The Protestant Who Turned to Mary in an Epidemic

Sometimes things are so bad all you can do is blindly hold on to the Blessed Virgin Mary for hope. That is what America’s first native-born saint found during the tuberculosis epidemic that eventually killed her.

In one journal, in a stormy night spent with her daughter Rebecca, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton found herself too sick to pray. So, instead, she just held a picture of the Blessed Mother and a crucifix as her prayer. She described it later.

“O my Mary, how tight I held my little picture as a mark of confidence in her prayers, who must be tenderly interested for souls so dearly purchased by her Son and the crucifix held up as a silent prayer which offers all his merits and sufferings as our only hope.”

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was a devout Episcopalian who spent her whole life walking through the dark shadows of death and disease.

Her own mother died when she was three.  Her stepmother taught her to have special care for the sick and dying. She married WIlliam Seton and worked in his father’s business. When her father-in-law die, the two saw their fortunes suffer even as their family grew to 11 children — five of their own, plus six of William’s little brothers and sisters.

The tragedies didn’t end there, as Elizabeth’s husband got sick in the tuberculosis epidemic. Elizabeth took him to Italy to try to get better in the warmer climate. He died there. Later her son would enlist in the Navy and die serving a Protestant minister with an infectious disease. Her oldest daughter and youngest daughter died next, leaving only one daughter. She would eventually die of tuberculosis at a young age herself.

Elizabeth turned to the Blessed Mother again and again when faced with sickness and death. For Elizabeth, it was knowledge of the mere presence of Mary in heaven that brought comfort.

She taught her children to do the same. In one journal, she recounted how her daughter Anna Maria Seton on her own sick bed rallied when she heard her mother pray the petition “Our Lady, refuge of sinners,” a title that grew from the Hail Mary’s “pray for us sinners.”

“Oh refuge of sinners pity me. I am a sinner, a miserable one,” Anna prayed, and, “Jesus Mary Joseph may my soul depart peacefully.”

Heaven is not a reward for good behavior. It is the culmination of a lifetime of friendship — years spent conversing with Jesus and Mary will end in an eternity continuing the conversation.

St. Elizabeth’s hope in heaven was so complete because her relationship with the people there — Jesus and Mary —was so deep.

“If this be the way of death, nothing can be more peaceful and happy,” she wrote during one illness. “It seems as if our Lord or his blessed Mother stood continually by me, in a corporeal form, to comfort, cheer, and encourage me, in the different weary and tedious hours of pain.”

March 25 is the feast of the Annunciation, the day Mary said Fiat, and Jesus Christ became a human being — an embryo — for us. Mary’s Fiat made our hope possible. This is why we call the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Cause of our Hope,” a hope that is bigger than disease, more powerful than death.

We link this feast day and our own deaths in every Hail Mary. The prayer begins with the words of the angel to her at the Annunciation, and it ends “pray for us, sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” That request gets its special power from where Mary is — in heaven. The Church teaches that Mary’s assumption “anticipates the resurrection of all members” of the Church,  and so is a “sign of certain hope and comfort” for all of us. At her hour of death, Mary went to heaven, so want her there at ours.

Blessed Mother, cause of our hope, pray for us.

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.