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Introducing our Patron, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

By Marina Frattaroli, Perpetual Pilgrim


The eastern route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage is dedicated to the patronage of  Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. Who was she and why was she chosen?

 

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born man or woman of the United States to be canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. She was born Elizabeth Ann Bayley in New York City on August 28, 1774, into a prominent Episcopalian family. Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, a son of a wealthy shipping merchant, and they had five children.

 

The Setons lived a happy married life among the elite circles of New York society. In 1797, with the aid of several other women, including Mrs. Eliza Hamilton, wife of Alexander Hamilton, Seton organized New York’s first private charity, the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, at Trinity Church.

 

Misfortune struck the Setons when William’s business went bankrupt after the shipping economy dropped amid conflicts in Europe that affected the high seas. William fell into poor health, and the Setons traveled to Italy to seek healing for his respiratory ailments. William died of tuberculosis while in Italy, leaving Elizabeth Ann a young widow in 1803. Received by the family of her late husband's Italian business partners, the widowed Mrs. Seton was introduced to Catholicism, and underwent a significant religious transformation.

 

Within a year of her return to New York, Elizabeth Ann Seton, moved by the faith she witnessed among Italian Catholics in general, particularly their Eucharistic piety, joined the Catholic Church and was received into St. Peter's Parish on Barclay Street. It was then New York City’s only Catholic church, as anti-Catholic laws had been lifted just a few years before.

 

To support herself and her children, Seton started an academy for girls in New York. After news of her conversion to Catholicism spread, however, most parents withdrew their daughters from her school. Experiencing social rejection due to her conversion, the strains of single motherhood and a lack of financial support, Elizabeth found herself in a precarious situation.

 

Amid a season of personal strife, Seton was invited by Archbishop James Gibbons of Baltimore to move to Emmitsburg, Maryland, to found the first Catholic girls’ school in the country. There, in 1809, to care for the new school and its students, Elizabeth founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, the first new community for religious women to be established in the United States. She dedicated her life to the care of the poor and the education of children. The girls' school laid the foundation for the U.S. parochial school system. She also established the first American Catholic orphanage.

 

By the time of her death at 46, Mother Seton had raised five children, started the Catholic parochial school system in the United States, founded the Sisters of Charity as well as established an orphanage, an asylum for lepers and a hospital. Less than a decade after her death, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph were running orphanages and schools in many cities throughout North America. They had centers in New York City, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and even Nova Scotia.

 

Elizabeth Ann Seton died on January 4, 1821, and was canonized by Pope Paul VI on September 14, 1975. Her life and work had a profound impact on Catholic education and charitable work in the United States. She is widely celebrated for her pioneering role in establishing Catholic institutions in the United States and her feast day is observed on January 4 each year.

 

She is a fitting patron for the eastern route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage — part of the National Eucharistic Revival — because her experience of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist was pivotal in her becoming Catholic and profoundly shaped her spiritual life.

 

Before entering the Catholic Church, Elizabeth was a devout Episcopalian. Her first intimate encounter with Catholicism happened while in Italy with her ailing husband. During this time, she was deeply moved by the Catholic faith and her rituals, particularly the celebration of Mass, Eucharistic adoration and processions of the Eucharist in the streets.

 

Elizabeth was attracted to the Eucharist with a profound sense of longing. “How happy we would be if we believed what these dear souls believe,” she wrote to her sister-in-law, “that they possess God in the sacrament and that he remains in their churches and is carried to them when they are sick.”

 

She was captivated by the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Catholics believe that Jesus is truly present—body, blood, soul, and divinity—under the sacramental appearances of what was once bread and wine. This belief contrasted with the symbolic interpretation commonly held by her fellow Episcopalians.

 

After becoming Catholic, Elizabeth found great comfort and spiritual nourishment in receiving Communion, which she regarded as her essential support in both her personal hardships and her extensive charitable works.

 

The Eucharist became a source of strength and solace for her, especially as she faced numerous trials, including the deaths of some of her children and the challenges of being a single mother and a religious pioneer in early America.

 

“This Heavenly bread of angels removes my pains, my cares—warms, cheers, soothes, contents, and renews my whole being,” she wrote.

 

Her reverence for the Eucharist is a testament to its impact on her life and legacy, illustrating the profound spiritual sustenance that she drew from this sacrament.

 

I am particularly excited to be under the patronage of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, as I also joined the Catholic Church in my twenties, after being raised in a faithful Christian home. The rich historical roots of the Catholic Church influenced my conversion and I found myself attracted to the profound doctrine of the Eucharist, like Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

 

About four years ago, I read the term "Eucharistic Revival" online, prompting me to explore deeply the theology and history of transubstantiation. After a thorough exploration of Biblical texts and a period of prayerful discernment, I made the decision to join the Catholic Church in 2022.

 

Participating in the National Eucharistic Revival as a perpetual pilgrim is my small way of honoring the abundant graces I have received from God through the Catholic Church, particularly through the gift of the Holy Eucharist. I regularly pray for the strength to navigate life's challenges with as much faith as Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and to continue the legacy of Christian women who serve God with boldness and love.

 

As we take on the Eastern route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, the Seton Route pilgrims and I are all looking forward to stopping at the Shrine of St Elizabeth Ann Seton at Our Lady of the Rosary Church, in New York City, on May 26, as well as visiting the the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland where her remains are entombed, on June 6. We are honored and grateful that our friends at the Seton Shrine have arranged a first-class relic of Mother Seton to journey with us throughout our whole route.

 

My fellow Perpetual Pilgrims on the Seton Route and I are proud to bear Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s name, particularly as the first native born American Saint, as we pray for a Eucharistic revival to take hold of our country. Since witnessing a Eucharistic Procession was a part of Mother Seton’s conversion story, we pray that God is now preparing the next great American saint likewise to be a passerby as we process from the East Coast all the way to Indianapolis with the Blessed Sacrament.

 

The National Eucharistic Revival aims to energize the Catholic Church in America. We are grateful to have Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s example and patronage as we walk across many of our nation’s great states and cities. We follow in our patroness’ footsteps as we, too, endeavor to pioneer something new in the Catholic Church in our country.

 

As we prepare for our pilgrimage and pray boldly for revival, we are encouraged by Mother Seton’s words, “Do what we can and God will do the rest. What seems so impossible to nature is quite easy to grace.”

 

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us!


Marina Frattaroli is a graduate of Duke University and Columbia Law School, a native Texan and a resident of New York City. She joined the Catholic Church in December 2022 and serves as a Perpetual Pilgrim in the Seton Route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage.

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