There are few stories as interesting as Elizabeth Ann Seton‘s in modern Catholic Church history in the United States. The first native-born United States citizen to be canonized, Seton was during her life a mother, wife, convert, nurse, teacher and founder of one of the most important teaching communities of women religious in the United States, the Daughters of Charity (D.C.), who, coincidentally, taught me in elementary school — part of my particular fondness for Seton.

Today marks the 190th Anniversary of her death on January 4, 1821. The significance of this date is what has led to its selection on the Church calendar for her memorial feast. Pope Paul VI had this to say about her:

Elizabeth Ann Seton is a saint. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is an American. All of us say this with special joy, and with the intention of honoring the land and the nation from which she sprang forth as the first flower in the calendar of the saints. Elizabeth Ann Seton was wholly American! Rejoice for your glorious daughter. Be proud of her. And know how to preserve her fruitful heritage.

In an age when women’s religious communities are dwindling and the Catholic School system — particularly elementary and secondary education institutions — is suffering a number of challenges, not the least being financial, I think it is wholly fitting to take part of this day to remember and celebrate all of those hard-working women like Seton who built the health and educational systems of this country.

Part of today’s problem, I suspect, has to do with what is being taken for granted. We simply do not appreciate what women like Elizabeth Ann Seton have done in decades and centuries past to lay the foundations for what we enjoy today — Catholic schools, colleges and hospitals. My mother and brother both teach at a Catholic high school and I am currently teaching at a Catholic college that was founded by my religious community and province more than seventy-years ago. This memorial can indeed be a time for all of us to pause and, as Pope Paul VI exhorted, rejoice, be proud and know our heritage. May this opportunity afford us the possibility of re-prioritizing these valuable and important institutions in our society.

Elizabeth Ann Seton, Pray for Us.

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