Side altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, NY, honoring St. Elizabeth Seton (center), St. Louise de Marillac, (left) and St. Vincent de Paul (right).
How St. Elizabeth Seton, patron saint of Catholic education, continues to teach and inspire educational discipleship
As the 2020-2021 school year winds down for Catholic schools across the country, the threats and health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic have finally decreased. The ability for our communities to overcome the disruptions of the pandemic was made possible through the courage and commitment of numerous workers in health care and essential businesses, as well as many dedicated educators.
The unfailing commitment of Catholic educators
After the 2019-2020 school year concluded in a state of school shut downs and remote learning, educators immediately shifted focus to the fall of 2020 through months of preparation, apprehension and anxiety. As a testament to the character of Catholic educators and their dedication to the mission of Catholic education, the majority of U.S. Catholic schools welcomed students back to in-person learning this school year. This was not an easy decision or accomplishment.
For example, many classroom teachers found themselves simultaneously teaching to students in their classroom as well as to students online, to accommodate those who needed remote learning options. Catholic school principals worked tirelessly to ensure the health and safety of their staff and students, which often included tasks like sanitizing desks, taking temperatures, or teaching classes when substitute teachers could not be acquired.
In nothing less than heroic exertion, Catholic educators have demonstrated one of the most significant lessons their students will ever receive – that difficulty can be overcome when people work together through a shared mission. Catholic teachers, principals, and administrators deserve our gratitude for their perseverance to guide our youth through these challenging times.
Continuing the legacy of St. Elizabeth Seton
Their example of discipleship may be compared to the patron saint of Catholic schools and educators, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was very familiar with adversity. As a widow and mother of five, Elizabeth persisted through societal rejection, religious bigotry, severe illnesses and great loss to dedicate her life in pursuit of a charitable mission in education. Elizabeth’s keen awareness of how poverty and discrimination prevented women and girls from being educated inspired her to open the first free Catholic independent school for girls in 1810, and to form the Sisters of Charity order of women religious to support her efforts.
During a tumultuous era when the American government was in its infancy and a common school system had not yet been established, Elizabeth’s ability to remain steadfast to her faith fueled the strength and courage she needed to deliver her mission. Various excerpts from her writings illustrate this, such as: “Hope, always awake, whispers Mercy for the future, as sure as the past.” Elizabeth often wrote encouraging words to family, companions and students: “Let your chief study be to acquaint yourself with God, because there is nothing greater than God and because it is the only knowledge which can fill the heart with a peace and joy which nothing can disturb.”
Elizabeth founded her school on the values of St. Vincent de Paul: to love God and honor Jesus as the source and model of all charity, through respect, equality, inclusion, and collaboration. She considered it her moral and social responsibility to ensure the school was affordable and accessible to any student who desired attendance – regardless of economic status, race, ethnicity, or religion. Elizabeth also took great strides to care for her teachers and formed a teacher training program years before states required formal licensure. She also recognized the importance of engaging parents in their childrens’ education, and provided frequent communication and personal observations of student progress. This foundational structure for Catholic schools was developed over a span of just eleven years before Elizabeth lost her battle with tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of 46. Elizabeth Seton was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975 as the first native-born American saint.
Today, the spirit of St. Elizabeth Seton lives on through the many Catholic educators who have also dedicated their lives to the mission of Catholic education. During the 2020-2021 academic year, the NCEA reported that over 1.6 million students were educated in 5,981 Catholic schools across 175 U.S. dioceses, through the faith-filled dedication of 142,977 Catholic teachers, principals and staff members.
Just as St. Elizabeth Seton needed the support of many others to advance the mission of Catholic education, today’s Catholic teachers, principals, and administrators need the support of all who are called to follow the example of Christ the Teacher. Let us give thanks to God for our Catholic educators, and offer our prayerful reflection for a peaceful summer of rejuvenation and spiritual renewal. In the words of St. Elizabeth Seton: “If peace is your companion the whole beautiful universe can bestow nothing more precious.”
For further reflection:
Excerpt from St. Elizabeth Seton’s adaptation of the prayer, Anima Christi
God will direct your heart to that prayer of the Spirit
which neither occupations nor pain can drive from it –
though it may not be active, still it is there.
Heart of Jesus, receive me.
Spirit of Jesus, enliven me.
Goodness of Jesus, pardon me.
Beauty of Jesus, draw me.
Excerpt from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Novena
God, please bless all teachers.
What a mighty responsibility you have placed upon their shoulders!
St. Elizabeth, you began a school to support your family.
However, your calling became so much greater.
You were at the start of Catholic education in America.
Please be with all educators as they shape the minds of the next generation.
Provide for them patience to deal with many behaviors.
Offer them prudence in what to teach.
Most of all, allow them to have opportunities to witness to God.
No matter my calling, I too am called to be a teacher – a teacher of Christ.
I have the opportunity to teach Christ to everyone I meet.
Point me towards the greatest Teacher of all as an example.
Intercede on my behalf and on the behalf of all those I encounter.
Help me to emulate Christ’s teaching example as you did.
Please also keep in mind all my intentions, especially (state your intentions here).
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us!
Prayer of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
O Father, the first rule of our dear Saviour’s life was to do Your Will.
Let His Will of the present moment be the first rule of our daily life and work,with no other desire but for its most full and complete accomplishment.
Help us to follow it faithfully, so that doing what You wish we will be pleasing to You.
Prayer in St Elizabeth Ann Seton’s name
Lord God, you blessed Elizabeth Seton with gifts of grace as wife and mother, educator and foundress, so that she might spend her life in service to your people.
Through her example and prayers may we learn to express our love for you in love for our fellow men and women.
We ask this through Christ our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.