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A Saint for Strained Family Relations- St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

alec vanderboom

Sometimes when I read about the close, spiritual bond between St. Therese the Little Flower and her saintly father, Blessed Louise Martin, I feel stabs of envy. How I'd love to experience that easy blend of natural and spiritual love in my own family of origin.

When I visited the museum of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose shrine in Emmitsburg, MD is practically in my backyard, I read glowing words of praise of this Saint's close relationship with her Father, Dr. Richard Bayley. Elizabeth was described as Dr. Bayley's "favorite child." She wrote warm, funny letters to her father virtually every day in her adult life. I read these facts and immediately tossed St. Elizabeth into the category of saints with "easy Father/Daughter Relationships."

Last month I picked up a delightful biography of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton titled "Mrs. Seton, Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity" by Joseph Dirvin. This book paints an intimate portrait of one of America's first saints.

I was surprised to learn that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton did not have a naturally close relationship with her Father from birth. In fact, quite the opposite.

Dr. Richard Bayley was a world famous doctor in Colonial America who was a genius at medical research and surgery. Dr. Bayley discovered a treatment to croup which cut the infant mortality in both the United States and France by 50%. He became close friends with many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He served as New York City's First Health Inspector. While helping poor immigrants in this official position he caught typhus and died.

In contrast to his great service to the sick, as a father and a husband Dr. Bayley was an utter failure. He seems to have been a "workaholic" who constantly put his medical practice ahead of his family responsibilities. As author Dirvin explains, "With all of this greatness of soul, it is puzzling and regrettable to find Richard Bayley a failure as a family man. Marriage seems to have been for him a thing of convenience, and he never seems to have grasped his responsibility as a husband and a father. (pg, 3.)"

The outcome of Dr. Bayley's career choices had devastating consequences to his second daughter, St. Elizabeth. In pursuit of his medical studies, Dr. Bayley lived across an ocean from his first wife for half of their 8 year marriage. St. Elizabeth's mother died in childbirth with their third child while Dr. Bayley voluntarily served far away as a medical officer in the British Army during the American Revolutionary War.

Dr. Bayley then remarried a second wife who took a strong dislike to the three children from his first marriage. St. Elizabeth was only 3 at the time. Yet Elizabeth's tender age failed to engage her step-mother's affections. St. Elizabeth remembered that at the age of 4, "sitting alone on a step of the door, looking at the clouds, while my little sister Catherine lay in her coffin; they ask me: Did I not cry when little Kitty was dead? No, because Kitty is gone up to heaven. I wish I could go, too, with Mama. (pg, 11.)"

When Dr. Bayley returned to England, St. Elizabeth and her older sister were sent to live with an uncle for a period of seven years. At one point, St. Elizabeth has no idea if her father was alive or dead. He had failed to write to his wife or any of his children for more than a year. St. Elizabeth hides herself in a quiet place on her uncle's farm and cried in a "gust of hysteria." She was certain that her father had "no care or concern for her."

When St. Elizabeth was 15, her father returned from England to attend the marriage of her older sister to one of his former medical students. This began a confusing period of time which the author described as St. Elizabeth's "martyrdom" from 1790-1794. St. Elizabeth leaves her uncle's home upon Dr. Bayley's return. However, she is an unwanted and unwelcomed guest at her father's and stepmother's home. From the ages of 15 to 19, St. Elizabeth is homeless. She is forced to board alternative months with her married sister and an elderly aunt. At a time when a rich Colonial Girl is expected to find a husband, St. Elizabeth finds herself begging for charity.

In the middle of this distress, a wonderful suitor enters the scene, Mr. William Seton. St. Elizabeth and William are a true love match within the upper crust of New York Society. They have five children before William Seton dies of consumption. William is responsible for giving St. Elizabeth the first true home she's had since her mother's death at age 2.

What is amazing and supernatural about this story, is that as soon as St. Elizabeth finds a home with her true love, she immediately extends hospitality to her estranged father. She invites Dr. Bayley to stop by her New York home in between his physician's house calls. Her father would drop exhausted in a chair by the fireplace and St. Elizabeth would cheerfully serve him a drink and his favorite little teacakes.

Gradually, Dr. Bayley and St. Elizabeth developed a warm Father/Daughter relationship that was denied to them during her childhood. Dr. Bayley and St. Elizabeth traded warm notes and letters. She worried about his colds and sore throats. She reminded him to not overtire himself in his work. In return, Dr. Bayley became a doting grandfather. Dr. Bayley invited St. Elizabeth and her five children to spend summers at his house on Stanton Island. Through Elizabeth's help, Dr. Bayley also repaired his estranged relationship with his oldest daughter, St. Elizabeth's natural sister. Eventually, Dr. Bayley, his two daughters, his many grandchildren and two sons-in-law enjoy happy family visits for many years.

The author describes St. Elizabeth as "her father's favorite child, the one most like him in personality and vitality." Yet I wonder if Dr. Bayley's special regard for his second daughter occurred because St. Elizabeth was the only one of his nine adult children who forgave her father fully in her heart.

I was so inspired that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton clung to her relationship to God the Father to help her during the painful misunderstandings with her earthly father. Through the beautiful virtue of hospitality, St. Elizabeth was able to reconnect as an adult to her estranged and distracted Father.

Even the end of their relationship is marked by supernatural grace. As a busy physician, Dr. Bayley never had time for religion. However, Dr. Bayley dies after serving the poor in the arms of his daughter, a future Saint, who urges her Dad to unite his suffering to Christ and utter the saving name of Jesus Christ.

A naturally close Father/Daughter relationship from birth like St. Therese and Blessed Louis Martin is something to envy. However, the supernatural Father/Daughter reconciliation of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and her father, Dr. Bayley, is something to admire and copy.

(Experts taken from Dirvin, Joseph, C.M. "Mrs. Seton: Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity," Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, New York, 1962.)