Reflection by Regina Bechtle, Sisters of Charity of New York
Mother’s Day – a time each year to remember the women who bore us and raised us. It’s also a time to reflect on the complex and emotion-laden relationship between mother and child, often loving, sometimes painful, always unique, even within the same family. Elizabeth Seton (the woman we call “Mother Seton”) and her five children were no exception.
When I give presentations on Elizabeth, I sometimes hear the comment, “I just can’t warm up to her because of the way she treated her children. After all, she practically abandoned them!” I believe that statement is a myth that deserves to be challenged, and so I offer this friendly rebuttal.
- Some of Elizabeth’s letters spoke of her willingness to see her children die rather than have them exposed to the temptations and dangers of the world. Though we shudder at such sentiments, we need to keep in mind that Elizabeth gave birth to her children around the turn of the eighteenth century, a time when yellow fever, cholera and dysentery were rampant and before the discovery of germ theory. The threat of death was ever-present, especially for mothers and children. That reality influenced the theology, spirituality, and preaching of Seton’s day and set the context for the world-renouncing sentiments we read in her early letters. Such sentiments were not unique to her.
- 2. In 1803 William Magee Seton’s business had failed and he was suffering from consumption. Like many others of the time, he and Elizabeth believed that a sea voyage and a stay with his Italian business associates would revive his health and his spirits. Elizabeth and her oldest child, Anna Maria, then 8, accompanied him on the journey. She placed her other children in the care of trusted family members: her sister-in-law Rebecca Seton, then 23, would mind William (7), Richard (5), and Catherine (3); the youngest, Rebecca, then 14 months old, was entrusted with many tears to Seton’s married sister Mary Post. Throughout the trip and their quarantine in Livorno, Elizabeth’s journal records her constant thoughts of home and children amid worries about her husband’s condition and fervent prayers for strength and deliverance.
- Returning to New York in 1804 after her husband’s death in Italy, the widow Seton was reunited with her children. Bankruptcy had deprived them of their home and income. When she converted to Catholicism, she alienated herself from relatives and others of her social class who would otherwise have contributed to her support. Faced with the necessity of finding work to feed and house herself and her children, she tried to take in student boarders, but was soon undermined by prejudicial rumors that she was seeking to proselytize them. When the Sulpician Louis Dubourg suggested that she move to Baltimore and begin a small school for girls there, she jumped at the opportunity. She arranged to place her two sons at Georgetown where they could be educated, and brought her three daughters with her to Baltimore in 1808. Almost immediately, she brought her sons closer to her to be educated next door at St. Mary’s College. The family was reunited.
- Seton and her school on Paca Street drew young women (encouraged by clergy) who sought a life of prayer and service. Her first private vows, made in Baltimore in1809, were only two: chastity and obedience. She could not vow poverty since she was responsible for the wellbeing of her children, a responsibility she took with the utmost seriousness.
- As the dream of a new community of women took shape, Seton’s constant refrain was: “I am first a mother.” That overarching responsibility which she never abandoned claimed her more than any religious rule or community role.
- A bequest of property in rural Maryland led Seton, her children and companions, to relocate to Emmitsburg in 1809. Mentored by Sulpician advisers, Seton founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s. They began a school, which her three girls attended; they became friendly with daughters of prominent Catholic families. She transferred her sons to nearby Mount St. Mary’s College.
- The early years of the community were marked by sorrow. Two of Seton’s daughters predeceased her – Anna Maria (1812) and Rebecca (1816). Aided by friends, her sons tried to make their way in business, without success; William joined the Navy and was at sea when his mother died in 1821. Annabelle Melville, author of Seton’s definitive biography, states that Seton’s “fierce maternal protectiveness” and concern for her hapless son Richard kept her alive until he returned from a failed apprenticeship abroad and visited her one last time. Catherine was at Elizabeth’s deathbed, lived a long life, and died in New York in 1891 as a Sister of Mercy (that’s another story!)
- In two 1811 letters, Seton left no doubt as to her priorities where her children were concerned: “The only word I have to say to every question is: I am a mother. Whatever providence awaits me consistent with that plea, I say Amen to it.” And “…by the law of the church I so much love I could never take an obligation which interfered with my duties to them [her children], except I had an independent provision and guardian for them which the whole world could not supply to my judgment of a mothers duty.”
I believe that the conclusion is clear: Elizabeth Seton was first a mother, and throughout her life she never wavered from that “fierce maternal protectiveness” toward her five children.
– Regina Bechtle, SCNY