When the first American-born saint was canonized in 1975, Pope Saint Paul VI called on American Catholics to “Rejoice for your glorious daughter. Be proud of her. And know how to preserve her fruitful heritage.”
Today’s feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton marks the bicentenary of her death in 1821. Though Mother Cabrini was the first citizen of the United States to be canonized, she of course, was born in Italy. Mother Seton on the other hand, is “wholly American” as Pope Saint Paul VI said at her canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square on September 14, 1975. She was born in New York City on August 28, 1774, one year before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. As Paul VI continued, the American Church should “Rejoice for your glorious daughter. Be proud of her. And know how to preserve her fruitful heritage.”
Since this call from Christ’s Vicar fifty years ago, the exact opposite has happened. Rather than the preservation of Mother Seton’s fruitful heritage, there has been a steady undoing of it.
In 1809 Mother Seton founded the first religious community here in the United States called the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph. At the time of her death at the age of 46 their numbers grew to more than 50. Perhaps Mother Seton’s greatest legacy is to be remembered as “The Foundress of the Parochial School System in the United States.” During her lifetime her sisters set up a free school for poor girls in Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1810 that was quickly followed by another one there for boys and another for German Catholic children in Philadelphia in 1818 and yet another in New York just before her death in 1820.
At the time of Mother Seton’s canonization when Paul VI called for the preservation of her fruitful heritage, her spiritual daughters in the Sisters of Charity were the face of the Catholic Church in America. There was probably no image more synonymous with the American Church at the time than the “parochial school nun.” When she was raised to the altar in 1975 there were nine thousand Sisters of Charity directing schools from colleges to day nurseries and other charitable works from hospitals to infant asylums.
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