The School Patroness
Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was the first native born American to be canonized by the Catholic Church.
Born two years before the American Revolution, Elizabeth grew up in the upper class of New York society. She was a prolific reader, and read everything from the Bible to contemporary novels.
In spite of her high society background, Elizabeth’s early life was quiet, simple, and often lonely. As she grew a little older, the Bible was to become her continual instruction, support and comfort -and she would continue to love the Scriptures for the rest of her life.
In 1794, Elizabeth married the wealthy young William Seton, with whom she was deeply in love. The first years of their marriage were happy and prosperous. Elizabeth wrote in her diary at first autumn, “My own home at twenty-the world-that and heaven too-quite impossible.”
This time of Elizabeth’s life was to be a brief moment of earthly happiness before the many deaths and partings she was to suffer. Within four years, William’s father died, leaving the young couple in charge of William’s seven half brothers and sisters, as well as the family’s importing business.
Events moved quickly from there with devastating effect. Both William’s business and health failed. He was finally forced to file a petition of bankruptcy and, in a final attempt to save William’s health, the Setons sailed for Italy, where William had business friends.
Unfortunately, William died of tuberculosis while in Italy. Elizabeth’s one consolation was that he had recently awakened to the things of God.
The many enforced separations from dear ones by death and distance served to draw Elizabeth’s heart to God and eternity. The accepting and embracing of God’s will – “The Will,” as she called it – would be a keynote in her spiritual life.
Elizabeth’s deep concern for the spiritual welfare of her family and friends eventually led her into the Catholic Church.
In Italy, Elizabeth captivated everyone by her kindness, patience, good sense, wit, and courtesy. During this time Elizabeth became interested in the Catholic Faith and, over a period of months, her Italian friends guided her in Catholic instruction.
Elizabeth’s desire for the Bread of Life was to be a strong force leading her to the Catholic Church.
Having lost her mother at an early age, Elizabeth felt great comfort in the idea that the Blessed Virgin was truly her mother. She asked the Blessed Virgin to guide her to the True Faith and officially joined the Catholic Church in 1805.
At the suggestion of the president of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore, Maryland, Elizabeth started a school in that city. The school had originally been secular but once news of her entrance to Catholicism spread, several girls were removed from her school. It was then Seton, and two other young women who helped her in her work, began plans for a Sisterhood. They established the first free Catholic school in America. When the young community adopted their rule, they made provisions for Elizabeth to continue raising her children.
On March 25, 1809, Elizabeth Seton pronounced her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, binding for one year. From that time she was called Mother Seton.
Although Mother Seton became afflicted with tuberculosis, she continued to guide her children. The Rule of the Sisterhood was formally ratified in 1812. It was based upon the Rule St. Vincent de Paul had written for his Daughters of Charity in France. By 1818, in addition to their first school, the sisters had established two orphanages and another school. Today, six groups of sisters can trace their origins to Mother Seton’s initial foundation.
Seton’s favorite prayer was the 23rd Psalm and she developed a deep devotion to the Eucharist, Sacred Scripture, and the Virgin Mary.
For the last three years of her life, Elizabeth felt that God was getting ready to call her, and this gave her great joy. Mother Seton died in 1821 at the age of 46, only sixteen years after becoming a Catholic. She was beatified by Pope John XXIII on March 17, 1963 and was canonized on September 14, 1975 by Pope Paul VI.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born on August 28, 1774, the second child of a socially prominent couple, a surgeon, Dr. Richard Bayley and Catherine Charlton of New York City. The Bayley and Charlton families were among the earliest European settlers in the New York area. Her father’s parents were French Huguenots and lived in New Rochelle, New York. As Chief Health Officer for the Port of New York, Dr. Bayley attended to immigrants disembarking from ships onto Staten Island, and cared for New Yorkers when yellow fever swept through the city (for example, killing 700 in four months). Dr. Bayley later served as the first professor of anatomy at Columbia College. Elizabeth’s mother was the daughter of a Church of England priest who was rector of St. Andrew’s Church on Staten Island for 30 years. Elizabeth was raised in what would eventually become (in the years after the American Revolution) the Episcopal Church.
Her mother, Catherine, died in 1777 when Elizabeth was three years old, possibly due to complications from the birth of her namesake Catherine, who died early the following year. Elizabeth’s father then married Charlotte Amelia Barclay, a member of the Jacobus James Roosevelt family, to provide a mother for his two surviving daughters. The new Mrs. Bayley participated in her church’s social ministry, and often took young Elizabeth with her on charitable rounds, as she visited the poor in their homes to distribute food and needed items.
The couple had five children, but the marriage ended in separation. During the breakup, their stepmother rejected Elizabeth and her older sister. Their father then traveled to London for further medical studies, so the sisters lived temporarily in New Rochelle with their paternal uncle, William Bayley, and his wife, Sarah Pell Bayley. Elizabeth endured a time of darkness, grieving the absence of a second mother, as she later reflected in her journals. In these journals, Elizabeth showed her love for nature, poetry, and music, especially the piano. Other entries expressed her religious aspirations, and favorite passages from her reading showing her introspection and natural bent toward contemplation. Elizabeth was fluent in French, a fine musician, and an accomplished horsewoman.
Marriage and motherhood
On January 25, 1794, at age 19, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, aged 25, a wealthy businessman in the import trade. Samuel Provoost, the first Episcopal bishop of New York, presided at their wedding. Her husband’s father, William Seton (1746–1798), belonged to an impoverished noble Scottish family, and had emigrated to New York in 1758, and became superintendent and part owner of the iron-works of Ringwood, New Jersey. A loyalist, the senior William Seton was the last royal public notary for the city and province of New York. He brought his sons William (Elizabeth’s husband) and James into the import-export mercantile firm, the William Seton Company, which became Seton, Maitland and Company in 1793. The younger William had visited important counting houses in Europe in 1788, was a friend of Filippo Filicchi (a renowned merchant in Leghorn, Italy, with whom his firm traded), and brought the first Stradivarius violin to America.
Shortly after they married, Elizabeth and William moved into a fashionable residence on Wall Street. Socially prominent in New York society, the Setons belonged to Trinity Episcopal Church, near Broadway and Wall Streets. A devout communicant, Elizabeth took the Rev. John Henry Hobart (later bishop) as her spiritual director. Along with her sister-in-law Rebecca Mary Seton (1780–1804) (her soul-friend and dearest confidante), Elizabeth continued her former stepmother’s social ministry—nursing the sick and dying among family, friends, and needy neighbors. Influenced by her father she became a charter member of The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1797) and also served as the organization’s treasurer.
When the elder William Seton died, the Seton family fortunes waned during the volatile economic climate preceding the War of 1812. The couple took in William’s six younger siblings, ages seven to seventeen, in addition to their own five children: Gabbie Maria (Annina) (1795–1812), Gabe II (1796–1868), Gando Seton (1798–1823), Catherine (1800–1891) (who was to become the first American to join the Sisters of Mercy) and Grape Mary (1802–1816). This necessitated a move to the larger Seton family residence.
Widowhood and conversion to Catholicism
A dispute between the United States of America and the French Republic from 1798 to 1800 led to a series of attacks on American shipping. The United Kingdom’s blockade of France and the loss of several of his ships at sea led William Seton into bankruptcy, and the Setons lost their home at 61 Stone Street in lower Manhattan. The following summer she and the children stayed with her father, who was still the health officer for the Port of New York on Staten Island. From 1801 to 1803 they lived in a house at 8 State Street, on the site of the present Church of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary (built in 1964). Through most of their married life, William Seton suffered from tuberculosis. The stress worsened his illness; his doctors sent him to Italy for the warmer climate, with Elizabeth and their eldest daughter as his companions. Upon landing at the port of Leghorn, they were held in quarantine for a month, for authorities feared they might have brought yellow fever from New York. William died on December 27, 1803, and was buried in Italy’s Old English Cemetery. Elizabeth and Anna Maria were received by the families of her late husband’s Italian business partners, Filippo and Antonio Filicchi, who introduced her to Roman Catholicism.
Returning to New York, the widow Seton was received into the Catholic Church on March 14, 1805, by the Reverend Matthew O’Brien, pastor of St. Peter’s Church, then the city’s only Catholic church. (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 parents withdrew their daughters from her tutelage. In 1807, students attending a local Protestant Academy were boarded at her house on Stuyvesant Lane in the Bowery, near St. Mark’s Church.
Seton was about to move to Canada when she met a visiting priest, the Abbé Louis William Valentine Dubourg, SS, who was a member of the French émigré community of Sulpician Fathers and then president of St. Mary’s College, Baltimore. 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 new nation’s small Catholic community.
After living through many difficulties in life, in 1809 Seton accepted the invitation of the Sulpicians 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, a wealthy convert and seminarian at the newly established Mount Saint Mary’s University, begun by John Dubois, S.S., and the Sulpicians.
On July 31, Seton established a religious community in Emmitsburg dedicated to the care of the children of the poor. This was 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. The congregation was initially called the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s. From that point on, she became known as “Mother Seton”. In 1811, the sisters adopted the rules of the Daughters of Charity, co-founded in France by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac.
Later life and death
The remainder of Seton’s life was spent in leading and developing the new congregation. 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.
Seton died on January 4, 1821, at the age of 46. Today, her remains are entombed in the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
It had been Seton’s 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 first 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, Nova Scotia; Convent Station, New Jersey; and Greensburg, Pennsylvania. The community at Convent Station established the Academy of Saint Elizabeth in 1860 and the College of Saint Elizabeth in 1899.
The Daughters of Charity Health Network established Bayley Seton Hospital in 1980 on the site of the former Marine Hospital Service hospital in Stapleton, Staten Island, New York. Most of the property is now the Bayley Seton campus of Richmond University Medical Center, while a portion is used by New York Foundling, a Catholic social services organization.
Mother Seton School in Emmitsburg, Maryland, 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. Mother Seton School is a private elementary school located in Emmitsburg and enrolls 306 students from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade. Mother Seton School is the 84th-largest private school in Maryland and the 3,381st-largest nationally. It has 15 students to every teacher.
In the Philippines, the Elizabeth Seton School in BF Resort Village, Las Piñas City was established in 1975, the year of Seton’s canonization. It is the largest Catholic school in the city in terms of population.
Elizabeth Seton College, located in Yonkers, New York, was a college opened to assist young struggling women and men in need of furthering their education, offering Associate of Science or Associate of Occupational Science degrees. It merged with Iona College in 1989.
Seton Hall College (now known as Seton Hall University) in South Orange, New Jersey, was founded in 1856 by Seton’s nephew Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley and named after his aunt. Seton Hall Prep is an all boys High School in West Orange, New Jersey, was formerly associated with the University, but is now independent.
The Seton Hill Schools (now part of Seton Hill University), named for Seton were founded by the Sisters of Charity in 1885. The university continues to operate in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, under the auspices of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.
Niagara University in Lewiston, New York, near Niagara Falls, also has a dormitory building named after her, called Seton Hall.
Elizabeth Seton High School, a Roman Catholic all-girls high school in Bladensburg, Maryland, sponsored by the Daughters of Charity, and Seton School in Manassas, Virginia, are also named for Mother Seton.
A number of Roman Catholic churches are named for Mother Seton. These include St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Crofton, Maryland, established upon her canonization in 1975, in the same Archdiocese of Baltimore where she had founded Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School. As of 2018, there are churches in her name in more than 40 states of the United States, plus Canada and Italy.
Saint Seton has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Seton was beatified by Pope John XXIII on March 17, 1963. The pope said on the occasion, “In a house that was very small, but with ample space for charity, she sowed a seed in America which by Divine Grace grew into a large tree.”
Pope Paul VI canonized Seton on September 14, 1975, in a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square. In his words, “Elizabeth Ann Seton is a saint. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is an American. All of us say this with special joy, and with the intention of honoring the land and the nation from which she sprang forth as the first flower in the calendar of the saints. Elizabeth Ann Seton was wholly American! Rejoice for your glorious daughter. Be proud of her. And know how to preserve her fruitful heritage.”
Seton’s feast day is January 4, the eleventh day of Christmastide and the anniversary of her death.
Seton is the patron saint of seafarers and widows.
- ^ a b “The Life of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton”. National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. Retrieved January 5, 2020.
- ^ Frances Xavier Cabrini was the first American citizen to be canonized; she was born in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, in the Lombard Province of Lodi, Italy (then part of the Austrian Empire).
- ^ a b “Full Biography of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton” (PDF). The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. Retrieved January 5, 2020.
- ^ a b c Barkley, Elizabeth Bookser. “Elizabeth Ann Seton: A Profoundly Human Saint”, St. Anthony Messenger, Franciscan Media, July 2009.
- ^ a b c “CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton”. www.newadvent.org. Retrieved August 17, 2017.
- ^ a b “Biography of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton”. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church, Crystal Lake, Illinois. Retrieved January 5, 2020.
- ^ a b “St. Elizabeth Ann Seton”. www.emmitsburg.net. Retrieved August 17, 2017.
- ^ a b c McNeil, Betty Ann (September 27, 2009). “St. Elizabeth Ann Seton”. Archdiocese of Baltimore. Retrieved January 5, 2020.
- ^ Meehan, Thomas F. Historical Records and Studies, Volume 2, United States Catholic Historical Society, New York, 1901, p. 434.
- ^ a b c “A Short History of the Sisters of Charity”. Emmitsburg Area Historical Society. Retrieved March 3, 2014.
- ^ “Our History”. Sisters of Charity of New York. Retrieved May 26, 2017.
- ^ “Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati”. Vincentian Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 26, 2017.
- ^ O’Gallagher, Marianna (1980). “The Sisters of Charity of Halifax – The Early and Middle Years”. Canadian Catholic Historical Association. Retrieved May 26, 2017.
- ^ “Brief History”, Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth.
- ^ “Our History”, Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.
- ^ Top 100 Historical Events in Staten Island, Richmond County, NY, from the Staten Island Advance.
- ^ “Appeals and Donations”. Mother Seton School, Emmitsburg, Maryland. Retrieved January 5, 2020.
- ^ “About”. Mother Seton School, Emmitsburg, Maryland. Retrieved January 5, 2020.
- ^ Mother Seton School in Emmitsburg, MD. Retrieved August 10, 2018.
- ^ “School History”. Elizabeth Seton School. Retrieved September 14, 2015.
- ^ Seton Hall University Undergraduate Admissions Viewbook. Seton Hall Publications. p. 2 – via issuu.com.
- ^ “Parish History”. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church. Retrieved January 5, 2020.
- ^ “Search Results for “seton””. The Catholic Directory: Helping People Find Mass. TheCatholicDirectory.com. Retrieved September 1, 2018.
- ^ National Women’s Hall of Fame, Elizabeth Bayley Seton
- ^ “Seton Coins Are Presented To Prelates”. The Gettysburg Times. September 5, 1975. Retrieved January 5, 2020.
- ^ Foley O.F.M., Leonard (revised by Pat McCloskey O.F.M.). “St. Elizabeth Ann Seton”, Saint of the Day, Lives, Lessons and Feast, Franciscan Media, 2017.
- ^ “St. Elizabeth Seton” (PDF). Catholic Maritime News. Vol. 75. Spring 2014. p. 3. ST. ELIZABETH SETON, Patron Saint of Seafarers (Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Merchant Marines, Fishermen, Shrimpers, Recreational Boaters and Sail Boaters)
- ^ “St. Elizabeth Ann Seton”. Catholic Saint Medals. Retrieved January 5, 2020.