Elizabeth Ann and William Magee had a busy, beautiful life together in Lower Manhattan. They cohosted a party for George Washington’s sixty-fifth birthday. They lived next door to Alexander Hamilton. They were stalwarts of the Episcopal church, and set a good example for their children in their charitable activities.
Then, everything went smash, all at once. The family import-export business William ran failed, forcing him to file for bankruptcy. The health problems that had plagued him turned out to be tuberculosis. The Setons and their five children were short on money and on hope. But they managed to cobble together a plan for Elizabeth and William and one daughter to visit Italy, where William had business friends, to see if the climate would improve his health. Unfortunately, the trio ended up in quarantine for thirty days after they arrived…and less than two weeks later, William died.
Elizabeth’s despair, worry, grief, and homesickness are almost impossible to imagine. How would we even know where to start if we were in that situation? It turned out she didn’t need to do anything; God provided some angels in the form of William’s business friends, Antonio and Filippo Filicchi, and their families. They took Elizabeth and her daughter to Mass and showed them the beauty of Italy’s Catholic churches. They provided financial help. They listened and consoled and comforted, including one brother’s decision to go with the pair to make sure their voyage back to the United States was uneventful.
Elizabeth had had little exposure to Catholics until she met the Filicchis. But their tender care and the way they lived their faith changed her life. She converted amid the disapproval of family and friends. In 1809, she relocated to Emmitsburg, Maryland, a rural area about sixty miles and a whole world away from Baltimore. There, she founded the American Sisters of Charity, which now consists of more than five thousand religious women ministering through schools, social service centers, and hospitals throughout the world. In 1975, she became the first native-born U.S. citizen to be canonized.
What a blessing for Elizabeth and all of us that her husband’s friends weren’t afraid to talk with her about the strength they found in their faith—and to demonstrate it! It’s that kind of real-world evangelization that even the shyest of us can do for God.
“Put your heart at His feet. It is the gift He loves most.” Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
Spend some time thinking and praying about why you follow Christ as a Catholic and how that informs the way you interact with non-Catholics.