Elizabeth Ann Seton vs. Sarah

Today we make Lent Madness hist0ry. While Old Testament figures are considered saints in some traditions, we have never before had one participate in the Saintly Smackdown. That ends today as Sarah the Matriarch faces Elizabeth Ann Seton in a pairing that spans many, many generations.

Yesterday, in the Battle of the Consonants, Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky outspelled Nikolaus von Zinzendorf 69% to 31% to advance to the Saintly Sixteen where he'll face Martin Luther.

If you missed yesterday's Limerick Edition of Monday Madness, you can still redeem your entire week by watching it here. Tim and Scott share some limericks (both on air and in print) and, despite some amazing rhymes throughout yesterday's comment section, have officially decided NOT to turn Lent Madness into one giant penitential poetry slam.

Elizabeth Ann Seton

Elizabeth Ann Seton was born in New York City in 1774, two years before the United States declared independence from England. Her father was a very popular doctor, and her maternal grandfather was an Anglican priest. Seton’s parents set examples of service and charity that she would follow her whole life.

Seton had a lonely and difficult childhood, losing her biological mother to death and her stepmother to a family rift. In 1794 she married William Seton at a service performed by Bishop Samuel Provoost, the first Episcopal bishop of New York. She and her family were congregants of Trinity Church.

Three years into her marriage, her father in-law died; a few years later, her husband succumbed to tuberculosis, after having lost the bulk of the family’s wealth and social status. Seton found herself a young widow with five children and few resources. She eventually found solace in the Roman Catholic tradition, into which she was received in 1805.

Her world changed again in the next year when she met the Rev. Louis Dubourg, a Roman Catholic priest who wanted to start a Catholic seminary for women in the United States. This piqued Elizabeth’s interest and drive, and in 1809 Elizabeth founded the Sisters of Charity, the first community of nuns who were also citizens of the United States. She professed her vows and became “Mother Seton.”

Locating their community in Maryland, the sisters dedicated themselves to education, social services, and religious formation. In 1810 the community began
St. Joseph’s Free School, the first Roman Catholic school in America, and launched the Roman Catholic parochial school system in the United States. Mother Seton and her order also founded and operated orphanages in major cities along the East Coast.

Seton remained the Mother of the Sisters of Charity until her death from tuberculosis at age 46 on January 4, 1821. She was the first native-born citizen of the United States to become a saint. Her feast is commemorated on January 4.

Collect for Elizabeth Ann Seton 
Holy God, you blessed Elizabeth Seton with your grace as wife, mother, educator and founder, that she might spend her life in service to your people: Help us, by her example, to express our love for you in love of others; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

— Neva Rae Fox


Sarah (formerly Sarai), daughter of Terah, wife of Abraham, first of the matriarchs in the Old Testament, is the mother of nations.

When Sarah was 90 years old, three strangers came to visit her tent. She and her husband and their household had been living in tents for the last twenty-five years, and she had seen and heard plenty. Abraham and his God were the mainstays of Sarah’s life; even her name had been changed as they journeyed toward a place of promise. She was Abraham’s half-sister and younger by about ten years. Abraham had pulled more than one rabbit out of his hat by diplomatically omitting the nuptial aspect of their association. He was also insistent that God had promised them a child—together. Sarah had heard some crazy things come out of Abraham’s mouth and had seen some crazy things standing at his side, but when she heard the three strangers tell Abraham that she—Sarah—would hold her very own baby in just a short while, she laughed out loud. She had been in the desert a long time, but she wasn’t all the way crazy.

Sarah laughed Isaac into the world and held the living proof of God’s promise in her own hands. If we are honest, we can imagine her making the totally opposite noise some years later when Abraham took the boy off into the badlands, clumsily trying to explain to her that God had asked him to do another impossible thing.

Some years after Abraham and Isaac returned from Moriah, Sarah died. In the first recorded commercial transaction in the Bible, Abraham bought a resting place for the woman who had moved everywhere with him and who had died while he was away on business. And in the first burial recorded in the Old Testament, Abraham lays the bones of Sarah down to rest overlooking the oaks of Mamre from where her daughter-in-law Rebekah would come. Sarah is remembered for her devotion, bravery, tenacity, and laughter.

Collect for Sarah
Ancient of Days, you have called nations into being which number more than the grains of sand on all the beaches in all the world. Thank you for Sarah, who journeyed through deserts toward a land of promise, entertained angels, laughed a promised child into the world, and mothered nations. Help us, like her, to remain faithful to your promises, no matter how unlikely the world may find them. We pray this in the name of your son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

— David Creech

[poll id="186"]

Elizabeth Ann Seton—By Jacques Reich (probably based on an earlier work by another artist), Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Sarah—Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) (“Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”), Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


* indicates required

Recent Posts



301 comments on “Elizabeth Ann Seton vs. Sarah”

    1. So agree! Poor dear with the husband she had, I cannot understand why he was the center of the story. How many times did he pimp her out saying she was his sister?

      1. what is the backstory here? I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school almost my whole life, and am now a practicing Episcopalian - HOW DID I NOT KNOW SHE WAS HIS HALF-SISTER?? Truly I can't believe I am just learning this now. Please educate me!

        1. If you read your Bible carefully, you will find out the details. It's in Genesis. I won 't tell you the chapter and verse, I want you to read and reflect on the book.

          1. Pre-Vatican II Catholics were actively discouraged from reading The Bible. That was the Priests' job. Laura, I was baptized during Vatican II and have grown up top be a Unitarian-Universalist. I get your dismay. "If you read your Bible carefully" sounds awfully judgmental. IMHO.

        2. Got that story from a junior high Sunday School teacher who was trying to get the boys interested in the Bible. He also played Jesus Christ Super Star and Tommy. He only taught for one year. He also taught us not to feel sorry for ourselves or others, he had had Polio.

        3. Laurie, if you read Genesis 12, 20, and 26, you will find several sister-wife stories. Avram passes off his wife Sarai as his sister to Pharaoh and to Avimelekh, and Yitzhak (Isaac) passes off his wife Rivka (Rebecca) to Avimelekh, again as his sister. In the case of Avram, it seems that Sarai is indeed his half-sister, whom he married. In each case the ruse results in great wealth. The woman's beauty attracts wealth, but the theme of deceit is introduced as well. The trope seems to suggest that human efforts are always impure, but it also asks the question: Who is the Other? Where and how do we draw the lines between the in-group and the out-group? These stories early in the primeval history of the patriarchs are mytho-poetic and establish deep ground questions for our understandings of ourselves and our relationship with "Breath." Can recommend the Everett Fox translation of Torah, The Five Books of Moses.

    2. Me, too. I loved the bio - made her come alive in my mind. Before I found the Episcopal Church - one of the best days of my life - I was raised Roman Catholic and attended a school run by the Sisters of Charity. I have fond memories of several of them (Love you Sister Angela and Sister Bernadette!). I lived on Staten Island so often visited the Mother Seton "shrine" at the south end of Manhattan Island. We offered many prayers for Mother Seton's canonization, too. Nonetheless, it was Sarah and especially her laughter and her willingness to have a baby at 90!! for me.

    3. Wow! Is this the most exciting Lent Madness match up ever. 11:20 and still nose to nose at 50%. Two fabulous saints! One fabulous Lent Madness!

    4. Sarai/Sarah is a remarkable example of faith because she believed and walked the walk of faith even though, unlike Abram/Abraham, did not hear directly from God. Let's hear it for the original matriarch!

  1. Today seems impossible to me but I have to give in to "Sarah laughed" This is probably because I am closing in on that late age. But who can imagine what she must have thought. I am laughing, just thinking about it.

  2. Yes! Finally, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton! Wife, mother, educator and founder. With two Mount St. Mary's graduates, I have grown to love and respect Mother Seton. As the mother of a 5th grade teacher in a West Philly parochial school, my admiration of teachers, which has always been high, has grown tremendously.

    1. When we lived in the Philadelphia area, our church, All Souls Episcopal Parish for the Deaf, worshipped in St. Luke's Episcopal Church, about 4 blocks from City Hall. Later, I was ordained at St. Luke's. Elizabeth Ann Seton was baptized at St. Luke's and my kids were very impressed by the enormous baptism site in the back of the church...one of my son referred to it as "the church's swimming pool."

  3. As a graduate of Elizabeth Seton College in Yonkers, NY, there was only one way you this could go for me.

  4. Mother Seton is personally responsible for making possible the education of many Americans through the ages, and her influence continues to this day.

    1. I voted for Elizabeth Seton too, because I never liked Sarah for how she treated Hagar & Ishmael. She was a wicked old lady, in my book.

  5. Are you kidding me? Sarah/Sarai is my 3rd favorite Bible character after our Lord and the Blessed Mary - What women at 90 wants to have a baby? If one reads this scripture literally, she is indeed to be honored. If you just read 90 years of age as an old women (at whatever old is for you), few among us of grandma status can keep up with the kiddos for days on end with exhaustion beyond belief.

    1. Joyce, I haven't ranked my Biblical favorites but your comment made me smile. Sarah is certainly right up there for me! I respect all that Elizabeth Ann Seton accomplished in her young life (I'm sure 46 was not the "young" that it is today) and the long-lasting effect that she's had but Sarah got my vote!

  6. Am I really the first to comment this morning? Since I live just a few miles from St. Elizabeth Seton College, I was very interested in the process of her being made a Roman Catholic saint. Her order has done great good, and the college that bears her name has an illustrious reputation. She was born in my favorite city, New York. How could I not vote for her?

  7. Hard to vote against Sarah, but the home-town saint of Emmitsburg, Maryland wins my heart today.

  8. I usually have a good imagination, but today, I can't imagine voting for anyone except Sarah. I often wonder if Lent Madness featured Jesus vs. someone, if He might not get all the votes...

    1. I know, right??! Sarah was the only woman in the Bible whose name was changed BY GOD. Surely this is a winning characteristic, if ever there was one!

    2. Actually, the SEC has specifically stated that Jesus and Mary are ineligible for the bracket. A wise decision, I think... I mean, who would DARE vote against either of them?

  9. This was a tough choice again between two faithful women, but I went with Elizabeth for her dedication to educating women at a time when it was thought an education was wasted on females.

    1. Thanks, Debbie N., lest we forget. The value of education for women was still raging when I was a fresher at Notre Dame College (East Side of Cleveland, O.) in 1962, although the discussion had advanced to the college level. The Sisters of Notre Dame also excellent at education; go, Elizabeth Seton!

    2. Thanks for changing my mind. I was going with Sara until I thought about the benefits of education for my own 4 daughters

  10. I went with Seton even though my younger daughter is named Sarah. Main reason is that Sarah's encouragement for Abraham to have a child with Hagar has lead to never ending problems.

    1. A point, but tells us, as Abraham's like callings do, that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Yet God loves us, blesses us--why?!

      1. Point well taken Ruth. All of us fall short of the glory of God and receive forgiveness and blessings from our gracious Lord. I just needed a tie breaker between two people who were powerfully used by God.

    2. I voted for Mother Seaton because in addition to agreeing with Rev. Steve I too was a relatively-young widow with 5 children, was raised in New York and was a teacher.

      1. As a widow yourself with 5 children, didn't you wonder just a bit what Mother Seton did with her 5 still young children when she went off to found the Sisters of Charity? If there is a good answer to that question, I wish it had been mentioned in the biography. But, in any case, my vote goes to Sarah for her immense patience, both with Abraham and God.

          1. Lots of people wondering about what happened to Mother Seton's 5 children...here is a good link with a great deal of info on her "darlings", as well as the rest of her life. Vote for Elizabeth. Her life was filled with faith in and dvotion to our dear Lord, helping her own children and countless others through helping with orphans, the sick , the homeless and the uneducated. Her work in these areas also included her founding of the Sisters of Charity in America and a life dedicated to following God's will for her in providing for her own and myriad other chidren... God bless her!!!

        1. That was what gave me pause also, glad others thought that. She was married in 1794 so in 1809 her oldest child was unlikely to have been more than 14, and she had four other younger children. Commenters piled on Augustine of Hippo when they thought he had abandoned a child. IMHO if you bring children into the world you are responsible for raising them -- especially remembering that they had already lost one parent, their father. I think God could have waited a few years until she had raised her children before devoting herself to the Sisters of Charity.

          1. Her Wikipedia entry says nothing about the children post starting the order. But she started a school and Sisters of Charity were not cloistered so it's possible they were cared for within the community or by the extended Seaton family.
            Don't assume she left them to fend for themselves. Remember, the CB can't put an entire life in the first round or they have nothing left to write about for subsequent rounds.

    3. Abraham did not HAVE to rape his slave and then send her and young son into the desert. He could have raised an extended family and taught them to love one another.

  11. Seton Hall was knocked out early in that other "madness."I'm rooting for Elizabeth Ann all the way in the true madness!

  12. I really wanted to vote for both. In the end Sarah won because she "laughed." Although if I was told at 90 I was having a child I would probably cry.

  13. Since everyone was quick to jump on Augustine's case, what ever happened to the Seton children?

    1. Two died young (in the first years of the Sisters of Mercy). Two boys were 15 and 11 (and lived long lives). Her daughter Catherine joined her in the order.

      1. Thanks, ChrisinNY. I was wondering the same thing because they couldn't have been what we would consider adults when she took vows. I had to vote for Sarah because of her long faithfulness and "Sarah laughed".

    2. Nothing like what happened to Ishmael and to Isaac...

      But it's an interesting question. She had 3 daughters and 2 sons. Two of the girls died in their teens; the surviving daughter entered religious life and lived into her 90s. One of the boys died in his 20s, the other
      For varying reasons, children were often raised by relatives. Perhaps this was what happened for the Seton children. I also wonder whether founding an order required the same sundering of ties that entering an order would have done at that time?

      1. I have to look up where (I think it's in Ladies of Liberty by Cokie Roberts, but I'm not sure), but I've read that before she took vows or founded her community, she specified that she wasn't going to give up her duties as a mother to her children. That was one of the concessions granted her at the time.

    3. AMEN- My question exactly! Her oldest could not have been more than 10 or so (and she had 5 children) when she went off to start a "Community of nuns". What the heck??? I kept reading to find out if she brought them with her- which would not be conducive to a contemplative life- or gave them to someone else. What did happen to her kids????

  14. I named my daughter Elizabeth Ann (two first names), our first wholly American saint. No contest here, although the write-up of Sarah is wonderful.

    1. . . . there were a lot of saints out there, but the Episcopal Church doesn't canonize people.

      1. But the fact that someone is on a church's liturgical calendar means that the church concerned regards the person as a saint. It's just that the Catholic and Orthodox churches have a more involved process of saint-making than many other churches.

  15. I'm surprised to see Mother Seton, as wonderful as she was, in a dead heat with Sarah. It's Sarah! What person is more important than Sarah? Maybe Moses or Mary, but it's pretty select company we're talking about 🙂

  16. Our lovely daughter is named Sarah Elizabeth....so this was a tough choice. If the voting ends in a 50-50 split, how will the SEC break the tie?

  17. As a product of several years in Catholic schools--I had to vote for Sarah. (I was also quite taken by the description of her laughter...)

  18. This was a tough one. Even though I am currently playing Sister Aloysius in a production of Doubt, I decided to go with Sarah. It was great to see an Old Testament matriarch in the bracket.

  19. A question I have about Elizabeth Ann Seton is what happened to her children when she entered religious life. As best I can figure from her Wikipedia entry, they ranged in age from 7 to mid-teens in 1809 when she founded the Sisters of Charity. Did she keep them with her in the community and school? Were they raised by other family members? For all the good she did for other children, I'm hoping it was not at the expense of her own. Wikipedia is silent on this question. Does anyone here know?

    1. According to ChrisinNY: Two died young (in the first years of the Sisters of Mercy). Two boys were 15 and 11 (and lived long lives). Her daughter Catherine joined her in the order.

  20. Sarah certainly is wonderful, but as a graduate of Elizabeth Seton High School, I just have to vote for her.

  21. Does anyone know what happened to Elizabeth Ann Seton's children when she became a nun? Were they farmed out to relatives or were they grown by that time?

    Because I don't know the answers to those questions and because "Sarah laughed," it's Sarah that gets my vote!

    1. According to ChrisinNY from an earlier post: Two died young (in the first years of the Sisters of Mercy). Two boys were 15 and 11 (and lived long lives). Her daughter Catherine joined her in the order.

  22. I've always been bothered by the way Sarah mistreated Hagar, who is one of my favorite people in the Bible. Reading in her bio about all she put up with made me soften a bit towards Sarah, but not quite enough. My vote went to Elizabeth.

    1. I found a much more detailed bio of Seton here http://www.emmitsburg.net/setonshrine/

      "During the period 1809-1820, of the ninety-eight candidates who arrived in Elizabeth's lifetime, eighty-six of them actually joined the new community; seventy percent remained Sisters of Charity for life. Illness, sorrow, and early death were omnipresent in Elizabeth's life. She buried eighteen sisters at Emmitsburg, in addition to her two daughters Annina and Rebecca, and her sisters-in-law Harriet and Cecilia Seton."

      I've seen elsewhere that when she took her vows, it was understood her children would be with her and cared for within the community. Anna died at age 17 and Rebecca at age 18. Richard died at 25 while serving in the Navy. William lived until 72 and Catherine until 91.

    2. Margaret,
      I so agree with you. Sarah drove Hagar and Ishmael out into the dessert with few provisions. Not exactly saintly behavior. Both Jews and Christians hold Sarah in high esteem, but I think she was mean-spirited. Of course, Hagar and Ishmael go on to play a role in the founding of Islam. Maybe God had a hand in all f this.

      1. Had a hand....Has a hand...
        I am a believer in this.
        It seems that God worked in a more complicated way in Elizabeth,
        And Elizabeth reciprocated. Who can be in another's mind. How
        Does God work in yours, in mine. Deeply interesting meditations about
        Hagar. We have much to learn.

  23. For Elizabeth Ann Seton and Sarah

    Tune: Eventide, Hymnal ’82, 662, Abide With Me

    Abide with them, O Lord, the SEC!
    They’ll need protection if they constantly
    Bring to our days excess diversity!
    On just one ballot, it’s a choice thorny!

    She is a sign of grace in midst of woe,
    Elizabeth knew sorrow, loss and foes*.
    Gave of herself wherever there was need,
    Gave women purpose, bravely took the lead.

    Sarah was strong, a model women need.
    Learned the hard way that God is truth indeed.
    Endured long years of empty womb and arms,**
    Freed from sore bitterness to joy affirmed.

    *There was tremendous prejudice against Roman Catholicism at the time, as well as against the religious life which was seen as “unnatural”.

    **I often wonder how she felt when she had to lie about being married, was taken into a harem to protect her husband’s hide then booted out to protect the king’s/pharaoh’s hide. She had so little opportunity for joy in her life, this matriarch of three faiths.

    1. Not that I'd ever threaten the SEC, but really, it's a serious toss-up today! Please won't you let us vote twice just one time in Lent? You could call it our rose vote for Rose Sunday.

  24. College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown NJ was the choice of family members and I visited there often. The Sisters of Charity also did work for Lepers. I must vote for Elizabeth Seaton for the good works she performed.