25 Mar

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, Selection of her “Letters” (1805)

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821) converted to Catholicism in 1805. She founded the Sisters of American Charity and the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. Elizabeth was beatified in 1963 and canonized in 1975 by the Roman Catholic Church.

Elizabeth grew-up in New York and joined the Trinity Episcopal Church. Elizabeth helped establish The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1797) and served as its treasurer. In 1803, Seton travelled with her husband, William Seton, and children to Italy. Early on the trip, William died. Elizabeth and her children stayed with William’s business partners who introduced Elizabeth to Roman Catholicism. Elizabeth returned to New York. For two years, Elizabeth contemplated converting to Catholicism, and faced ridicule and alienation from family and friends. Elizabeth also suffered financial hardships after the death of her husband. In 1804, she started a boarding school to support herself and her family. However, local Protestants refused to send their daughters to this school on hearing of Elizabeth’s bent toward Catholicism. Elizabeth’s letters record these struggles and her desire to become a Catholic. These letters include her correspondences with Catholics and non-Catholics, and correspondences on her behalf. Below I’ll highlight some of these letters.

Writing to Anthony Filicchi in January 1805, Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore expressed his concern for Elizabeth. Bishop Carroll hoped that “after being put to the severe and most distressing trials of interior darkness, doubts, and terrors of making a wrong step, our merciful Father in heaven will soon send her relief, and diffuse light and consolation in her heart.”[1] Bishop Carroll also offered reading suggestions for Filicchi to pass along to Elizabeth. These included Thomas à Kempis’s Of the Following of Christ, particularly the ninth chapter of the second book “Of the wants or absence of every comfort.” Bishop Carroll also advised that Elizabeth should focus on asking God to “revive in her heart the grace of her baptism.”[2] He also urged her to listen to the voice of God if this meant painful sacrifices. Bishop Carroll hoped that Elizabeth’s current trials would make her stronger for the trials that would come after her conversion to Catholicism.

Elizabeth wrote to Philip Filicchi in January 1805 and described her doubts, anxieties, and troubles. In the summer of 1804, Elizabeth had been left alone by her family and A. Filicchi, her spiritual advisor. She engaged in prayer and read Protestant authors about the Prophesies. The authors argued that Catholicism was a temptation by Satan. For months, she struggled and doubted which version of Christianity was true. Elizabeth visited the Protestant church in her town, but often wished she were at Mass. She started reading a volume by the French Jesuit Priest Lois Bourdaloue. It encouraged her to read again the other books she had on Catholicism. She tried to visit the only Catholic Priest in New York, Mr. O’Brien, but to no avail. Elizabeth could not come to a decision about her faith. She ended the letter requesting to see A. Filicchi, Philip’s brother, when he returned to town.

Elizabeth also wrote to Amabilia Filicchi in January 1805 and expressed similar doubts and concerns. She described how she read Bourdaloue and tried to visit Mr. O’Brien. Nevertheless, she had doubts about converting. She could not decide if the Catholic Church in New York was a bad as people had described. Elizabeth resolved that these rumors would not hurt her faith and that the ministry of the sacraments would be enough to satisfy her yearnings for the Church. She argued, “I seek but God and His church, and expect to find my peace in them, not the people.”[3] Elizabeth described going to a Protestant church, St. George’s. She felt the need to go to church, but after going felt indifference to Protestantism and decided not to return. She realized that she had no faith in the prayers of the Bishop at St. George’s. After reading a book from Mr. Hobart she also realized that Protestant churches claimed no apostolic history. They had no connection to the True church of Christ. Communion at St. George’s also made Elizabeth feel uncomfortable because it was not given as the real presence of Christ. The Catholic Church represented a church steeped in apostolic authority, and linked to Christian history and beginnings. Elizabeth resolved, “For if the chief church became Antichrist’s [the Catholic Church], and the second holds her rights from it [the Protestant Church], then I should be afraid both might be antichristian, and I be lost by following either.”[4] Elizabeth waffled in her decision on which church to join. She wanted to have faith and to be a good Christian. But, she did not know if either of these were the right choice. Doubt plagued Elizabeth.

Elizabeth wrote to Amabilia Filicchi again on March 14, 1805, and expressed her joyous conviction in choosing the Catholic Church. Elizabeth moved to Baltimore to be closer to a Catholic church. She expressed happiness in seeing the cross on top of the church instead of a weathercock. She also basked in the “great crucifixion” above the altar. Elizabeth also enjoyed the Irish priest’s talk of “death so familiarly that he delighted and revived me.”[5] Elizabeth made her profession of faith. She felt clearer in head than she had in months. Nevertheless, she begged “our Lord to bury deep my heart, in that wounded side so well depicted in the beautiful crucifixion, or lock it up in His little tabernacle where I shall rest forever.” Elizabeth gloried in talk of death, Christ’s suffering, and the material artifacts at this Catholic church. They evidenced a more real faith to her. Elizabeth notified Amabilia that she was preparing for her confession of faith and hoped that after it she would “begin a new life, a new existence itself.”[6] As Elizabeth continued in her preparation, she relayed feelings of satisfaction and freedom: “How awful those words of unloosing after a thirty years’ bondage!..How bright is the sun these morning walks to the church for preparation.” After years of struggling with her doubt, Elizabeth decided to become a Catholic.

[1] Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, “Letters” in R. Marie Griffith, ed., American Religions: A Documentary History, 1 edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 185.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 188.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 189.

[6] Ibid.