As Auxiliary Bishop Edmund Whalen approached St. Peter’s Church in lower Manhattan to celebrate an early afternoon Mass in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the death of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Jan. 4, he contemplated the silence of the surrounding streets.
“As I was walking along the eerie silence,” Bishop Whalen said in his homily, he considered “what was it like for the young, recently widowed Elizabeth Ann Seton to walk these very streets? What was it like for her, not knowing what the future was?”
“Her future is a complete question mark,” Bishop Whalen continued. “Rejection seems possible. Complete destruction of everything she knew was probable because she had changed her faith” upon converting to Catholicism.
“Yet she walked those streets—those streets that may have been eerily quiet also because of the different epidemics that they were going through at that time—and she had no fear, she had no worry.”
Rather, he added, she knew that the only reality that is worth anything “is the same reason you come here, day after day, in the midst of everything that’s going on—the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.”
The example of living the Eucharist, he said, “is in our friend, our fellow New Yorker, Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose 200th anniversary of going home to God we remember today as we close out this Mother Seton year in this, her home parish.”
The story of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton begins in New York where she was born in 1774. Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born into a prominent New York City family. Elizabeth was 3 years old when her mother died. At age 19, she married a wealthy businessman, William Magee Seton, and they soon moved into a residence on Wall Street. They were members of the Episcopal Church. The couple had five children. Her husband succumbed to tuberculosis in 1803.
Elizabeth was introduced to the Catholic faith by the families of her husband’s Italian business partners. In 1805, she was received into the Catholic Church at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street.
She died in 1821 at age 46 in Emmitsburg, Md., where she had established the first American congregation of religious sisters and one of the first Catholic girls’ schools in the United States.
In 1817, Mother Seton, as she was known, sent three sisters to New York to staff the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum on Prince and Mott streets in lower Manhattan, which was in its early stages. The Sisters of Charity continue to serve in the archdiocese.
Referencing the restrictions of the global coronavirus, Bishop Whalen said “probably more than ever before, we find ourselves, these days, coming in here to St. Peter’s and just being with God.”
He suggested the faithful, on the feast day, “take a few minutes and with our fellow New Yorker, with Elizabeth Ann Seton, the girl from the neighborhood,” talk with Jesus in the Eucharist. “First, where in these past several months in the pandemic have you rediscovered the simplicity of life that you took for granted or maybe forgot? Second, talk with Mother Seton about someone in your life...who taught you humility, to be receptive to all the many ways in which God comes alive for us...”
Bishop Whalen cited as his greatest teacher the Sister of Charity of New York who taught him in fourth grade. His third suggestion to the faithful was for them to ask Mother Seton “to help you to do one act of charity for someone else.”
Father Jarlath Quinn, pastor of St. Peter and Our Lady of the Rosary parish, concelebrated the Mass.
John Siemietkowski, who belongs to St. Peter and Our Lady of the Rosary parish, attended the 12:15 p.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Rosary Church on State Street, where the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is housed. Afterward, he made his way to St. Peter’s Church, where he spoke with CNY after the Mass there.
“It was very special being in a place where St. Elizabeth Ann Seton lived, down at the Battery, on her feast day,” he said of the liturgy at Our Lady of the Rosary Church.
“It was a very special connection today.”
It was important to Siemietkowski, a 58-year-old attorney, to visit St. Peter’s Church, “knowing that she received the sacraments here at this church, this particular place is someplace that she also was, and a church she attended,” he said.
The 200th anniversary of her death is a reminder, Siemietkowski said, of the saint’s connection with New York City, particularly lower Manhattan.
Siemietkowski said his prayer petitions to Mother Seton would be “that she guide us and guide our city and guide our country, especially in 2021.”
“Given her connection with this place, and the impact of the pandemic on this city,” he said he hoped she would bring “some special intercessions for us.”