Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
Widow, Foundress and Educator
Feastday: January 4
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in New York City on August 28, 1774 to a prominent Episcopal family, and lost her mother at the age of three. In 1794, at the age of 19, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, a wealthy businessman with whom she had five children. William died of tuberculosis in 1803, leaving Elizabeth a young widow. After discovering Catholicism in Italy, where her husband had died, Elizabeth returned to the United States and entered the Catholic Church in 1805 in New York.
After a number of difficult years, Elizabeth moved in 1809 to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, the first community for religious women established in the United States.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born on August 28, 1774, the second child of a socially prominent couple, Dr. Richard Bayley and Catherine Charlton of New York City. The Bayley and Charlton families were among the earliest European settlers in the New York area. Her father's parents were French Huguenots and lived in New Rochelle, New York. As Chief Health Officer for the Port of New York, Dr. Bayley attended to immigrants disembarking from ships onto Staten Island, as well as cared for New Yorkers when yellow fever swept through the city (for example, killing 700 in four months in 1795). Dr. Bayley later served as the first professor of anatomy at Columbia College. Her mother was the daughter of a Church of England priest who served as rector of St. Andrew's Church on Staten Island for 30 years, and Elizabeth was raised in what would eventually become (in the years after the American Revolution) the Episcopal Church.
Her mother, Catherine, died in 1777 when Elizabeth was three years old. This may have resulted from complications after the birth of the couple's final child, also Catherine, who died early the following year. Elizabeth's father then married Charlotte Amelia Barclay, a member of the Jacobus James Roosevelt family, to provide a mother for his two surviving daughters. The new Mrs. Bayley participated in her church's social ministry, and often took young Elizabeth with on her charitable rounds, as she visited the poor in their homes to distribute food and needed items.
The couple had five children, but the marriage ended in separation. During the breakup, their stepmother rejected Elizabeth and her older sister. Their father then traveled to London for further medical studies, so the sisters lived temporarily in New Rochelle with their paternal uncle, William Bayley, and his wife, Sarah Pell Bayley. Elizabeth experienced a period of darkness during this time, feeling the separation as loss of a second mother, as she later reflected in her journals. In these journals, Elizabeth also showed her love for nature, poetry, and music, especially the piano. Entries frequently expressed her religious aspirations, as well as favorite passages from her reading, showing her introspection and natural bent toward contemplation. Seton was also fluent in French, a fine musician, and an accomplished horsewoman.
Marriage and motherhood
On January 25, 1794, at age 19, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, aged 25, a wealthy businessman in the import trade. Samuel Provoost, the first Episcopal bishop of New York, presided at their wedding. Her husband's father, William Seton (1746–1798), belonged to an impoverished noble Scottish family, and had emigrated to New York in 1758, and became superintendent and part owner of the iron-works of Ringwood, New Jersey. A loyalist, the senior William Seton was the last royal public notary for the city and province of New York. He brought his sons William (Elizabeth's husband) and James into the import-export mercantile firm, the William Seton Company, which became Seton, Maitland and Company in 1793. The younger William had visited important counting houses in Europe in 1788, was a friend of Filippo Filicchi (a renowned merchant in Leghorn, Italy, with whom his firm traded), and brought the first Stradivarius violin to America.
Shortly after they married, Elizabeth and William moved into a fashionable residence on Wall Street. Socially prominent in New York society, the Setons belonged to Trinity Episcopal Church, near Broadway and Wall Streets. A devout communicant, Elizabeth took the Rev. John Henry Hobart (later bishop) as her spiritual director. Along with her sister-in-law Rebecca Mary Seton (1780–1804) (her soul-friend and dearest confidante), Elizabeth continued her former stepmother's social ministry—nursing the sick and dying among family, friends, and needy neighbors. Influenced by the her father she became a charter member of The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1797) and also served as the organization's treasurer.
When the elder William Seton died, the Seton family fortunes began to decline in the volatile economic climate preceding the War of 1812. The couple took in William's six younger siblings, ages seven to seventeen. Plus, they had five children of their own: Anna Maria (Annina) (1795–1812), William II (1796-1868), Richard (1798–1823), Catherine (1800–1891) (who was to become the first American to join the Sisters of Mercy) and Rebecca Mary (1802–1816). This necessitated her moving to the larger Seton family residence.
Widowhood and conversion
A dispute between the United States of America and the French Republic from 1798 to 1800 led to a series of attacks on American shipping. The United Kingdom's blockade of France and the loss of several of his ships at sea led William Seton into bankruptcy, and the Setons lost their home at 61 Stone Street in lower Manhattan. The following summer she and the children stayed with her father, who was still health officer for the Port of New York on Staten Island. From 1801 to 1803 they lived in a house at 8 State Street, on the site of the present Church of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary (built in 1964). Through most of their married life, William Seton suffered from tuberculosis. The stress worsened his illness; his doctors sent him to Italy for the warmer climate, with Elizabeth and their eldest daughter as his companions. Upon landing at the port of Leghorn, they were held in quarantine for a month, for authorities feared they might have brought yellow fever from New York. William died on 27 December 1803 and was buried in the Old English Cemetery. Elizabeth and Anna Maria were received by the families of her late husband's Italian business partners, who introduced her to Roman Catholicism.
Returning to New York, the widow Seton was received into the Catholic Church, on March 14, 1805 by the Rev. Matthew O'Brien, pastor of St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, New York, then the city's only Catholic church. (Anti-Catholic laws had been lifted just a few years before.) A year later, she received the sacrament of Confirmation from the Bishop of Baltimore, the Right Reverend John Carroll, the only Catholic bishop in the nation.
In order to support herself and her children, Seton had started an academy for young ladies, as was common for widows of social standing in that period. After news of her conversion to Catholicism spread, however, most parents withdrew their daughters from her tutelage. In 1807 students attending a local Protestant Academy were boarded at her house on Stuyvesant Lane in the Bowery, near St. Mark's Church.
Seton was about to move to Canada when she met a visiting priest, the Abbé Louis William Valentine Dubourg, S.S., who was a member of the French emigré community of Sulpician Fathers and then president of St. Mary's college. The Sulpicians had taken refuge in the United States from the religious persecution of the Reign of Terror in France and were in the process of establishing the first Catholic seminary for the United States, in keeping with the goals of their society. For several years, Dubourg had envisioned a religious school to meet the educational needs of the new nation's small Catholic community.
After struggling through some trying and difficult years, in 1809 Elizabeth accepted the invitation of the Sulpicians and moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland. A year later she established the Saint Joseph's Academy and Free School, a school dedicated to the education of Catholic girls. This was possible due to the financial support of Samuel Sutherland Cooper, a wealthy convert and seminarian at the newly established Mount Saint Mary's University, begun by John Dubois, S.S., and the Sulpicians.
On July 31, Elizabeth established a religious community in Emmitsburg dedicated to the care of the children of the poor. This was the first congregation of religious sisters to be founded in the United States, and its school was the first free Catholic school in America. This modest beginning marked the start of the Catholic parochial school system in the United States. The congregation was initially called the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's. From that point on, she became known as "Mother Seton". In 1810, the sisters adopted the rules written by St. Vincent de Paul for the Daughters of Charity in France.
Later life and death
The remainder of her life was spent in leading and developing the new congregation. Mother Seton was described as a charming and cultured lady. Her connections to New York society and the accompanying social pressures to leave the new life she had created for herself did not deter her from embracing her religious vocation and charitable mission. The greatest difficulties she faced were actually internal, stemming from misunderstandings, interpersonal conflicts and the deaths of two daughters, other loved ones, and young sisters in the community.
She died of tuberculosis on January 4, 1821, at the age of 46. Today, her remains are entombed in the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland, United States.
By 1830, the Sisters were running orphanages and schools as far west as Cincinnati and New Orleans and had established the first hospital west of the Mississippi in St. Louis.
Elizabeth Ann Seton had a deep devotion to the Eucharist, Sacred Scripture and the Virgin Mary. The 23rd Psalm was her favorite prayer throughout her life. She was a woman of prayer and service who embraced the spirituality of Louise de Marillac and Vincent de Paul. It had been her original intention to join the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, but the embargo of France due to the Napoleonic Wars prevented this connection. It was only decades later, in 1850, that the Emmitsburg community took the steps to merge with the Daughters, and to become their American branch, as their foundress had envisioned.
Today, six separate religious congregations trace their roots to the beginnings of the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg. In addition to the original community of Sisters at Emmitsburg (now part of the Vincentian order), they are based in New York City; Cincinnati, Ohio; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Convent Station, New Jersey; and Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
Mother Seton School in Emmitsburg, Maryland, is a direct descendant of the Saint Joseph's Academy and Free School. It is located less than a mile from the site of the original school and is sponsored by the Daughters of Charity.
In the Philippines, the Elizabeth Seton School in BF Resort Village, Las Piñas City was established in 1975, on the year of Seton's canonization. It is the largest Catholic school in the city in terms of population.
Seton Home Study School, a Roman Catholic homeschooling program based in Front Royal, Virginia, received its name from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Seton Hall College (now known as Seton Hall University) was formally founded on September 1, 1856, by Diocese of Newark Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley, a cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt. Bishop Bayley named the institution after his aunt, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
The Seton Hill Schools (now Seton Hill University), named for St. Elizabeth, were founded by the Sisters of Charity in 1885. The university continues to operate in Greensburg, Pennsylvania under the auspices of the Sisters of Charity.
Niagara University in Lewiston, New York near Niagara Falls also has a dorm building named after her called Seton Hall.
A number of Roman Catholic churches are named for Mother Seton. These include St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Parish in Crofton, Maryland, established in 1975 in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the same diocese in which she had founded Saint Joseph's Academy and Free School. Also Seton School in Manassas Virginia is named after Mother Seton. Another Catholic Church was St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Texas
Elizabeth Ann Seton was beatified by Pope John XXIII on March 17, 1963. The pope said on the occasion, “In a house that was very small, but with ample space for charity, she sowed a seed in America which by Divine Grace grew into a large tree.”
Pope Paul VI canonized her on September 14, 1975, in a ceremony in St. Peter's Square. In his words, “Elizabeth Ann Seton is a saint. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is an American. All of us say this with special joy, and with the intention of honoring the land and the nation from which she sprang forth as the first flower in the calendar of the saints. Elizabeth Ann Seton was wholly American! Rejoice for your glorious daughter. Be proud of her. And know how to preserve her fruitful heritage.”
Elizabeth Seton is the patron saint of seafarers.