If there was ever a saint who could give educators and parents a boost in days like the ones before us now, it is Elizabeth Seton, whose feast is today. A parent and educator whose experiences many of us could relate to—from enduring quarantines to thinking it might be time to move to Canada—Seton is the first U.S.-born saint, the patron saint of parochial schools, and an inspiration for anyone who finds their faith tested by unpredictability.
Just a few examples of how many of us can relate to Seton:
- She was a mother. She had five children—and took in her husband’s six younger siblings.
The number of official parent-saints in the Catholic Church isn’t large. Yet many of us pursue holiness in the context of raising children—either our own or those we teach, just as Seton did. She’s Catholic-famous for saying “We must pray without ceasing, in every occurrence and employment of our lives.” In other words, she found that prayer isn’t always time away from everyday life—everyday activities can become our prayers, our points of connection with God.
- She experienced the kind of childhood trauma that many of us and our students might recognize.
Her mother died when she was three, and her baby sister died shortly after that. While her father remarried and had five additional children, he and Elizabeth’s stepmother separated; her stepmother rejected Elizabeth and her older sister; and her father left them in the care of a relative. Elizabeth later acknowledged the emotional toll of these uncertain times—and her search for faith amid them.
She shared later, “Confiding hope and consoling peace have attended my way through storms and dangers that must have terrified a soul whose rock is not Christ…”
- Epidemic disease changed the trajectory of her life. As his family fortunes declined, her husband died of tuberculosis—and they had also been quarantined on suspicion of yellow fever. Later, two of Elizabeth’s daughters died of TB as well. Disease and economic distress went hand-in-hand; indeed, as a widow, she started a school because she was responsible for eleven children and needed income.
- She was committed to providing a faith-based school choice—even to those who couldn’t afford it. Her first school was similar to others run by widows and catered to mostly Protestant daughters of wealthy families in New York. But when many of her first students’ parents found out she had become Catholic, they withdrew their daughters from her school. She went on to found St. Joseph’s Academy in Maryland—a school that she was determined to make free for all who sought a Catholic education for their daughters.
“Do what we can,” Seton urged those who eventually joined her work, “and God will do the rest. What seems so impossible to nature is quite easy to grace.” As we have learned time and again in the last two years, when we in Catholic schools do what we can—and pray for God’s grace to do the rest—our children and our faith can grow, even amid challenges.