First things first: A blessed New Year!
This opening week of 2017 presents two feast days of saints who are a very radiant part of our New York Catholic family history.
Wednesday, January 4, is the feast of Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton. A member of the prominent Bayley family, young Elizabeth, born in 1774 here in the city, was known for her beauty, elegance, and deep Episcopalian faith. In fact, her grandfather, Dr. Richard Charlton, was pastor of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Staten Island.
Elizabeth wed William Seton, and the happy marriage was blessed with five children. Even as a busy wife and mother, she was renowned for her work with the poor and dying as a member of the prestigious Trinity Episcopal Church.
The Seton family experienced its own hardship when William’s business failed in 1801, and he began to suffer from tuberculosis. Hoping a voyage would help him heal, the couple sailed to Livorno, Italy, as guests of the Fillichi family, business associates of William. That warm, gracious, and deeply Catholic Italian family would be a godsend when William succumbed to the disease, and the bereaved Elizabeth remained with them until she could sail back home. The future saint was moved by their joy and tenderness, and fascinated by their faith, especially their love of the Mother of Jesus, their devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, and the connection of the Church with Jesus and the apostles.
On March 14, 1805, Elizabeth received her first Holy Communion as a Catholic at St. Peter’s Church, Barclay Street. Her conversion to Catholicism in an ugly anti-Catholic New York climate hardly helped her status in life, already difficult due to widowhood, five children, and little resources. Yet, her skeptical friends had to admit she seemed tranquil, happy, prayerful, and constantly involved in teaching poor children.
Her renown was such that that she came to the attention of our first American bishop, John Carroll of Baltimore, who invited her in 1808 to come his diocese and consider starting a religious order of consecrated women. Sure enough, she became “Mother Seton” in 1809, when Bishop Carroll received her vows, along with six other sisters. Soon they left for rural Emmitsburg, there, in 1810, to open St. Joseph School for poor girls.
The growth of her Sisters of Charity was nothing less than miraculous, as 86 other women united with Mother Seton before her death on January 4, 1821. Their ministries – -education, healthcare, home visitation, and charity – – multiplied up and down the coast, including a vibrant presence here in her home town.
Many of you will gratefully remember September 14, 1975, as Blessed Pope Paul VI canonized this New Yorker a saint!
Then there’s John Neumann, whose feast is Thursday, January 5. Born in Bohemia in 1811, he wanted from a young age, not only to be a priest, but to serve in America. Thus did he leave Bohemia after seminary, not yet a priest. Soon after, he arrived in New York, literally with nothing but the clothes on his back! A trusting John Dubois, our bishop, ordained him at Old St. Patrick’s in 1836. After four years of service as one of our diocesan priests throughout the state (all part of the archdiocese back then), he joined the Redemptorist fathers, and, in 1852, was appointed bishop of Philadelphia.
John Neumann was a small man, with a large, humble heart and soul, renowned for his love of the Eucharist, his simple teaching of the faith, and his promotion of Catholic education. He was ridiculed for his naiveté in business acumen, dismissed as “too pious” in his approach to problems . . . virtues that appealed to blessed Pope Paul VI, who canonized him, the first American bishop ever, a saint in 1963.
Remember, the Christmas holy days continue until Sunday, the Feast of the Epiphany. The “10th and 11th” days of Christmas, January 4 and 5, are gifts to us New Yorkers, the feasts of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton and St. John Neumann!