‘A Time for Miracles’
Mother Seton, the first American-born saint, was a fun-loving, moody, compassionate woman who endured suffering with amazing grace

By Joan Barthel
TV GUIDE - December 20, 1980

["A Time for Miracles," a two-hour ABC Theatre presentation dramatizing the life of Elizabeth Bayley Seton, is scheduled to be telecast Sunday, Dec. 21.]

She could have danced all night, and her party slippers, size 1, Ivory satin with a dark-green embroidered "S," have been preserved among her possessions. She was a funloving, man-loving, petite, black-haired, black-eyed beauty who once made certain that her handsome young husband would think of her, when he  went off on a business trip, by tucking a picture ot herself in with his underwear.

She grew up rich, pretty and protected, a doctor's daughter. Her name was Elizabeth Ann Bayley, but everyone used her lighthearted nickname, Betsey. At Mama Pompelion's chic private school, she studied languages, needlework, music, and at 18 she took her privileged place in the fashionable High  Episcopalian society of old New York, at the time of the American Revolution. Now, two centuries later Elizabeth Ann Seton has taken a privileged place In the Catholic Church, as America's first native-born canonized saint.

An unlikely saint? According to ancient models of sanctity, yes indeed. Once upon a traditional time, saints were presented as paragons of inspiration and virtue, cast in a mold to edify the population. The moral was the message, as in the legend of St. Kevin, who stretched his arms out the window one morning to pray when suddenly a blackbird swooped down and nested in his arms. The bird stayed two, maybe three, weeks, and Kevin stayed motionless until the eggs hatched. For the early Church, the moral  was patience, saintly patience," says a teacher at the Gregorian University in Rome, telling the story. For us today, the moral would be, when you pray, don't stick your arms out the window. ‘

Clearly the world has changed, and the Church that exists within that world has changed  accordingly, In contemporary context, saints are no longer symbolic cutouts, unreachable plaster figures. Elizabeth breaks the mold. Who needs a legend surrounding a statue when there's a real woman at the center?

Real women have to face real problems: money problems; health problems; psychological pressures. Betsey Bayley's good luck lasted only a few years into her marriage to William Seton. She had five children in seven years, and when her father-in-law died, a handful of his children from his second marriage moved in with her. Will Seton, that handsome young husband, was a fabulous dancer but a rotten businessman; under his careless control, the Seton shipping business went bankrupt. They were forced to sell Cragdon, the family home, and moved into a little rented house on State Street, where Will was deeply depressed and already desperately sick from tuberculosis. At the end of a long, ill-advised sea voyage prescribed for his health, he died.

Back in New York, a widow with a houseful of children, her own parents dead, Elizabeth  boarded schoolchildren, and considered opening a tearoom. She might have made it -she was still pretty, not yet 30, and might have remarried - except for her decision to become a Catholic.

She'd always been a devout member of the Church of England in New York - her grandfather had been the rector of an Anglican church on Staten Island - but her inclination toward the Catholic Church, reinforced by a visit to Italy, affected her life drastically, in both a spiritual and a practical sense. Her Anglican friends, aghast, exclaimed that "Romanism" was the religion of servants, of people who, her sister said, were "dirty, filthy, red-faced," who spit in church and who, in general, just smelled bad. When Elizabeth persisted, her godmother cut her out of her will and she became a social outcast. A true New Yorker, she didn't want to leave her home town; also as a true New Yorker, she tried to manage by borrowing money.

Finally, though, she sent her two sons off to boarding school, their tuition paid by her Italian Catholic friends, and she and her daughters took refuge in Baltimore. Under the wing of John Carroll, the first American Catholic bishop, she opened a school, established a religious routine and took religious vows, thus becoming `Mother Seton." Eventually she and her daughter and a band of young women who had joined her rattled west in a covered wagon into the countryside, to Emmitsburg, Md., where, on an  initial diet of salt pork and carrot coffee, she set up a school and a convent for her growing sisterhood,  sisters of Charity.

In 1975, the year of her canonization, when interest in Elizabeth Seton was at an all-time high, a diocesan paper in the Midwest copied a batch of her letters and gave them to a handwriting expert, C.I. Burdick, to analyze. In his report, Mr. Burdick noted with interest that the handwriting in her early letters was small, carefully formed and closely spaced; later on, the script was twice as large and sprawled across the page, as though the writer were in a hurry.

As a matter of fact, she was in a hurry. She died at the age of 46. But she had time, in that relatively short span, to establish a relationship with God, a holiness within herself, that inevitably began to affect others. In the end, it isn't Mother Seton's legacy of social service - the religious order, the foundling homes, the hospitals or the school that is generally considered the model of the Catholic school system -that made her a saint (indeed, when it comes to the schools, many Catholics wish she'd stayed with that tearoom). It's something far more elusive. "Sorrow is the seed of holiness," said Fernando Cardinal Antonelli, who for years was associated with the Seton cause, with the intriguing job of "devil's advocate." searching out her flaws. And somehow the sorrows of her life, and the strength with which she not only met them but turned them to spiritual advantage, nourished a profound goodness within her that is not easy to understand, let  alone explain. The word is probably grace. Amazing grace.

Far easier to list her defects, and Cardinal Antonelli found plenty: her moodiness, her fits of  temper and jealousy, some of them described in her journals or in letters. She was no steely superwoman; when her firstborn child, Anna, died at the age of 16, Elizabeth buried her under the oaks at Emmltsburg and then nearly went off the deep end. "My head was so disordered," she wrote, "that, unless for the daily duties always before me, I did not know much what I did,"

A real woman - sometimes tense, compassionate and funny (she referred to herself as "Mother Goose," and to Satan, the devil, as "Sam"). But she not only survived, and eventually overcame, her  defects, she even prevailed during the elaborate process of saint-making within the Catholic Church.

It was a tedious, tangled process. To begin with, her entire life, all her sayings and actions and writings, had to be thrashed through and debated. Then, long after her death, she needed three  miracles - physical cures - attributed to her. Some people involved in the canonization process approve this requirement, feeling it rules out the factor of human error. But others deplore them as "jack-in-the-box signs" that may be compared to the sort of thing Jesus scolded the people for when He told them, "You're always asking for signs!" Anyway, over a period of about 30 years, three unexplainable cures were  credited to Mother Seton - a child cured of leukemia, a nun cured of cancer, a man (a Lutheran, who promptly became a Catholic) who survived a rare brain disease.

Elizabeth survived the controversy over miracles, too, just as she survived the clerical politics and international lobbying (which country needs a saint, or deserves one, or thinks it does, and whose  anniversary is coming up when).

No wonder, then, that television has taken notice of this woman. You don't have to be Catholic to admire a survivor, or to find something to relate to in the life and vivid times of Elizabeth Seton. She was an Episcopalian, a Catholic, a wife, a mother (a working mother), rich, poor, a widow, a nun, a teacher, a nurse, a social worker and, not finally but surely all along, a saint. A saint for all reasons.

Joan Barthel has written and lectured extensively on Mother Seton.

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