Roman Catholicism: A Saint for the U.S.

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Italy, at last count, had 40,000 native-born saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. The U.S., the nation with the world's second largest Catholic population (after Brazil), has none,* but one is in the making. This week in Rome, following Vatican approval of two miracles attributed to her intervention with God—one a medically inexplicable cure of cancer, the other a recovery from leukemia—Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, founder of the American branch of the worldwide order known as the Daughters of Charity, was enrolled among the beatified of the church. Attending the formal ceremonies at St. Peter's were more than 3,000 American pilgrims, including Cardinals Spellman and Ritter and 15-year-old Anne O'Neill of Baltimore, whose leukemia cure is attributed to prayers to Mother Seton.

From Fashion to Faith. Elizabeth Seton was born in 1774 to the Bayley family of pre-Revolutionary New York. Her father was a doctor, and her family was related to some of the great Dutch pioneer families—the Roosevelts and the Van Cortlandts; Alexander Hamilton and John Jay were close family friends. Raised as an Episcopalian, pretty Betty Bayley was a gay, open girl who loved dances and parties. At 19, she married William Magee Seton. heir to a New York mercantile fortune, in the biggest social event of the 1794 season. The Rt. Rev. Samuel Provoost, first Protestant Episcopal Bishop of New York, officiated at the ceremony.

The Setons settled down in a fashionable home near the Battery. But by the turn of the century, William Seton's fortune had collapsed, and so had his health. On their doctor's advice, they went to Italy in 1803, where Seton hoped to recoup his health and financial losses. There he died, leaving Betty Seton. at 29, a nearly penniless widow with five children.

Italian friends introduced her to Catholicism; she formally converted to the faith in 1805 after her return to New York, and found that this apostasy shut society's doors to her. In desperation, she opened a boardinghouse for schoolboys in New York, and when that faltered, a girls' school in the more Catholic city of Baltimore. In 1809, she formed a religious community of women at Emmitsburg,, Md. There she started what was, in effect, the first Catholic parochial school in the U.S. By the time she died, of tuberculosis, in 1821, her tiny order had expanded to ten houses. In 1850, it united with the Daughters of Charity, founded by France's St. Vincent de Paul.

God or a Cup of Coffee. Busy, bird-like Mother Seton was a woman both stern and sentimental. As a girl, she was wildly eclectic in her spiritual life, combining deep faith in the Episcopal Church with love for such scandalous deists as Voltaire and Rousseau. Tough when she had to be. Mother Seton fought priestly superiors who crossed her path, alternately teased and bullyragged her two sons. When one of her nuns failed to receive Communion because she had broken her fast with a cup of coffee. Mother Seton showed little sympathy. "Ah, my dear," she said, "how could you sell your God for a miserable cup of coffee?''

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