Elizabeth Ann Seton was born into the Bayley family in 1774, just two years before the American Revolution. She grew up in affluence among the socialites of New York City. Her mother was the daughter of an Episcopalian Rector and she died when Elizabeth was a youngster of three. Her father was a doctor and professor, and he saw to the education of the young girl. At the age of 19 she married Will Seton, and together they had five children. Along with her duties as a wife and mother, she cared for the poor and with some friends founded the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, and was affectionately known as the “Protestant Sister of Charity.” Even though she lived in affluence, her life was not without suffering, for two of her children died of tuberculosis, and her son died while in the navy.
Her comfortable life quickly came to an end when her father-in-law died and she had to take over the raising of her husband’s seven siblings. Her husband assumed the running of the business his father had built, and it had a devastating effect on his health. The business failed and he filed for bankruptcy. He took Elizabeth and one of their daughters to Italy in search of a cure but died while there after being quarantined for weeks in a drafty house. Elizabeth, just 29 years old, remained there with her daughter and it was there that she was attracted to the Roman Catholic Faith. (Excerpts from Elizabeth Bayley Seton Papers courtesy of Archives Saint Joseph's Provincial House, Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, Emmitsburg, Maryland).
When Elizabeth returned to New York, her interest in the Faith continued to mature, and she was received into the Church in 1803. Her conversion was met with opposition from both family and friends, and led to her estrangement from them. This affected her material well-being, but a priest invited her to open a school for girls in Baltimore which she did in June 1808. A year later she formed the first American Congregation of nuns known as the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's and became the first Superior. She was known from then on as Mother Seton.
Her congregation moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland and adopted the rule of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. The community attracted many vocations and its works of charity increased with the founding of hospitals and orphanages. It was also responsible for the founding on Catholic education in the United States.
The founder, Mother Seton, not only found the material resources to do these works, but also the spiritual resources to guide her sisters in their work. She wrote music and works of spiritual importance, and by the time she died in 1821, she had twenty communities across the country. She summarized her life this way: “Faith lifts the staggering soul on one side, hope supports it on the other, experience says it must be and love says let it be. ” (March 26, 1810). (Excerpts from Elizabeth Bayley Seton Papers courtesy of Archives Saint Joseph's Provincial House, Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, (Emmitsburg, Maryland).
Mother Seton was canonized a saint in 1975—the first native-born North American to be thus honored. In addition to being the patroness of Catholic schools, she is also the patroness of parents who have lost children, people who are ridiculed for their piety and those who have problems with their in-laws.
Some of the material for this article came from Butler’s Lives of the Saints.
Today, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton's legacy is strong in the United States, with schools, churches, and universities named after her. Her example of charity and caretaking for the poor and foundation of education resonates.
Prayer to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
You blessed Elizabeth Seton with gifts of grace;
As wife and mother, educator and foundress,
So that she might spend her life in service to your people.
Through her example and prayers
May we learn to express our love for you
In love for our fellow men and women.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, for ever and ever. Amen.