Religion: New Saints

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"She was not a mystical person in an unattainable niche. She battled against odds in the trials of life with American stamina and cheerfulness; she worked and succeeded with American efficiency." So the late Francis Cardinal Spellman characterized Elizabeth Bayley Seton, a 19th century Roman Catholic convert who founded the first American religious order, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. The cardinal was leading a pilgrimage to Rome, where Mother Seton was beatified by Pope John XXIII on St. Patrick's Day in 1963. Last week after 32 cardinals assembled in the Vatican to cast their ballots in a secret consistory, Pope Paul VI issued a decree of canonization on her behalf. Thus, on Sept. 14 in St. Peter's Church, Mother Seton will become America's first native-born saint. (Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, a naturalized American, was canonized in 1946, but like some 2,000 other Roman Catholic saints, she was born in Italy.)

Mother Seton was indeed very American. Born in New York City two years before the Declaration of Independence, she came from a patrician colonial family, kin of the Roosevelts and the Van Cortlandts. A pretty, vivacious girl, at 19 she married William Seton, 25, son of a wealthy importer. On a trip to Italy in 1803, young Seton died of tuberculosis, leaving his wife nearly penniless and with five children to support. Friends in Italy talked to her about Catholicism, and in 1805, upon her return to the U.S., she shocked her Episcopal family and friends by becoming a Roman Catholic.

Ostracized in New York, she moved to Baltimore where the Catholic community welcomed her. A few years later, Elizabeth Seton took religious vows and founded the American Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Md. Before she died of tuberculosis in 1821, she had set up a free parish school in Emmitsburg from which the American Catholic parochial school system evolved, established the first American Catholic hospital and watched her tiny order expand to ten houses.

One Miracle. Mother Seton's followers first advanced her claim to sainthood in the 1880s. Eventually two miracles attributed to Mother Seton's intercession were confirmed by the Vatican's Sacred Congregation of Rites. Confirmation of two additional miracles is usually required for canonization; in Mother Seton's case, however, Pope Paul decided that one would suffice. It occurred in 1963 when Carl Kalin, a construction worker, was stricken with a complicated viral affliction of the brain.

He was attended at what seemed to be his deathbed by nuns who prayed to Mother Seton for his recovery and occasionally touched his feverish body with one of her relics. A few weeks later, Kalin was completely cured.

Five new saints besides Mother Seton were also named by the Pope: three Spaniards, an Italian and one Irishman, Archbishop Oliver Plunket, primate of Ireland from 1669 to 1681. Beginning in 1673, Irish priests were forced into hiding or exile, and Plunket had to carry on his pastoral work in secrecy and disguise. Arrested in 1679, he was hanged by the English two years later on trumped-up treason charges. Given the bloody religious war now raging in Ulster, the choice of Plunket for canonization in the Holy Year of 1975 seemed to many politically inept.