Born in New York City on August 28, 1774, of a prominent Episcopalian family, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton lived during the early years of the American republic and became a foundress of the young American Catholic Church. Her father, Richard Bayley, was a distinguished New York physician. From the time of her mother’s death when she was three years old, she experienced an uneasy childhood, as shortly afterwards her father remarried and Elizabeth felt neglected by her stepmother.
On January 25, 1794, at the age of nineteen, she married William Seton, a successful New York businessman. Their life together was lively and happy. Five children, two boys and three girls, were born of their union. Elizabeth, friendly and widely popular, enjoyed a busy social life. She was also a fervent member of Trinity Church in New York City, devoting herself to the church’s religious and social activities, especially to the care of the poor.
Upon losing his fortune, her husband’s health began to fail towards the winter of 1803. Elizabeth sailed with him and her young daughter, Anna, for the warmer climate of Italy to stay with the Filicchi family, with whom they had become friendly through their business affairs. Her husband’s condition worsened during the voyage. Unfortunately, when they docked at the port of Leghorn, Italy, they were immediately quarantined in damp, isolated quarters because of a threat of plague. On December 27, 1803, William Seton died there. The young widow and her daughter were released and found a home with the devotedly Catholic Filicchis. “The patience of these dear Filicchis,” Elizabeth wrote in her journal. “You would think it was our Savior himself they received in his poor and sick strangers”.
As she experienced the faith of this family and the Catholic faith and practices of the people, especially their devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, Elizabeth was drawn to the Catholic Church. Elizabeth returned to New York in May of 1804. On March 14, 1805, she became a Catholic after enduring much struggle within herself and much opposition from family and friends.
As a new convert, she enthusiastically embraced her new faith and became a zealous member of a church which then had few members and little social prestige. With the encouragement of other pioneer Catholic leaders, like Archbishop Carroll of Baltimore, in 1808 she established a religious community of women, The Sisters of Charity, in Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1809. Her small community grew and opened schools and orphanages in New York and Philadelphia. Mother Seton has been called the foundress of the Catholic school system in the United States. Today, her followers minister throughout the Church in the United States in schools, hospitals and various works of charity.
Mother Seton remained a devoted mother to her children and to those women who joined her. Loyal to the Church she loved, she said to her sisters as she lay dying: “Be children of the Church; be children of the Church.” Her death occurred on January 4, 1821 and she is buried in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Elizabeth Ann Seton was beatified on March 17, 1963 and was canonized on September 14, 1975. She is the first native-born North American to be so honored.
DATES TO REMEMBER
1774 Born August 28 in New York City
1794 Married William Seton – January 25
1803 Widowed – December 27
1805 Received into the Catholic Church – March 14
1808 Arrived in Baltimore – June 16
1809 Began Community life – July 31
1810 Opened St. Joseph’s Free School – February 22
1821 Died – January 4
1907 Cause for Sanctification began
1959 Declared “Venerable” – December 18
1963 Beatified (Blessed) – March 17
1975 Canonized by Pope Paul VI – September 14
2009 200th anniversary of her founding of the Sisters of Charity in the United States
2009 150th anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of Charity in New Jersey