Sanctity in America: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Today is the Memorial of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first person born in what is now the United States of America to be canonized a saint of the Catholic Church.

Elizabeth Ann was born on August 28, 1774 in New York City, Province of New York, British America.  Her father, Richard Bayley, was a doctor who attended to the newly arriving immigrants as health officer for the Port of New York.  Her mother, Catherine, was the daughter of an Anglican priest.  Hers was a wealthy and well-connected family.  Sadly, Elizabeth’s mother died in 1777, when Elizabeth was only three.  Her father re-married and, at first, her step-mother showed devotion to Elizabeth and her sister, taking Elizabeth with her for charitable visits around the city to help the poor.  Her father’s second marriage ended in separation, however, and Elizabeth and her sister, Catherine, were rejected by their step-mother in favor of her own children by Dr. Bayley.  Elizabeth and Catherine went to live with their uncle while their father continued his medical studies in London.

On January 25, 1794, Elizabeth married William Seton, a young businessman who imported items from Europe.  Elizabeth and William had five children together and took in William’s six younger sibling when their father died.  They enjoyed a comfortable life together until conflicts between France and England over shipping ran William’s import business into bankruptcy.  Suffering from tuberculosis, his doctor sent him to the warmer climate of Italy, with Elizabeth and their oldest daughter, Anna Maria, to care for him.  On arrival in the port at Leghorn, Italy, William was quarantined.  He died on December 27, 1803.  Elizabeth and Anna Maria were given refuge by the families of William’s Italian business partners.  Elizabeth had always been a devoted member of the Episcopal Church. While in Italy she was introduced to Catholicism and began her journey toward conversion.

On her return to the United States, Elizabeth made her profession of faith and was received into the Catholic Church on March 14, 1805.  She was Confirmed a year later by Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore.

Elizabeth opened an academy for young ladies in New York to support herself and her children.  She experienced difficulties, however, as many parents removed their children from her school on learning of her conversion to Catholicism.  She moved to Baltimore, Maryland and opened a Catholic school there, but continued to have difficulties.  Just as she was about to move to Canada, she met Fr. Louis Dubourg, SS, a member of the Sulpician Fathers.  The Sulpicians invited her to begin a school in Emmitsburg, Maryland. She accepted, and opened St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, educating Catholic girls. Elizabeth founded the first religious women’s congregation in the United States in Emmitsburg, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.  A year later, the congregation adopted for themselves the rule of St. Vincent de Paul for the Daughters of Charity.  In 1850, Elizabeth’s congregation officially merged with the Daughters of Charity.

Sister Elizabeth Ann Seton now became Mother Seton.  She would spend the rest of her life dedicated to the care and growth of her congregation and their mission to the care and education of children.  Mother Seton died of tuberculosis on January 4, 1821 at the age of 46.  Elizabeth Ann Seton was beatified by Pope St. John XXIII on March 17, 1963 and canonized by Pope Bl. Paul VI on September 14, 1975.

There are many Catholic parishes and schools named for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.  Seton Hall University was founded in 1856 by Bishop James Bayley, Elizabeth’s nephew.  The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg is dedicated to her memory. Her remains are interred in the church and the grounds include many of the school houses built in her time along with a museum.  My family has visited a couple of times, and it’s some of the most beautiful country, not far from Gettysburg.  It’s worth the trip if you’re in the area.

“Lord God, you blessed Elizabeth Ann 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.”    Morning Prayer for January 4.

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