Truth’s Own Splendor: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and the New York State Eucharistic Congress
Oct 3, 2023
Lisa Lickona, S.T.L.
Professor Lisa Lickona will be delivering a keynote address on the Eucharist in the lives of women saints on October 22, 2023, at the New York State Eucharistic Congress. What follows is a small preview of her presentation:
New York businessman, Will Seton, arrived in Livorno, Italy, in November 1803, ailing from tuberculosis. At his side were his wife, Elizabeth, and their little daughter, Anna Maria, who had journeyed with him in the hopes that the Italian sun, good food, and the company of Will’s business partners, Antonio and Filippo Filicchi, would promote recovery. But it was not to be.
As they left the ship, Italian soldiers whisked Will, Elizabeth, and Anna Maria into a quarantine station to prevent the spread of yellow fever. After nearly a month condemned to the cold, drafty, smoke-filled stone fortress, Will’s condition had become grave; he died two weeks later, leaving Elizabeth and Anna in the care of the Filicchis.
In her grief, Elizabeth donned the black dress and bonnet of an Italian widow, and she pretty much never took them off again. This pious Episcopalian woman was destined within a few years to become a Roman Catholic woman religious—and the black dress would become her habit. But first, a dramatic conversion had to occur.
Up to this point in her life, Elizabeth was a devout student of the Scriptures and an eager patroness of the poor. Her intimacy with God, nurtured in prayer, had made her a spiritual mother to her shivering, moaning husband in his dying days. Will entered quarantine something of a lukewarm Episcopalian, but he died fervent—such was the power of Elizabeth’s accompaniment. But in the weeks that Elizabeth spent with the Catholic Filicchis, she discovered a new breadth and depth to her faith.
Seeking to cheer Elizabeth up, the Filicchis took Elizabeth on a tour of Italy’s cities where she saw churches and squares and their treasures of religious art. Yet what moved Elizabeth more were the scenes of faith played out in those spaces. Elizabeth had shared “communion bread” at the Episcopal service, but she had never seen anything like what she beheld in the side chapels of the churches, where that “bread” was fitted into a brilliant gold monstrance and adored day and night by men and women, young and old. She had partaken of “communion services” on Sundays at home in New York, but she had never imagined the intimacy with the Lord that led Antonio’s wife, Amabilia, to hasten to the church every morning and brought her back radiant and full of joy. Elizabeth had known God’s presence in prayer, but she had never been overcome as she was the day a Eucharistic procession passed outside her bedroom window. She threw herself on the floor and begged in prayer that she might believe as the Catholics believed: that she might believe that His Presence was Real.
In Italy, in these dark days of her grief, our Lord provoked Elizabeth and drew her to a passionate search for the “true faith” through truth’s own splendor. For truth is beautiful. It has taken form: on the Cross where it shows itself to be Love, in the Eucharist where that same Love is shared out, and in the lives of His faithful ones, who bear that Love to the world.
It was the splendor of the truth that Elizabeth Ann Seton discovered in Italy. And thus she boarded the ship for New York in June 1804 not yet a Catholic in name, but certainly one in her heart.