St. Elizabeth of New York

The first American-born saint

Any woman saint is eyed with some suspicion in feminist quarters today, being by definition a man's woman: Canon Law, which must have sounded quaint even to our grandmothers when it was pub- lished in 1917, provides that only males may submit causes for canonizations; lay men may nominate people for sainthood, but even nuns have to get a Cardinal Protector to speak for them. The process continues in the celibate male atmosphere: priests prepare the documentation, priests promote the cause and other priests play the devil's advocate, priests make the decision. We end up with female models for women set up according to male standards.

On the other hand, church and synagogue women are digging into their religious pasts looking for spiritual models. A glance at some of the feminist liturgies being produced over the past few years shows a Jewish Passover service commemorating Jewish hero- ines from the days under the Pharoah up through the Holocaust, a Protestant service celebrating the Matriarehs, and a Catholic Mass featuring a reading from St. Catherine of Siena. And all these memories 9were preserved for us within and by a predominantly male religious tradition.

So what kind of reception will feminists give a newly canonized Elizabeth Ann Bayley, Widow Seton, as the Vatican documentation puts it? There's a classic legendary quality about her life which will be quite appealing in this bicentennial era. Born in 1774, the beautiful daughter of a Columbia College anatomy professor, active in the social life of New York, married to a handsome young man, mother of five children. And then she was suddenly widowed in Italy, and after much soul-searching left the Episcopal Church in New York to join the Roman Catholic Church (though Roman Catholics being more ecumenical these days and Episcopalians less classy, the drama is somewhat muted). From there she went to Maryland to become the mother of the American Catholic parochial school system.

The problem in evaluating saints is that they're as human and complicated as the rest of us. As Catholic youth is told so often in religion classes, "You could go to hell imitating the vices of the saints." Preachers and catechists have always pulled out whatever details they found useful in teaching about saints, and the distortion has been tremendous. Catholic Mariology is the best example of this. Gospel facts are so few and pious enthusiasm so great that mystics have provided us with an incredible number of visionary details. One modem biographer shows us Mary kneeling in humility to St. Joseph. Pope Paul VI finally called a halt to much of this with his state- ment last year that Mary was the first and the greatest of the disciples, thereby embarrassing the American bishops, who had just issued a statement that there were no women among the disciples.

What will pious preachers make out of our first native-born American saint? Probably she will become a symbol of the parochial school system at a time when it needs a little glamour to make it worth all the sacrifices. Conceivably St. Elizabeth of New York might raise chancery consciousnesses around the country to the point that Sisters will begin to administer, and not merely staff, more of the parochial school systems---at precisely the point, unfortunately, when it is no longer Sisters but laywomen who begin to make up the majority of teachers.

Actually it is not Elizabeth Seton's role in the school system, or even in founding an order of Sisters, that makes her a saint. Nor does it suggest her as a model for feminists, for she worked from a male invitation and under male direction. It is her interior life, the spiritual quality that made the Archbishop of Baltimore invite her to Maryland, that we must confront. The old two-volume collection of her letters and journal, edited in 1869 by her grandson-bishop, gives us Elizabeth. She was a nineteenth-century lady, with charm, taste, a talent for love and friendship, and the piety of her day. But she was also her own woman. She spent Christmas Eve of 1803 sitting by the side of her husband dying of tuberculosis, and recorded in her journal:

"At midnight he awoke and observed I had not gone to rest. I said 'No, love, for the sweetest reflec- tions keep me awake; Christmas day is begun, the day of our Redeemer's birth.' 'Yes,' he said, 'and how I wish we could have the Sacrament.' 'Well, we must do all we can,' and putting a little wine in a glass, I said different parts of the Psalms and some prayers which I had marked, and we took the cup of Thanksgiving, setting aside the sorrow of time in the view of eternity."

Elizabeth Seton, beloved sister, remain with us.

Arlene Swidler, author of Woman in a Man's Church [Paulist Press], was managing editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Collections