Powerhouse Anglican conversion stories converge in the liturgy this week: January 4 for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and January 5 for St. John Henry Newman. Both saints have had a deep impact on my life.
I dedicated my homeschool to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton almost as soon as I learned about her. From that day I have prayed daily for her intercession for me as a mother and educator. She was born during the American Revolution. St. Elizabeth’s early life was rather cushy: She came from a wealthy family, married the man of her dreams, and had five children. Then the struggles mounted. Her husband was left his father’s struggling business, and seven half-brothers upon his father’s death. Within four years Elizabeth’s husband lost his business and his health.
They made a desperate journey to Italy, to stay with a close friend and recover his health; he died while being held at port. But she also came back with a hidden treasure. She had opened her heart to Catholicism, and eventually she converted.
More struggle awaited her at home. Elizabeth returned home to her children, without a means to provide for them and broken-hearted, but nurturing a rich faith. Her family tradition was Anglican, and they simply renounced her and their family ties after learning Elizabeth had turned “Papist.” Now she was truly alone. She started a small school, while educating her own children, but she was persecuted as a Catholic in New York. She made her way to Maryland, where she also faced persecution among anti-Catholic forces who had gained influence after the Revolution in Maryland.
So she made her way to western Maryland, founded a school and order, and struggled to make it all work. St. Joseph was the source of great miracles for her convent and school. She died very young, at age 46.
As a mother of five, and a former Anglican who converted amidst family and financial strains, St. Elizabeth’s story resonated with me. The first native born (white) American saint, she left a legacy in education as well as in the faith. Her intercession continues to aid me, and her devotion to St. Joseph is compelling.
St. John Henry Newman was a “high Anglican” in the English Tractarian movement. He attempted to restore Catholic traditions to the Anglican Church. From this group emerged the “high church” wing of the Episcopal Church. Such was my experience as an Episcopalian. Solemn High Mass (3 celebrants), a professional choir singing Palestrina, meticulous care in the liturgy, a Marian chapel, confessionals in the back, prayers for the Pope and to Our Lady – that was when I was an Episcopalian. We used to sing a hymn “I am an Anglican….one step from Rome.”
Eventually, St. John Henry saw the fallacy in his efforts, and he yes to Rome. These podcasts tell much about his journey to canonization. In my case, it took the Episcopal church to totally rot within and a messy situation to develop in our old Episcopal church to help us take the leap and swim the Tiber to Rome. St. John Henry, then Blessed, was one of our intercessors. His writings are majestic. Now looking back it’s hard to imagine we thought we could be Episcopal and reach out and touch things Catholic. There was that longing, but there was great fussiness in liturgy (lovely fussiness) we had to overcome.
There are some protestant denominations which really are not too far from Rome. For some, small pebbles (like lovely liturgy, music and poetic prayers) provide obstacles. For others, large boulders block the path. St. John (the Apostle) reminds us to pray “that we all be one.” That message rang through my (thick) head again and again as we discerned God’s call. I thank God and all the saints who have helped me along my journey home to Rome – 15 years this Easter Vigil….and counting.