for her.


Shrine to St. Elizabeth Setton
Photo: KJM
Shortly thereafter she accepted an offer to open a Catholic girls' school in Baltimore. Hospitals, charities, and several more schools such as Manhattan's St. Patrick Elementary School followed before her death in 1821 at the age of 47. The resilient structure at 7 State Street dates from 1793—the year Washington delivered his second inaugural address—and miraculously survived the Great Fire of 1835. Nearly 50 years later it was developed into a Church. Seton’s shrine, housed in an adjacent wing added in 1964, is an unfettered, whitewashed chapel with a modest series of illustrations depicting her pious life.
The Church is quite small but I was very happy to see people quietly praying when we went in as well as a group of seminarians praying their Evening Prayer. Although the Church itself is quite dark it does house some beautiful works of art such as stained glass windows. Located behind the altar depict landmarks from Seton's spiritual journey such as St. Peter's Church on Barclay Street, where Seton underwent her conversion ceremony, and the Stone House in Baltimore where she lived and founded the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph's in 1809.



Shrine to St. Elizabeth Setton
Photo: KJM
I continue to marvel at the different saints and how God guides their path of holiness, each one different from the other. St. Elizabeth Anne even founded a religious order of which she was elected Mother Superior. Many joined the community; even her own daughter, Anna, who sadly died during her novitiate (12 March, 1812), but had been permitted to pronounce her vows on her death-bed. Mother Seton had great facility in writing. 13 vols. of letters, diaries, and documents by Mother Seton as well as information concerning her, are in the archives of the mother-house at Emmitsburg, Maryland. Besides the translation of many ascetical French works,(including the life of Saint Vincent de Paul, she has left copious diaries and correspondence that show a soul all on fire with the love of God and zeal for souls. Great spiritual desolation purified her soul during a great portion of her religious life, but she cheerfully took the royal road of the cross. She was beatified in 1963 and canonized on September 14th, 1975. May she continue to intercede for us all.

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