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

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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


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301 comments on “Elizabeth Ann Seton vs. Sarah”

  1. I think Sarah is just too much of a holy figure in Christianity and in other world religions to include her in this challenge. It would also be inappropriate to include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Leah in this challenge.

  2. Much respect for Sarah today. With small kids, I sometimes think I am too old for this. And I am not half her age!

  3. You would have to be a saint to put up with being married to Abraham. "You took my son where?"

  4. Sarah, like Abraham, is an archetype ("the original model from which all other things of the same kind are made"), and she speaks to all who are called out of the familiar to journey into the unknown. Plus, she laughed!

  5. Sarah! Her story carried me through years of childlessness, reminding me through it all that there is God, and there is laughter and hope.

  6. It was a hard choice today, but I finally voted for Sarah after getting little help from previous commenters. Sorry, Mother Seton, but it's always miffed me that you left the Episcopal Church (though I see that the church may well have let you down in a really difficult time). Still.

  7. I find it difficult to vote for someone who may well be a mythical figure, or at the very least, a real figure whose life has been mythologized. Also, I'm concerned about the way Sarah's complicated nature and story has been abridged here, in a way that omits her insistence on banishing her handmaid Hagar and Hagar's son Ishamel. The Hebrew Bible's stories are important because its figures aren't ideals, although they're frequently idealized by others. Rather, these characters are flawed humans (even if mythical ones), and the flaws are important to consider as we take lessons from the scriptures.

    Meanwhile, I love Seton's story of service in the face of loss and adversity. I love Seton as the trailblazing founder of schools and social services. She is brave and inspiring to those who would allow themselves to be swamped under such life circumstances. She gets my vote, hands down.

    1. Sorry for the typo above: "Ishmael," not "Ishamel." Typing in the early morning has its hazards...

    2. Thank you, Sofie. My thoughts exactly. While myth is an important teaching tool, real human beings and their good works always get my vote in Lent Madness.

    3. I knew someone would diss Sarah for not being "real"! How do we decide who is real and who isn't? Abraham? Isaiah? Was Jesus real? How about Mary? What are the criteria?

        1. My point, Camille, is that no one knows with perfect historical accuracy when, how long, or if many of the people of the Bible lived, but for people of faith the "realness" or significance of these people and their stories is not diminished. If we depend on historical references, photographs, or archaeological or other scientific evidence for our faith, all of which can be destroyed or lost throughout time, then we are standing on shaky ground indeed.

      1. Anyone who had the nerve to serve the [angels of the] LORD milk and meat zt the same meal has to be real in my book.

        1. This was prior to the time of the establishment of the Kosher dietary restrictions, since those came at the time of Moses, who was a descendant of Sarah.

    4. I agree with you too. Sarah is likely a mythological figure, so I'll vote for a real person. I was a Catholic as a young child and went to Catholic schools for 3 years and got an awesome educational foundation.

  8. Couldn't vote for Sarah because of what she did--or allowed to be done--to Hagar and Ishmael.

    1. As I'd commented on an earlier post, "Most scholars see the to-ing-and-fro-ing between Sarah and Hagar as legendary rather than actually historical."

  9. Although I am a cradle Episcopalian, I am also a product of Maryland parochial school, Notre Dame Preparatory (School Sisters of Notre Dame). With vaguely parallel histories, I had to vote for Mother Seton!

    1. Hooray NDP! (a Mount de Sales and Mt. St. Mary's mom) Mother Seton has my vote too!

  10. Seton opened the doors to education in this country that continues to this very day. Remember the movie "Doubt" g hose were Seton Sisters.

  11. We have a mixed family of Episcopal and RC and Elizabeth Ann Seton is my granddaughter's confirmation saint so I had to vote for her. I wish I could have voted for both. Sarah putting up with Abraham and all his shenanigans deserves to be St. Sarah. I'm sure she already has a golden halo.

  12. Re Sarah being the first OT figure to make a bracket: I thought Moses made an appearance in a previous Lent Madness tournament?

    As for my vote today - while CB David Creech crafted a very enticing and poetic entry on behalf of Sarah, my vote goes unreservedly to Elizabeth Ann Seaton. Although I traversed the Roman Catholic-Episcopal path in the opposite order from Mother Seaton, I owe much of who I am, personally and professionally, to my 12 years in parochial schools under the teaching of the good Sisters of the Adrian (MI) Dominicans.

  13. Having received an excellent education in the Catholic school system, and then gone on to DePaul School of Nursing, run by the Daughters of Charity (our dorm was called Seton Hall) this is a no-brained for me. Besides, their habits looked like the Flying Nun!

    1. Ha! Ha! I missed this contest but had to comment. I was raised by the Daughters of Chairity (the true flying nuns) and dearly loved them too. Still remember Sr. Annalee roller skating with us...but nothing beat Sr. Frances skiing on Mobile Bay in her full regalia with her wings folded over and paperclipped down. What a sight! She never once fell either. Love those great memories.

      Of course I would have voted Elizabeth Ann Seton as well...next time.

  14. During Lent our parish is using Eucharistic prayer C
    "Lord God of our Fathers; God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (BPC)
    "Lord God of our ancestors; God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah" (alternative, with other names also suggested by various sources, and assorted grumpiness that goes with this change; c.f. Derek Olsen: "Sarah laughed")
    but in all things the words that follow "God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ: Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. ..."
    so TODAY my vote is for Sarai / Sarah

  15. I voted for Elizabeth Ann Seton, mainly because I figured she was pretty sharp to start a religious community to help her w/ 5 children! Smooth move! Anyway, as much as I admire Sarah & certainly understand her laughing behind the tent flap at the idea of a child at 90 (I'd actually be crying, but hysteria is an understandable response), I'm still a little ticked at her in the way she treated Hagar & Ishmael when Abraham turned that choice over to her.

  16. Here's to Sarah, who "laughed a promised child into the world," and to David Creech, who made me cry before 9 am Central Time. Kudos to Ms. Fox and marvelous Mother Seton as well.

  17. I have to vote for Sarah. My Pottery Studio is named, And Sarah Laughed from a TR that we did in
    EfM. I identify with both and greatly admire Elizabeth Seaton. True Saint and a true American with her "can do" attitude. I agree "because everything is possible with God"Mark 10:27

  18. Kudos to celebrity blogger David Creech for a beautiful write-up on Sarah. She gets my vote today.

  19. This was a tough one for me. I sooooo wanted to vote for Elizabeth Ann Seton, BUT . . . if Sarah had not birthed Laughter, we wouldn't be talking about the rest of the people on this bracket.

    1. 'Twas Mary to whom the Lord did bid a child Jesus.
      God works his will in mysterious ways.
      My daughter always said "if I were not born of you, I would have been born of a bear"
      Who knows the ways of God.
      I voted for Elizabeth because she was often out of community and alone.

  20. Had to vote for Sarah even though Elizabeth Anne Seaton's story is very compelling. My daughter who is also an Episcopal priest was named after Sarah!

  21. Now I understand the "Madness" part of this "game". These 2 were again so difficult to separate. However, I voted for the first American Saint!

  22. Wow - almost a Sophie's choice. I am a music director at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish, but I have always loved the story of Sarah.

  23. This was a hard choice; I've always been inspired by Mother Seton's story.

    However, my middle daughter is Sarah... And my youngest daughter (who helps me vote) loves the idea of living in a tent for twenty-five years (yay camping!).

    Sarah took our vote.