Modern Day Saint

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
1774-1821

 

Elizabeth Bayley Seton, founder and first superior of the Sisters of Charity, was the first canonized saint born in the United States.  Elizabeth Bayley was born into a prominent Anglican family in New York.  She wed William Seton in1794.  Educated in England, William Seton was a founding partner in the import-export mercantile firm, the William Seton Company. Happily married, Elizabeth and William Seton had five children.

After the death of his father, William became fully responsible for the company and the welfare of his younger half-siblings. About six-months pregnant with her third child at the time, Elizabeth managed the care of both families in the Seton household. There she enjoyed her initial teaching experience with her first pupils.

During their monetary crisis, Elizabeth tried to assist her husband by nightly doing the account books of his firm, but the company went bankrupt in 1801. Subsequently, the Setons lost their possessions and the family home. William began to show evidence of tuberculosis as their financial problems escalated.

In 1803, Elizabeth, William, and their oldest daughter, Anna Maria, made a sea voyage to the warm climate of Italy in a desperate effort to restore her husband's health. Italian authorities at the port of Livorno feared yellow fever, then prevalent in New York. and quarantined the Setons in a cold, stone lazaretto. The Filicchi family, friends developed through the Seaton import-export mercantile firm, did what they could to advocate for the Setons and to provide some relief during their month of isolation. Two weeks after his discharge, William died, leaving Elizabeth a widow at age twenty-nine with five young children.

The experiences in Italy of Elizabeth and her daughter transformed their lives forever. Antonio Filicchi and his wife, Amabilia, provided gracious hospitality to the widow and child until the Setons returned to the United States the next spring. They introduced Elizabeth to Roman Catholicism. Elizabeth came upon the text of the Memorare and out of curiosity began asking questions about Catholic practices. As her knowledge grew, her inquisitiveness arose from sincere interest. The subjects of her inquiry included the Sacred Liturgy, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and the Church’s direct unbroken link with Christ and the apostles. Antonio Filicchi, who had business interests there, accompanied the Setons back to America, providing both emotional and financial support. He instructed Elizabeth in the faith and offered wise counsel during her indecision.

Although Elizabeth left the United States a firm Protestant, she returned to New York with the heart of a Roman Catholic. Opposition and her insecurity threatened her resolve. Elizabeth's religious inclinations incurred the ire of both family and friends. Their hostility coupled with the death of her sister-in-law, Rebecca, caused Elizabeth deep anguish. She was also troubled by her strained financial situation. Her five children were all less than eight years of age. As their sole parent, Elizabeth faced many challenges and frequently had to move her family into less-expensive housing.

In her discernment she relied on several advisors among the clergy. After wrestling with doubts and fears in her search for truth, Elizabeth resolved her inner conflict regarding religious conversion, entered the Catholic faith in 1805 and was confirmed the next year on Pentecost Sunday. For her confirmation name Elizabeth chose the name of Mary. Mary, Ann, and Elizabeth signified the moments of the mysteries of Salvation for her.

Elizabeth's initial years as a Catholic in New York were marked by disappointments and failures. Rampant anti-Catholic prejudice prevented her from beginning a school.  She finally secured a teaching position at the school of a Protestant couple, but they failed financially within a short time. Elizabeth's next venture was a boarding house for boys, but disgruntled parents withdrew their sons because they feared she would be teaching them Catholicism. Seton family members also distrusted Elizabeth's influence on younger family members. Their fears were realized when her two sisters-in-law converted to Catholicism.

Although Elizabeth was frustrated in establishing herself to provide for the welfare of her children, she remained faith-filled. She was convinced that God would show her the way. In considering her future and examining alternatives, Elizabeth remained a mother first and foremost. She regarded her five children as her primary obligation over every other commitment.

Maryland missionary Rev. Louis William Dubourg, S.S., was visiting New York when Elizabeth met him in 1806. Since 1797, Fr. Dubourg had desired a congregation of religious women to teach girls in Baltimore and with the concurrence of Bishop John Carroll, invited Elizabeth to Baltimore with the assurance they would assist her in forming a plan which would be in the best interests of her children.

After her arrival in Maryland in1808, Elizabeth spent one year as a school mistress in Baltimore.  Fr. Dubourg envisioned the development of a sisterhood modeled on the Daughters of Charity of Paris, and they actively recruited from the community. The Archbishop gave her the title, "Mother Seton." On June 16, 1809, the group of sisters appeared for the first time dressed alike in black dresses, capes and bonnets.

Samuel Cooper, a wealthy seminarian and convert, purchased 269 acres of land for an establishment for the Sisters of Charity near Emmitsburg, Maryland. Cooper wished to establish an institution for female education and character formation rooted in Christian values and the Catholic faith as well as for services to the elderly, job skill development, and a small manufactory which would be beneficial to people oppressed by poverty.

Taking advantage of this offer, Elizabeth opened Saint Joseph's Free School there in 1810. It educated needy girls of the area and was the first free Catholic school for girls staffed by religious in the country. Saint Joseph's Academy also began in 1810, with the addition of boarding pupils who paid tuition, enabling the Sisters of Charity to subsidize their charitable mission. Saint Joseph's  Free School and Saint Joseph's Academy formed the cradle of Catholic education in the United States.

Numerous women joined the Sisters of Charity. During the period 1809 -1820, of the ninety-eight candidates who arrived in Elizabeth's lifetime, eighty-six of them actually joined the new community; seventy percent remained Sisters of Charity for life.  Life was not easy. Elizabeth buried eighteen sisters at Emmitsburg, in addition to her two daughters, Annina and Rebecca, and her sisters-in-law Harriet and Cecilia Seton.

The Sisters of Charity combined education in the faith and religious values in their mission. The Sisters of Charity as a community grew and from it blossomed independent new communities in North America. Elizabeth sent her sisters to Philadelphia to manage Saint Joseph's Asylum, the first Catholic orphanage in the United States in 1814. The next year she opened a mission at Mount Saint Mary’s to oversee the infirmary and domestic services for the college and seminary near Emmitsburg. In 1817 sisters from Saint Joseph's Valley went to New York to begin the New York City Orphan Asylum. The work of education and charity lives on in Elizabeth's spiritual daughters around the world.

Elizabeth was a prolific writer of meditations, instructions, poetry, hymns, notebooks, journals and diaries. Her journals include both spiritual reflections and chronicle accounts. She translated many biographies as well as selected conferences of Francis de Sales, portions of works by Saint Theresa of Avila, meditations by Rev. Louis Du Pont, S.J., and the beginning of the life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton died January 4, 1821, in the “White House” at Saint Joseph's Valley, near Emmitsburg, Maryland. Her remains repose in the Basilica of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton just a few hundred yards from her first school house.

Elizabeth left a legacy of making Catholic education available for needy pupils. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is acclaimed as a patron of Catholic schools because of her pioneer role in values-based education.

James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, initiated her cause for canonization in 1882. Blessed John XXIII declared Elizabeth venerable December 18, 1959, and also beatified her March 17, 1963. Pope Paul VI canonized Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton September 14 during the Holy Year of 1975 and the International Year of the Woman.

Jim Fritz


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