Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was born August 28, 1774 in New York City.
Her father was a doctor and both of her parents families were among the earliest colonial settlers of the New York area.
Her grandparents on her father’s side were prominent French Huguenots living in New Rochelle, New York. Her grandfather later served as the first professor of anatomy at Columbia College and Chief Health Officer for the Port of New York.
Her mother was the daughter of an Episcopal minister, who served as Rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Staten Island for 30 years; Elizabeth was raised in the Episcopal Church.
Elizabeth’s mother, Catherine, died in 1777, when Elizabeth was only three years old.
This was possibly a result of childbirth, as her youngest sister, also named Catherine, died early the following year.
Her 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 became active in the social action of the Church and would visit the poor in their homes to distribute food and needed items. She would take the young Elizabeth with her on these rounds of charity.
Her father and step-mother went on to have 5 children together, but the marriage ended in separation as a result of marital conflict.
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, so the girls lived temporarily in New Rochelle with their paternal uncle, William Bayley, and his wife, Sarah Pell Bayley.
Losing a mother for the second time, Elizabeth experienced a period of darkness during this time, which she reflected about later in her journals.
Then on January 25, 1794, at the age of 19, Elizabeth married 26 year old William Magee Seton, a wealthy businessman in the import trade.
Her father-in-law, William Seton, belonged to an impoverished noble Scottish family that had emigrated to New York in 1758.
Elizabeth went on to have five children.
Socially prominent in New York, the couple belonged to the fashionable Trinity Episcopal Church, located on Broadway.
In 1797, Elizabeth was among the founders and charter members of The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children and also served as treasurer of the organization.
By 1802, the effects of the blockade by the United Kingdom of Napoleonic France and the loss of several of her husband’s ships at sea led to William Seton’s bankruptcy. Elizabeth spent that Christmas watching the front door to keep out the seizure officer.
The following summer she and the children stayed with her father, who was health officer for the Port of New York on Staten Island.
Through most of their married life, William Seton suffered from tuberculosis. He fell ill and his doctors sent him to Italy for the warmer climate, with Elizabeth and their eldest daughter Anna Maria accompanying him.
They landed at the port of Leghorn, where the authorities feared yellow fever, then prevalent in New York.
They were held in quarantine for a month, after which time William died December 27, 1803 and was buried in the Old English Cemetery.
Elizabeth and Anna Maria were received by the families of her late husband’s Italian business partners. While staying with them, she was introduced to Roman Catholicism.
After her return to the United States, Elizabeth converted to the Catholic Church, into which she was received March 14, 1805 by the Rev. Matthew O’Brien, pastor of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, New York, the only Catholic church in New York City at the time. (Anti-Catholic laws had been lifted just a few years before.)
A year later, Elizabeth received the sacrament of Confirmation from the Bishop of Baltimore, the Right Reverend John Carroll, the only Catholic bishop in America.
In order to support herself and her children, Elizabeth 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 of the parents withdrew their daughters from her tutelage, due to the remaining anti-Catholic sentiment of the day.
Elizabeth was about to leave for Canada, when she made the acquaintance of a visiting priest, the Abbé Louis William Valentine Dubourg, S.S., who was a member of the French emigré community of Sulpician Fathers and then president of St. Mary’s college.
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 small Catholic community in the nation.
After struggling through some trying and difficult years, in 1809 Elizabeth accepted the invitation of support the Sulpicians had made to her and moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School, the first parochial school in America
A year later, Elizabeth 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, 1809, Elizabeth established 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, 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 order was initially called the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph.
From that point on, Elizabeth became known as “Mother Seton”.
The remainder of Elizabeth’s life was spent in leading and developing the new congregation.
Elizabeth Ann Seton died of tuberculosis on January 4, 1821, at the age of 46. Today, her remains are entombed in the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.
In 1830, the Sisters were running orphanages and schools as far west as Cincinnati and New Orleans and had established the first hospital west of the Mississippi in St. Louis.
On December 18, 1959 Elizabeth Seton was declared Venerable by the Sacred Congregation of Rites. Dr. J. Emmett Queen was asked by the Archdiocese of Baltimore to investigate a cure of a child, Ann O’Neill, who was suffering from leukemia. He visited Tufts University Hospital and conferred with other physicians there. The cure was attributed to the intervention of Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Elizabeth was then beatified by Pope John XXIII on March 17, 1963, and canonized by Pope Paul VI on September 14, 1975, making her the first native-born United States citizen to be canonized.
Frances Xavier Cabrini was the first American citizen to be canonized; however she was born in Italy.
When Pope Paul VI declared her a saint, over one thousand nuns of her Order were present. 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 recognized that this condition was met when attributing three miracles to Mother Seton’s intercession: curing Sister Gertrude Korzendorfer, S.C., of cancer, curing Ann Theresa O’Neill of acute lymphatic leukemia, and curing Carl Kalin of encephalitis.
Elizabeth Ann Seton is popularly considered a patron saint of Catholic schools.
An image of her in bronze appears on the main doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, labeled as a “Daughter of New York”.
The Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, located in the Church of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, was built on the site of her former home in Manhattan.
The Mother Seton House at Baltimore, Maryland was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The house had been offered as an inducement to Elizabeth Seton to come to Baltimore in 1808 and there to found a school and occupy the then newly completed house. It is now operated as a museum by St. Mary’s Seminary.
Seton Hall University was founded in 1856 by James Roosevelt Bayley, the son of one of her half-brothers, who also converted to the Catholic Church, and went on to become an Archbishop of Baltimore. Seton Hill University was founded in 1885 by the Sisters of Charity in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and The College of St. Elizabeth was established in 1899 by another congregation of the Sisters of Charity in Convent Station, New Jersey.
In 2009, Elizabeth was added to the Calendar of Saints for the Episcopal Church (United States).
Many parish churches are named after her all around the U.S.
Now WE know em