How does one receive the charism of Charity which we celebrate during this anniversary year?
Most people have it “fanned into a flame” through experiences of their lives. Elizabeth Ann Seton received this charism in her Anglican baptism. In a devout and courageous family, she learned what this charism looked like. It was fanned into a flame by her family.
Her education in charity began with her father. Dr. Richard Bayley (1744-1801) was a complete humanitarian. Medicine was the love of his life, and the wives and children of both his marriages suffered for it, but the sick and poor did not. Born in Fairfield, Connecticut, U.S.A., he was a pioneer in the detection of croup, diphtheria and yellow fever, three killers of the time, and a fine surgeon, having studied under Dr. William Hunter in England. In 1790 he helped organize the New York Dispensary to care for the city’s poor. In 1792 he became the first professor of anatomy in King’s College, now Columbia University. In 1795 he became the first Health Officer of the Port of New York with headquarters on Bedloes Island until he built a new quarantine station on Staten Island in 1799. Dr. Bayley’s utter devotion to the sick is attested to by his daughter Elizabeth, writing during the fearful yellow fever epidemic in 1798: «I have not seen my father for a whole week until last evening; and then he told me that he spent every hour in the hospitals and the lazaretto. And again: «My father resides entirely at Bellevue Hospital».
Not only her father, but others as well were influential. Sometimes, family stories of “heroes” are what make the charismatic connection.
Elizabeth had another family exemplar of charity to look back to when she was old enough to understand. This was her maternal grandfather, the Rev. Richard Charlton, who died as rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Staten Island, when Elizabeth was three years old. He had been a missionary in the West Indies as a young man, and later was attached to Trinity Church in New York as catechist to all the Negroes of the city, most of whom were slaves. Nevertheless, he instructed both his black and white converts side by side in the same class. It may well have been the family tales told of him that fanned Elizabeth’s early bent toward piety.
She learned the lessons of charity well, and the charism grew to produce one of the most influential Catholics (and Vincentians) in United States history: Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, whose feast we celebrate on the 4th of January. Read this entire reflection at our partner site, “We are Vincentians,” where you’ll also find selections of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s letters. More of her writings are being added regularly.