Educator and Founder of the Sisters of Charity
Elizabeth Seton (1774–1821) was the first native born American to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church (September 14, 1975). 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. Her enduring legacy now includes six religious communities with more than 5,000 members, hundreds of schools, social service centers and hospitals throughout America and around the world.
Image: Monument in St. Raymond’s Cemetery
Bronx, New York
Childhood and Early Years
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. Elizabeth grew up in the cream of New York society and was raised in the Episcopal Church. Catherine Seton died in 1777, possibly a result of childbirth – their youngest child died early the following year.
Bayley then married Charlotte Amelia Barclay to provide a mother for his two surviving daughters. The new Mrs. Bayley became active in the social action of the Church and visited the poor in their homes to distribute food and needed items, taking young Elizabeth with her on her rounds of charity.
The couple had seven children, but the marriage ended in separation. 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, while the girls lived temporarily in New Rochelle, New York with their paternal uncle William Bayley and his wife Sarah Pell Bayley.
Losing a mother for the second time, Elizabeth experienced a period of depression during this time. She was a prolific reader, and read everything from the Bible to contemporary novels. 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 Family
On January 25, 1794, at age 19, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, a wealthy businessman with whom she was deeply in love. William was a founding partner in the import-export mercantile firm, Seton, Maitland and Company. Socially prominent, the Setons belonged to the fashionable Trinity Episcopal Church.
Happily married, Elizabeth and William Magee Seton had five children: Anna Maria (1795–1812), William the Second (1796-1868), Richard (1798–1823), Catherine (1800–1891) and Rebecca Mary (1802–1816), three of whom died young. Both Anna Maria and Rebecca died of tuberculosis. Richard died off the coast of Liberia on board the ship Oswego after joining the United States Navy.
Although busy with raising a large family and managing their home, Elizabeth Seton nursed the sick and dying among family, friends and needy neighbors. She was among the founders and charter members of The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, a group of prominent ladies who visited the sick poor in their homes to render what aid they could.
After the death of William Seton Sr. in 1798, responsibility was thrust on Elizabeth’s husband for both the Seton, Maitland and Company and the welfare of his seven younger half-siblings. 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, Charlotte, Henrietta and Cecilia, her youngest sisters-in-law.
William’s business was adversely affected by the blockade of France by the United Kingdon and the loss of several of his ships at sea. During the resulting monetary crisis Elizabeth assisted her husband at night by doing the account books of his firm, but the company went bankrupt in 1802, and the Setons lost their possessions and the family home at 61 Stone Street in lower Manhattan.
Through most of their married life, William had suffered from tuberculosis. In 1803, as their financial problems escalated, his health deteriorated rapidly. When he expressed a desire to go to Italy to try to improve his health, Elizabeth sold everything she had left to finance the trip. Leaving four children with relatives, William, Elizabeth and their eldest daughter Anna Maria made the voyage.
When they arrived at the port of Livorno, Italian authorities feared that William was ill with yellow fever, then prevalent in New York. As a result the officials quarantined the Setons in a cold, stone tower. William’s friend and trading partner there, Filippo Filicchi, did all he could to advocate for them and to provide some relief during their six weeks of isolation.
Two weeks after their release, William Seton died on December 27, 1803 and was buried in the English cemetery in Livorno, leaving Elizabeth a widow at age 29 with five young children. Elizabeth and Anna Maria were taken in by the families of Filippo and Antonio Filicchi. While staying with them, she was introduced to Roman Catholicism.
Elizabeth’s experiences in Italy transformed her life forever. The Italian Journal, her long memoir written for her sister-in-law Rebecca Seton, reveals the intimate details of Elizabeth’s heart-rending personal journey of inner conflict and conversion. Antonio, who had business interests in America, accompanied Elizabeth back to America, and provided not only emotional support but also substantial financial resources to her.
After her return to the United States, Elizabeth Seton converted to the Catholic Church, into which she was received on March 14, 1805 by the Reverend Matthew O’Brien, pastor of St. Peter’s, 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, John Carroll. For her Confirmation name, she chose the name Mary and thereafter signed her name MEAS, her abbreviation for Mary Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Seton’s religious inclinations incurred the wrath of both family and friends. Their hostility coupled with the death of her beloved Rebecca, her sister-in-law and most intimate confidante, troubled Elizabeth deeply. She was also bothered 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 relocate into less expensive housing.
Seton’s initial years as a Catholic in New York (1805-1808) were marked by disappointments and failures. In order to support herself and her children, She started an acadmy for young ladies in her home, as was common for widows of social standing. After news of her conversion to Catholicism spread, however, most of the parents withdrew their daughters from her school. She found a teaching position at the school of a Protestant couple, but it soon failed financially.
Seton’s next venture was a boarding house for boys who attended a school directed by Reverend William Harris of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, but disgruntled parents withdrew their sons. Seton family members also distrusted Elizabeth’s influence on younger family members. Their fears were realized when her young sisters-in-law Cecilia and Henrietta converted to Catholicism.
Although Elizabeth was frustrated in establishing herself to provide for the welfare of her children, she was convinced that God would show her the way according to the Divine Plan. In considering her future and examining alternatives, Elizabeth remained a mother first and foremost. She regarded her five “darlings” as her primary obligation over every other commitment.
In 1806 Seton met a visiting priest, Louis William Dubourg, who had taken refuge in the United States from the religious persecution of the Reign of Terror in France, and was in the process of establishing the first Catholic seminary in the United States. He invited Elizabeth to Baltimore with the assurance that the French priests belonging to the Society of Saint Sulpice (Sulpicians) would assist her in forming a plan of life which would be in the best interests of her children.
After her arrival in Maryland on June 16, 1808, Elizabeth Seton spent one year as a school mistress in Baltimore. Then she learned that the Sulpicians envisioned the development of a sisterhood modeled on the Daughters of Charity of Paris (founded in 1633) – a congregation of religious women – and they actively recruited other women for the community.
Career in Education
Samuel Sutherland Cooper, a wealthy convert, purchased 269 acres of land for an establishment for the sisterhood in the countryside of Frederick County near Emmitsburg, Maryland. Cooper wished to establish an institution for female education rooted in the Catholic faith, as well as services to the elderly, job skill development and a small factory, which would be beneficial to people oppressed by poverty. Cooper had Seton in mind to direct the educational program.
Seton pronounced vows of chastity and obedience on March 25, 1809, and the Archbishop gave her the title Mother Seton. Seton and her first group arrived in Emmitsburg in June 1809, and she named the area Saint Joseph’s Valley. On June 16, 1809, the group of sisters appeared for the first time dressed alike in black dresses, capes and bonnets patterned after the widows weeds of women in Italy whom Seton had encountered there.
On July 31, 1809 Seton established the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph’s, a religious community in Emmitsburg dedicated to the care of the children of the poor. It was the first congregation of religious sisters to be founded in the United States. From that point on, she was known as Mother Seton.
Seton opened Saint Joseph’s Free School on February 22, 1810. It educated needy girls of the area and was the first free Catholic school staffed by sisters in the country. Saint Joseph’s Academy began on May 14, 1810, with the addition of boarding pupils who paid tuition which enabled the Sisters of Charity to subsidize their charitable mission. Thus began Catholic education in the United States.
Career in Religion
Seton and her little community survived the poverty and uncertainty of the first years. Numerous women joined the Sisters of Charity. Of the ninety-eight candidates who arrived in Elizabeth’s lifetime, eighty-six joined the new community; seventy percent remained Sisters of Charity for life. Eighteen Sisters of Charity, including Seton, made annual vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and service of the poor for the first time on July 19, 1813; thereafter they made vows annually on March 25.
The Sisters of Charity intertwined social ministry with education in the faith and religious values in all they undertook in their mission. Seton sent 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.
Not only did Seton and hers Sisters of Charity care for orphans, widows and poor families, but they also addressed unmet needs among persons oppressed by multiple forms of poverty. Seton had a special concern for children who lacked educational opportunities, especially for religious instruction in the faith.
The remainder of Seton’s life was spent in leading and developing the new congregation. 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. However, illness, sorrow, and early death were omnipresent in her life. She buried eighteen Sisters at Emmitsburg, her two daughters Anna Maria and Rebecca, and her sisters-in-law Harriet and Cecilia Seton.
Word of the Sisters’ talents and good works spread quickly and soon Mother Seton was besieged by requests for help in setting up parochial schools to serve the burgeoning Catholic population along the Eastern seaboard. In 1814, the Sisters of Charity began opening parish free schools, academies and orphanages along the coast.
A woman whose vision of faith remains relevant for all ages, Seton’s journey of faith presents an outstanding model for all people. She left an enduring legacy, which makes Catholic education available for needy pupils. Popular devotion acclaims Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton as a patron of Catholic schools because of her pioneer role in education.
Throughout her earthly journey, Seton viewed herself as a pilgrim on the road of life. She faced each day with eyes of faith, looking forward to eternity. From her deathbed she admonished those gathered about her: “Be children of the Church.”
Elizabeth Ann Seton died slowly and painfully of the tuberculosis which had stricken all of her family on January 4, 1821 in Emmitsburg, Maryland, at the age of 46. Her remains are entombed in the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Of Seton’s two surviving children, William received a commission as lieutenant in the United States Navy in February 1826 and married Emily Prime; seven of their nine children lived to adulthood. Catherine distinguished herself by her linguistic and musical talents. Catherine entered the Sisters of Mercy in New York City (1846), and devoted herself for more than forty years to prison ministry in New York.
The work of education and charity lives on in Seton’s spiritual daughters around the world. James Gibbons archbishop of Baltimore, initiated her cause for canonization in 1882. Officially introduced at the Vatican in 1940, it made steady progress. Blessed John XXIII declared Seton venerable on December 18, 1959, and also beatified her on March 17, 1963.
As a condition for canonization, the Catholic Church requires that for a saint who has not been martyred, at least two miracles take place at his or her intercession. The Holy See accepted three miracles through her intercession: the cures of Sister Gertrude Korzendorfer, D.C. of Saint Louis, of cancer; a young child, Ann Theresa O’Neill, of Baltimore, from acute, lymphatic leukemia; and the miraculous recovery of Carl Kalin of New York, from a rare form of encephalitis. Pope Paul VI canonized Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton on September 14, 1975, the International Year of the Woman.
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.