St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Born on August 28, 1774, two years before the American Revolution, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was the first native-born American canonized by the Catholic Church.

Early Life

Elizabeth was born into the upper class of New York society, and raised Episcopalian. In spite of her high society background, Elizabeth’s early life was quiet, simple and at times, lonely. Her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, was the Chief Health Officer of the Port of New York, attending to immigrants arriving at Staten Island.

Her mother, Catherine Charlton, was the daughter of a Church of England minister who served as the rector of St. Andrew’s Church. Catherine died when Elizabeth was only three years old.

After her mother’s death, Elizabeth’s father saw that she received an excellent education. To provide a mother to his two young daughters, Dr. Bayley married Charlotte Amelia Barclay. The new Mrs. Bayley was a member of the Jacobus James Roosevelt family and actively participated in social ministry. Elizabeth accompanied her stepmother on her charitable rounds from visiting the poor to distributing food.

Married Life

Elizabeth fell in love and in 1794 married the wealthy William Seton. Their first years together were happy and prosperous. Elizabeth and William were blessed with five children: Anna Maria (Annina) (1795–1812), William II (1796-1868), Richard (1798–1823), Catherine (1800–1891) (the first American to join the Sisters of Mercy), and Rebecca Mary (1802–1816).

In marriage, Elizabeth actively engaged in social ministry by nursing the sick and dying among family, friends, and needy neighbors.

She became a charter member of The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children in 1797 and became the organization’s treasurer.

Within four years of their marriage, William’s father died. His passing left the young couple in charge of William’s seven half brothers and sisters, as well as the family’s importing business. The business began to fail due to a myriad of reasons — most devastating blows were caused by politics of the time and sanctions. Simultaneously William’s health began to fail. He was forced to file a petition of bankruptcy before setting sail for Italy, in a final attempt to save his health.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s relics are entombed in the Altar of Relics at the Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Elizabeth’s Conversion

Upon landing in Italy, William was confined due to his illness. He died of tuberculosis during the confinement. Elizabeth went on to stay with her husband’s Italian business friends. While in Italy, Elizabeth became interested in the Catholic faith and was encouraged to join the Church.

Upon returning to New York, Elizabeth’s Episcopal friends and family opposed her decision to convert to Catholicism and abandoned her.

She joined the Catholic faith at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in New York City on March 14, 1805 – the only Catholic Church in the city at that time. A year later, she received the sacrament of Confirmation from the Bishop of Baltimore, the Right Reverend John Carroll.

Founding the Sisters of Charity and the First American Catholic Parochial School

Upon her return to the USA, Elizabeth was faced with the challenge of providing for herself and her children. She opened a school in New York and it failed. She strongly considered moving to Canada when she met Abbé Louis William Valentine Dubourg, S.S. of the French emigré community of Sulpician Fathers.

After years of struggle, Elizabeth decided to accept the Sulpician’s invitation to move her family to Maryland to open a school. Elizabeth and two other young women began to make plans for a religious order dedicated to the caring for children of the poor.

On March 25, 1809, Elizabeth Seton pronounced her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, binding for one year. She was called Mother Seton from that time on.

In June of 1809, Seton and 16 other women and students, including her children, travelled to Emmitsburg, Maryland, and established the congregation called the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s. The Rule of the congregation was inspired by the rules written for the Daughters of Charity in France by St. Vincent de Paul, and was formally ratified in 1812.

The Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s was the first congregation of religious women to be founded in the United States. In March 1810, Mother Seton established the Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School, dedicated to the education of girls.

The house, known today as the White House, was originally called “St. Joseph’s House” and served as the first motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity.

The 19th century Stone House, where the Sisters of Charity were founded in 1809.

Later Life

While Mother Seton was afflicted with tuberculosis, she remained devoted to educating and nurturing her children – and those of others. She wrote textbooks, translated resources from French into English, and composed hymns. Mother Seton’s school, St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, was considered to be the cradle to the American Catholic parochial school system.

Elizabeth felt that God was guiding her through her journey on earth. In 1821, at the age of 46, Mother Seton died in Emmitsburg, Maryland — just sixteen years after becoming a Catholic.

After her death, her order continued to grow, and their work spread throughout the country. By 1830, the Sisters were running orphanages and schools as far west as Cincinnati and New Orleans, and had established a hospital in St. Louis – the first hospital west of the Mississippi.

Elizabeth Ann Seton was beatified by Pope John XXIII on March 17, 1963, and was canonized on September 14, 1975, by Pope Paul VI. Her feast day is January 4.

Today’s St. Joseph’s Cemetery & Mortuary Chapel, the location of the original cemetery has its own story. During the summer of 1809, Mother Seton and her companions took a walk through the dense woods on their property to select a site for a cemetery.

St. Elizabeth Ann [Bayley] Seton Timeline:

  • August 28, 1774. Elizabeth is born in New York City two years before the American Revolution. Her family was socially prominent in New England, and members of the Episcopalian church.

  • Her mother, Catherine Charlton Bayley, dies when Elizabeth was three years old. Her father ensured that she was well-educated and well-read.

  • January 25, 1794. Happily marries William Seton. The first Episcopal bishop of New York, Samuel Provoost, presided. Elizabeth dedicates time to her social work and feeding the poor.

  • December 27, 1803. William Seton dies and Elizabeth is widowed in Pisa, Italy. She is introduced to the Catholic faith by the Filicchi Family.

  • March 14, 1805. Elizabeth converts to Catholicism. She is rejected by the New England establishment.

  • June 8, 1808. Elizabeth leaves New York City and heads to Baltimore, Maryland to open a school for girls.

  • March 25, 1809. Elizabeth pronounces her vows before Catholic Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore. The beginning of the founding of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.

  • July 31, 1809. Official founding of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, thus establishing the Sisters of Charity in America. Elizabeth “Mother Seton” inhabits the Stone House in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

  • January 4, 1821. Mother Seton dies of tuberculosis in the “St. Joseph’s House” now known as the White House. She was 46 years old.

  • September 14, 1975. Mother Seton canonized St. Elizabeth Ann Seton at Rome, the first native-born North American proclaimed to sainthood.