Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born two years before the Declaration of Independence, in New York City. She married William Seton when she was 18 years old. He died when she was 29, leaving her with five children. Three years later she became a Roman Catholic and was shunned by her family. She supported herself and her children by teaching for several years. In 1809, she took religious vows, founding the first U.S. religious community, the Sisters of Charity.
Elizabeth and her companions strove to follow the ideals of St. Vincent de Paul, by serving the poor, the sick, the sorrowful, and children. Their first school was in Emmitsburg, Maryland. In 1813, her community numbered 17. One year later several sisters were sent to Philadelphia to run an orphanage, and in 1817 there were also Sisters of Charity in New York City. In spite of the attention she gave to her religious community and to teaching, however, Elizabeth continued to care for her own children with a mother’s love.
She died of tuberculosis, after suffering for many months. Her legacy is her tremendous love, which she poured out on family, friends, her community, and the poor. Since her death, the Sisters of Charity have spread throughout the United States. Their schools, like the ones in Santa Fe, New Mexico, were among the first on the American frontier.
Her feast day is January 4.
Mother Seton is one of the keystones of the American Catholic Church. She founded the first American religious community for women, the Sisters of Charity. She opened the first American parish school and established the first American Catholic orphanage. All this she did in the span of 46 years while raising her five children.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is a true daughter of the American Revolution, born August 28, 1774, just two years before the Declaration of Independence. By birth and marriage, she was linked to the first families of New York and enjoyed the fruits of high society. Reared a staunch Episcopalian by her mother and stepmother, she learned the value of prayer, Scripture and a nightly examination of conscience. Her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, did not have much use for churches but was a great humanitarian, teaching his daughter to love and serve others.
The early deaths of her mother in 1777 and her baby sister in 1778 gave Elizabeth a feel for eternity and the temporariness of the pilgrim life on earth. Far from being brooding and sullen, she faced each new “holocaust,” as she put it, with hopeful cheerfulness.
At 19, Elizabeth was the belle of New York and married a handsome, wealthy businessman, William Magee Seton. They had five children before his business failed and he died of tuberculosis. At 30, Elizabeth was widowed, penniless, with five small children to support.
While in Italy with her dying husband, Elizabeth witnessed Catholicity in action through family friends. Three basic points led her to become a Catholic: belief in the Real Presence, devotion to the Blessed Mother and conviction that the Catholic Church led back to the apostles and to Christ. Many of her family and friends rejected her when she became a Catholic in March 1805.
To support her children, she opened a school in Baltimore. From the beginning, her group followed the lines of a religious community, which was officially founded in 1809.
The thousand or more letters of Mother Seton reveal the development of her spiritual life from ordinary goodness to heroic sanctity. She suffered great trials of sickness, misunderstanding, the death of loved ones (her husband and two young daughters) and the heartache of a wayward son. She died January 4, 1821, and became the first American-born citizen to be beatified (1963) and then canonized (1975). She is buried in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Born: August 28, 1774, New York City, New York, USA as Elizabeth Ann Bayley
Died: January 4, 1821
Beatification: March 17, 1963 by Pope John XXIII
Canonization: September 14, 1975 by Pope Paul VI
Also known as: Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton; Mother Seton