But life handed her all of that - and then handed her heartbreak.
Elizabeth was born in New York City in 1774, two years before the American Revolution, to a prominent Episcopalian family. Her father was the chief Health Officer for the Port of New York, with an office on Staten Island. Her life held many exciting moments - she danced at George Washington's sixty-fifth birthday ball, and Alexander Hamilton lived just down the street.
But tragedy already began to strike when Elizabeth was young. Her mother died in childbirth when she was three; her infant sister died when Elizabeth was four. When her father re-married, life seemed wonderful at first. Her step-mother was good to her. Elizabeth accompanied her when she visited the sick and dying. But when the marriage fell apart, her step-mother abandoned her relationship with Elizabeth and her sister. Elizabeth entered a dark emotional period of her life. Her love of prayer and Scripture helped carry her through her deep loneliness and sadness at the loss of two mothers.
Years later, joy re-entered her life in the person of handsome, rich William Seton, son of a shipping magnate, who fell head over heels in love with her when she was a teenager - and she happily returned his affection. They married in 1794 when Elizabeth was twenty and purchased a home on Wall Street. Elizabeth wrote in her journal "My own home at twenty - the world - that and heaven too - quite impossible."
Meanwhile her father was burdened in 1795 with a yellow fever epidemic which killed seven hundred New Yorkers in four months. The yellow fever would later tragically impact the young couples' lives.
Children began to arrive, to eventually number five. Then came worry - William developed tuberculosis. His father died, and the young couple took William's younger siblings into their home. Next, international politics resulted in a shipping blockade that collapsed William's shipping business and drove the young family into bankruptcy. Their beautiful home lost, William and Elizabeth moved into her father's home.
The good-hearted William, stressed beyond measure by his precarious financial situation and desire to provide for his family, and fearing he'd end up in debtors' prison, became even sicker with tuberculosis. Doctors prescribed an overseas journey to Italy to visit with their shipping colleagues, the Felicchi family. Against her better judgment, Elizabeth agreed, and sold the last of her possessions to pay for the voyage. They took their little daughter with them. But -
"The voyage was pleasant, but arriving at Leghorn they were quarantined in a stone tower...outside the city because of the yellow fever epidemic in New York City. There she endured for forty days the cruelest suffering...She wept, then reproached herself for behaving as though God were not present. She tended the wracked patient, now coughing blood; amused (daughter) Anna Maria...with stories and games, and held little prayer services....William died two days after Christmas in Pisa, at the age of thirty-seven. Only the laundress would help the young widow to lay out his body." (from a biography of Elizabeth Ann Seton on the website of the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Crystal Lake, Illinois.)
While waiting to return to the United States, Elizabeth attended the Catholic Churches of her Italian friends, even though there was much prejudice against Catholicism among her New York friends and family. She was deeply impressed by the Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and by Catholic devotion to the Blessed Mother. She returned to New York City, a poor widow with five young children to raise, and lived upstairs in a little house supplied by friends. Friends stirred to consternation by her new interest in Catholicism, although to be a Catholic had finally become a legal option.
Elizabeth, already depressed by her situation, entered a period of inner turmoil: her heart, her conscience, drew her to Catholicism, but logic also told her that to do so would alienate the very people whose society sustained her now. She agonized, torn, until March of 1805, when she became a Roman Catholic and joined the one parish in New York City. Now she was at spiritual peace; she had finally heard God's call and given her heart and her life over to God's Will for her.
Elizabeth, like all widows, had to re-invent herself, discover anew who she was. Drawn to teaching, she began many educational enterprises to support herself and her family, but they failed, because of opposition to her new faith. Eventually she decided that she needed to move to Canada. But the President of St. Mary's College in Baltimore offered her a residence and a teaching position in that city.
Elizabeth, loving education, but also remembering her visits to the sick as a young girl, and her physician father's humanitarian causes, was beginning to see the great need for education and medical care in the country. Her dreams for her life and her options began to grow, and then snowball. Once she was in Baltimore, Bishop Carroll of Baltimore offered her some property in Emmitsburg, Maryland. In June of 1809, Elizabeth, her three daughters (her two sons were in Italy with the Felicchis), her two sisters-in-law, and four young women who had joined them, began what was to become the American foundation of the Sisters of Charity.
Elizabeth adopted the rules and constitution of those Franch lovers of the poor, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac. Her religious order eventually expanded to twenty communities of Sisters of Charity, conducting free schools, orphanages, boarding schools, and hospitals across the country. With creative vision, courage, and single-mindedness, she laid the foundation for the parochial school system in the U.S. Because of the unanimous desire of her companions, Elizabeth held the office of Mother Superior for life.
Yet in spite of her tremendous successes, Elizabeth had the responsibilities of a modern woman: she lived the ongoing balancing act of being a mother to her three daughters as well as being a Foundress taking care of other "daughters" and numerous buildings. And life kept giving her more to handle. Death kept taking away her loved ones.
She had to nurse two of her biological daughters as they wasted away and finally died of tuberculosis, the terrible disease that had killed her husband. One of her sons, because of his waywardness, gave her endless worry. Her daughters' deaths, and her son's rebellion, took a terrible toll on her psyche; she battled ongoing depression.
Yet she knew God was with her. Her faith and hope, strengthened and purified by constant challenges and tragedies, continued to sustain her - and with faith, hope, charm, and enthusiasm, she sustained her rapidly multiplying community. She wrote to a friend, Julia Scott, that she'd prefer to exchange the world for a cave or a desert, "but God has given me a great deal to do, and I have always, and hope always, to prefer his will to every wish of my own." Eventually, Elizabeth died herself, slowly and painfully, of her family's nemesis: tuberculosis.
Elizabeth was a simple, ordinary woman. She wasn't a mystic; she didn't have any extraordinary spiritual gifts like prophecy or healing. What she had was a steadfast belief and trust that God would always allow her to handle what life gave her, day after ordinary day. . She said once "Contemplate how you are being asked to give your heart to God amidst your everyday activities. Be prepared to meet your grace in every circumstance of life."
Elizabeth understood Jesus' Beatitude teaching: "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God." Elizabeth gave her heart to God, and as a result she could see God at work in every aspect of her daily life.
Jesus himself warned those who listened to him but could neither see the truth nor hear the truth of His presence and call:
"Sluggish indeed is this people's heart.
They have scarcely heard with their ears,
They have firmly closed their eyes;
otherwise they might see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn back to me,
and I should heal them."
And He added to those of us of every generation whose senses stay awake and alert to Him with us:
"But blest are your eyes because they see
and blest are your ears because they hear."
If we give our hearts wholeheartedly to God, if every sense is attuned to His Presence and Will, His graces will abound in our daily lives, no matter what life hands us. We will know God exists; we will know God is real; we will know that our actions bring His light and love to numbers of people beyond our telling!
Mother Elizabeth Seton, wife, mother, widow, bereaved mother, foundress, was canonized the first American-born saint by Pope Paul VI in 1975.