On September 14, 1975 Pope Paul VI canonized Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton a saint of the universal calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. Elizabeth Seton has the distinction of being the first native born American to be canonized a saint. Her feast day is celebrated on January 4, the day of her death in 1821.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born August 28, 1774, two years before the founding of the United States of America, into a wealthy society family of New York City. Her father, a physician, Dr. Richard Bayley, and her mother, Catherine Charlton Bayley, the daughter of an Episcopalian priest, welcomed their second born daughter of three girls with what must have been typical joy. However, their family life was soon to change with the death of her mother when Elizabeth was three years old.
Elizabeth, a devout Episcopalian, was a bright, lively young girl. Elizabeth had grown into a beautiful young woman–the belle of the New York society dollies. Her upbringing included a sincere religious formation in the Episcopalian church. She married William Magee Seton, the son a of a wealthy trader in 1794. Throughout this period Betty spent a great deal of time with some other women from the Episcopalian church tending to the needs of poor widows with small children of New York City. Some of them even joked that they were the protestant sisters of charity–no one could have known how prophetic that appellation was.
Quickly Elizabeth was surrounded with a growing family. She gave birth to five children. The young family, full of promise and prospect, lived in a fashionable home in Manhattan. But fortune’s wheel would quickly turn. Her husband’s shipping business failed and at the same time his health deteriorated rapidly with tuberculosis. In 1803 Betty and Will traveled to Italy seeking a climate that might help slow the ravages of consumption that was stealing Will’s every breath. No respite was to be had. William Magee Seton died in Leghorn Italy on December 27, 1803.
The Setons had gone to Italy to stay with dear friends, the Filicchi family–they had been business associates of Will. The Filicchis took the distraught widow into their home and under their care. It was during this time that Elizabeth began to be acquainted with the Catholic Church. She began to long to receive Jesus in the Eucharist; but did not complete her conversion to the Catholic faith until 1805 after her return to New York. She was shunned by her New York Episcopalian friends for adopting Romanism; her true friends tried to save her from such folly. But Betty persevered in her new faith.
She needed a way to support her young family. Her plan was to take in students, educating them in all the ways of New York society–but also in the ways of faith. There simply was no room for a Catholic school in New York city of 1805. She began to discern a call to establish a full blown school and went to Baltimore where Catholics were welcome in the new colonies. Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore lent Betty the support and help she needed to get started.
With her five children and a few women to assist her, a school was opened on Paca Street in Baltimore in 1808. With the assistance of the Archbishop in 1809, Betty and her new community moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland to establish a permanent foundation. Betty was the leader, now known as Mother Seton. The young religious community took the rule of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul and adapted it to their needs. The main work of the Emmitsburg foundation of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph (the name of the order was taken from the name of the valley in Emmitsburg–St. Joseph’s valley) was to educate children in a fully rounded curriculum with a firm foundation of faith. There were smatterings of everything in the formation of the children–dance, music, etiquette, sewing, and, of course, the three R’s. There were prayers and a full regimen of spiritual activities. The first free Catholic school of the United States of America had begun.
The boundless activity of Mother Seton helped to foster the new community. Without the aid of any useable materials in the English language, Mother Seton took on the task of translating catechetical tools from French into English. Her work in supporting this free school found Mrs. Seton begging for the needs of her community and school from those who would support the work. Some of her deepest trials included the death of her daughter, Anna (1812), the deaths of her two sisters-in-law, Cecelia (1809) and Harriet (1810), and some of the children and sisters. Another daughter, Rebecca died after a long agony of sickness; a priest who tended to the needs of the young community wrote that, “The Mother is a miracle of divine favor….Night and day by the child, her health has not appeared to suffer. She held the child in her arms without dropping a tear, all the time of her agony and even eight minutes after she died.” So different from the numbing grief after Anna’s death, Mother Seton’s trust in God’s providence and adherence to His divine will had grown and deepened. Even as tuberculosis ravaged the young community, God always seemed to send others immediately to help the community accomplish its mission.
There was never a lack for students or boarders because St. Joseph’s Academy as it was called was an excellent school. Mother Seton seemed a born teacher and an able administrator. As more women joined her community she used their gifts wisely. If a subject needed teaching that her sisters could not master, she hired lay teachers who were qualified. Having been established next to Mount St. Mary’s College she could call upon the masters there if needed. The academy accepted boarding students and day students from the nearby St. Joseph’s parish. It was truly the first parish school in the United States. The young religious community grew to include an orphanage in Philadelphia in 1814 and a second orphanage in New York in 1817. In 1818 the Philadelphia establishment was enlarged to include a free school.
As a mother, Elizabeth Seton knew the trials of raising a family of five children without a husband. She witnessed the heartbreaking deaths of her daughters, Anna and Rebecca. Her sons, William and Richard, caused her many sorrows. Mother Seton struggled to provide what she could for her children, even though growing up in a convent was at best an unusual situation.
Tuberculosis eventually claimed the life of the energetic Mother Seton. In 1821, at the age of 46, surrounded by her sisters and having witnessed the continuing growth of the young religious community, Mother Seton died. Upon her death bed she was to exhort her sisters in religion to “Be children of the Church.” That religious community has grown to include a federation of over six different foundations of the Sisters of Charity. They staff hospitals, child care institutions, homes for the aged and handicapped and schools at every level. The college of St. Elizabeth in Morristown , New Jersey, continues today the work of Mother Seton in educating young women to be prepared to mount the challenges of the modern world. The religious sisters who claim Betty Seton as their foundress number over 7,000 women.
Elizabeth Ann Seton showed herself to be exemplary at every turn of her life. She was daughter, wife, mother, widow, religious foundress and educator.
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton pray for us!