Our family vacation fell through this year. Our hotel booking had to be rescheduled due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the earliest they could fit us in was a month later than what we were aiming for. As a result, our whole vacation was scrapped.
I remember one of the places we visited during last year’s summer vacation — the shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton — as being one of the most beautiful locales on our trip. Set in the hilly greenery of Emmitsburg, Maryland, the shrine includes grounds decorated with a fountain and garden as well as a museum showcasing various personal effects from Elizabeth’s daily life.
It was an amazing place to visit, and it sparked within me a keen interest in this woman’s life. In the following months, a biography about her was lent to me and it turns out she has a fascinating story.
Elizabeth was an astonishing woman who made significant contributions to the educational needs of children in early U.S. history. But throughout her life, she had to come to terms with pain, loss, and uncertainty — yet she never cowered in confronting any of it.
One occasion, in particular, stands out. Like me and my family, the Setons anticipated a relaxing, cheerful excursion — in their case, to Italy, which was a bit out of the ordinary for Elizabeth. They intended to visit their friends in the village of Leghorn.
Onboard a vessel christened The Shepherdess, the Setons undertook a 56-day voyage from New York to Leghorn. For eight weeks, Elizabeth, her husband William, and their daughter, Anna Maria remained cooped up on the little ship making her way slowly to distant shores. They were accompanied by the captain and his wife.
Everyone lived together peaceably enough, but the limited space must have been stifling at times. Eventually, The Shepherdess reached Europe. But upon their arrival, the Setons were in for an unpleasant surprise: more cramped quarters.
With The Shepherdess came news of the breakout of yellow fever in New York. Throughout the 1800s, this virus would flare up in America, causing a number of historic epidemics. Though the little American family had no signs of carrying the virus, the local Italians did not want to take a chance of such an illness spreading. Plus, William appeared to be very sick, though it wasn’t from yellow fever.
The Setons were not allowed to embrace their friends or extended family. Instead, they were escorted by boat to a building called a lazaretto, where they were quarantined. With limited supplies and only a single additional set of clothes each, the Setons braved the quarantine.
On account of Elizabeth’s well-kept journal, we have a lot of insight as to what she and her family struggled with during their time of social distance. She describes their chamber as one of bland, whitewashed walls and a cold brick-paved floor.
The family had to grow in patience, deepen their humility, and foster ingenuity. They took everything in stride, though it all weighed heavily on Elizabeth’s mind and heart. She calmly cared for her spouse, and watched helplessly as his health gradually decreased, easing his discomfort to the best of her abilities.
Meanwhile, Anna Maria was showing her own sparks of genius in coping with the conditions that limited her activities. Taking a piece of rope that had served to bundle up one of her parcels, she repurposed it as a jump rope. Her mom deduced that this energetic pastime helped to keep Anna Maria’s body temperature up because the room was often frigid.
In a sense, the lazaretto was a veritable prison. I think of the times when I confront boredom or the bothers of being relatively homebound, and all my complaints fall as mere pebbles in comparison to the Setons’ stay there.
They were not deliberately maltreated, but the predicament lent itself to harsh conditions. Be that as it may, Elizabeth often let her gentle and courageous heart guide her actions. She continued to nurse her husband, wrote down their progress through the quarantine, read, and even sang.
She was not content with sulking in self-pity. So she brought music and interaction to the cold, damp chamber. Here was a woman who refused to let the confines of quarantine restrict her in bringing hope to those who had very little.
The three Setons were kept locked away in their room from November 19 to December 19 of 1803. Finally, they were permitted to leave the lazaretto — and William Seton died in eight days. His widow, however, was called to accomplish great things back in America.
It’s nearly impossible to stay detached from the dynamics of this episode from the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Quarantine isn’t something enacted in the past tense, plaguing Elizabeth more than 200 years ago. It’s something that weighs on us today — it’s tangible and real.
Elizabeth Seton has given us a role model for times such as these. She herself was cooped up with family in a barren room under the looming threat of a viral epidemic. In many ways, the technological advancements since the 1800s have been a blessing to us, especially during the pandemic, but think about it — Elizabeth didn’t have Zoom to get in touch with friends, or Netflix to offer some form of escapism. She lost so many things in those weeks of quarantine: the freedom to go where she pleased, the power to improve her husband’s health, and certainty in the future. Each of these had been taken away.
We can learn a lot from her example, from her unwavering virtues. She did not allow depression to seize her heart. In her journal, she talked about singing. How many of us try to do this? How can we be genuinely ourselves in times of pressure?
Elizabeth’s response offers us encouragement to remain positive — even cheerful — during this time. The next time you think you’ve got it bad because you’re stuck indoors, ponder the ordeal of the Setons’ quarantine.
Elizabeth was able to look beyond her daily troubles, trying to seize the bigger picture. She did not ignore the quarantine, but conquered it by proving that nothing was going to stop her from loving her family and living life fully. We have it within us to do the same.