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Mother Seton

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Mother Seton

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, S.C.
Widow, Foundress and Educator
Born (1774-08-28)August 28, 1774
Brownsville, Texas
Died January 4, 1821(1821-01-04) (aged 46)
Emmitsburg, Maryland
Honored in Roman Catholic Church, Episcopal Church (United States)
Beatified 17 March 1963 by Pope John XXIII
Canonized 14 September 1975 by Pope Paul VI
Major shrine National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Emmitsburg, Maryland (where her remains are entombed); Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton at 9 State Street in New York City (site of her former residence)
Feast 4 January
Patronage Catholic Schools; Shreveport, Louisiana; and the State of Maryland

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, S.C., (August 28, 1774 – January 4, 1821) was the first native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church (September 14, 1975).[1] She established the first Catholic school in the nation, at Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she founded the first American congregation of Religious Sisters, the Sisters of Charity.


Early life

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.[2] The Bayley and Charlton families were among the earliest colonial settlers of the New York area. Her father's parents were prominent French Huguenots living in New Rochelle, New York. He later served as the first professor of anatomy at Columbia College[3] and Chief Health Officer for the Port of New York. Her mother was the daughter of an Episcopal minister, who served as Rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church on Staten Island for 30 years; Elizabeth was raised in the Episcopal Church.

Her mother, Catherine, died in 1777, when Elizabeth was three years old. This was possibly a result of childbirth, as their youngest child, also Catherine, died early the following year. Bayley then married Charlotte Amelia Barclay, a member of the Jacobus James Roosevelt family,[2] to provide a mother for his two surviving daughters. The new Mrs. Bayley became active in the social action of the Church and would visit the poor in their homes to distribute food and needed items. She would take the young Elizabeth with her on her rounds of charity.

The couple had 5 children, but the marriage ended in separation as a result of marital conflict. Elizabeth and her older sister, Mary Magdalene, were rejected by their stepmother in this breakup. Their father then traveled to London for further medical studies at that time, so the girls lived temporarily in New Rochelle with their paternal uncle, William Bayley, and his wife, Sarah Pell Bayley. Losing a mother for the second time, Elizabeth experienced a period of darkness during this time, which she reflected about later in her journals. In these journals, Elizabeth shows a natural bent toward contemplation, she loved nature, poetry, and music, especially the piano. She was fluent in French, a fine musician, and an accomplished horsewoman.[4] She was given to introspection and frequently made entries in her journal expressing her sentiments, religious aspirations, and favorite passages from her reading

Marriage and motherhood

On 25 January 1794, at age 19, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, aged 26, a wealthy businessman in the import trade. Samuel Provoost, the first Episcopalian bishop of New York, witnessed the wedding vows of the couple.[5] Her husband's father, William Seton (1746-1798), belonged to an impoverished noble Scottish family, emigrated to New York in 1758, and became superintendent and part owner of the iron-works of Ringwood, New Jersey. He was a loyalist, and the last royal public notary for the city and province of New York during the war. Five children were born to the marriage: Anna Maria (Annina) (1795–1812), William II, Richard (1798–1823), Catherine (1800–1891) (who was to become the first American to join the Sisters of Mercy) and Rebecca Mary (1802–1816).

William, along with his father William and brother James, was a founding partner in the import-export mercantile firm, the William Seton Company, which had become Seton, Maitland and Company in 1793. He had visited important counting houses in Europe in 1788 and was a friend of Filippo Filicchi, a renowned merchant in Leghorn, Italy, with whom his firm was a major trading partner. With the death of his father, the Seton family fortunes began to decline. William was tormented by visions of debtor's prison.[4]

Socially prominent in New York, the Setons belonged to the fashionable Trinity Episcopal Church, located on Broadway. Elizabeth was a devout communicant there under the influence of Rev. John Henry Hobart (1775-1830, later bishop), who was her spiritual director. Elizabeth, along with her sister-in-law Rebecca Mary Seton (1780-1804), her soul-friend and dearest confidant, nursed the sick and dying among family, friends, and needy neighbors. Elizabeth was among the founders and charter members of The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1797) and also served as treasurer of the organization.[6]

Widowhood and conversion

By 1802, the effects of the blockade by the United Kingdom of Napoleonic France and the loss of several of her husband's ships at sea led to William Seton's bankruptcy. Elizabeth spent that Christmas watching the front door to keep out the seizure officer. The following summer she and the children stayed with her father, who was health officer for the Port of New York on Staten Island.[4] Through most of their married life, William Seton suffered from tuberculosis. He fell ill and his doctors sent him to Italy for the warmer climate, with Elizabeth and their eldest daughter accompanying him. They landed at the port of Leghorn, where the authorities feared yellow fever, then prevalent in New York. They were held in quarantine for a month, after which time William died on 27 December 1803[3] 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. While staying with them, she was introduced to Roman Catholicism.

After her return to the United States, she converted to the Catholic Church, into which she was received on 14 March 1805 by the Rev. Matthew O'Brien, pastor of St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church, New York,[6] the only Catholic church in the city then. (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 of the parents withdrew their daughters from her tutelage, due to the anti-Catholic sentiment of the day. She was about to remove to Canada, when she made the acquaintance of 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 small Catholic community in the nation.[6]


After struggling through some trying and difficult years, in 1809 Elizabeth accepted the invitation of support the Sulpicians had made to her 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,[3] a wealthy convert and seminarian at the newly established Mount Saint Mary's University, begun by John Dubois, S.S., and the Sulpicians.

On 31 July, Elizabeth established a religious community in Emmitsburg dedicated to the care of the children of the poor. 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. [7] The order 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.[7]

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 4 January 1821, at the age of 46. Today, her remains are entombed in the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

In 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.[7]


Dedicated to following the will of God, Elizabeth Ann 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 apostolic 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 Regional Municipality, Convent Station, New Jersey, and Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

Mother Seton School in Emmitsburg, MD 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.[8]

See also

  • Saints portal



External links

  • Pope Paul VI on the occasion of the canonization of St. Seton
  • St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Online Museum
  • St. Elizabeth Ann Seton biography, Archdiocese of Baltimore

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