Elizabeth Ann Seton: An American Saint
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born on Aug. 28, 1774. Her ancestors were among the earliest settlers of the New York area, and Elizabeth's family was part of New York City's wealthy elite. Elizabeth was an introspective child who enjoyed reading and writing in her journal.
She was nineteen when she married William Magee Seton, a successful New York businessman. It was a happy marriage and they had five children. They were active in the Episcopal Church, and Elizabeth spent much time attending sick and needy people in the community. In 1797 she became one of the founders and charter members of The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the Jan. 20, 1898, issue of the Age-Herald (Birmingham, Alabama)
In a reversal of fortune, the family business went bankrupt and her husband developed tuberculosis. Hoping to restore his health, the Setons traveled to Italy in 1803. The effort was unsuccessful and William died in December of that year, leaving Elizabeth a poor widow with five children.
Italy had another life-changing effect on her: she was introduced to Roman Catholicism. When she returned to New York she pursued her religious conversion despite outrage from family and friends. Elizabeth was accepted into the Catholic Church in 1805.
Elizabeth struggled to provide for her children and remain true to her faith. Her fortunes turned when she was invited to Baltimore, Maryland, to help establish a religious school for children with The Society of Saint Sulpice. She spent one year as schoolmistress before being recruited by the society to help develop a sisterhood modeled after the Daughters of Charity of Paris.
Land was purchased in Emmitsburg, Maryland, for the sisterhood. The Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph's was founded July 31, 1809. St. Joseph's Free School and St. Joseph's Academy opened the following year. These two schools formed the heart of Catholic education in the United States.
Elizabeth was elected to be the first Mother of the Sisters of Charity and remained in that position until her death from tuberculosis on Jan. 4, 1821. She was 46 years old. In a letter written to an old friend in 1810, Elizabeth described her approach to life: "Faith lifts the staggering soul on one side, hope supports it on the other, experience says it must be and love says let it be."* She had devoted her life to the work of education and charity and her legacy lives on in the continued work of the Sisters of Charity and in her many writings. Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born American to become a saint when she was canonized on Sept. 14, 1975.
*Archives, Saint Joseph's Provincial House, Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul (Emmitsburg, Maryland).