FEAST OF SAINT ELIZABETH ANN SETON
FEAST DAY – 4th JANUARY
Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, SC, (August 28, 1774 – January 4, 1821) was a Catholic religious sister in the United States and an educator, known as a founder of the country’s parochial school system. After her death, she became the first person born in what would become the United States to be canonized by the Catholic Church (September 14, 1975). She also established the first Catholic girls’ school in the nation in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she likewise founded the first American congregation of religious sisters, the Sisters of Charity. She is patron saint of Catholic Schools, seafarers, widows, Shreveport, Louisiana; and the State of Maryland.
Elizabeth was the second child of a surgeon, Richard Bayley and Catherine Charlton of New York City, who were among the earliest European settlers in the New York area. As Chief Health Officer for the Port of New York, Bayley attended to immigrants and 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 after the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church.
Her mother, Catherine, died in 1777 when Elizabeth was three years old, due to complications from the birth of her namesake Catherine, who died early the following year. Elizabeth’s father re-married, and her stepmother, who participated in her church’s social ministry, often took young Elizabeth with her on charitable rounds, visiting the poor in their homes to distribute food and needed items. The couple had five children, but the marriage ended in separation.
Elizabeth endured a time of darkness, grieving the absence of a second mother, who had rejected them, as she later reflected in her journals. In these journals, Elizabeth showed her love for nature, poetry, and music, especially the piano and 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.
On January 25, 1794, at age 19, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, aged 25, a wealthy businessman in the import trade. Socially prominent in New York society, the Setons belonged to Trinity Episcopal Church, near Broadway and Wall Streets. A devout communicant, Elizabeth took John Henry Hobart (later a 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) serving as its treasurer.
When the elder William Seton died, the couple took in William’s six younger siblings, ages seven to seventeen, in addition to their own five children. This necessitated a move to the larger Seton family residence. 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. William died on December 27, 1803, and Elizabeth and Anna Maria were received by the families of her late husband’s Italian business partners, who introduced her to Catholicism.
Seton was about to move to Canada when she met a visiting priest, Louis William Valentine Dubourg, who was a member of the French émigré community of Sulpician Fathers. They had taken refuge in the United States from the religious persecution of the Reign of Terror in France. 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 Sulpicians’ invitation and moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland. A year later, she established the Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School, a school dedicated to Catholic girls’ education.
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 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 Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac.
Elizabeth Ann Seton died on January 4, 1821, at the age of 46. Today, her remains are interred in the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland.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 many other US counties. The community at Convent Station established the Academy of Saint Elizabeth in 1860 and the College of Saint Elizabeth in 1899. She has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
In 1952, a miracle involving the healing of 4 year old Ann O’Neil from leukemia was attributed to the intercession of Seton after a nun prayed for the girl to Seton. The miracle was a factor in her beatification by Pope John XXIII on March 17, 1963. Pope Paul VI canonized Seton on September 14, 1975, in a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square, telling Americans to rejoice for their saint. “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.”
The miracle leading to the canonization of Seton involved the healing of a man in 1963, who was given hours to live after contracting meningitis and having encephalitis in his brain. Seton’s feast day is January 4, the eleventh day of Christmastide and the anniversary of her death.
Lord God, you blessed Elizabeth Seton, endowing her with graciousness and piety, as wife and mother, educator and foundress, in order that she spend her life in service.
May we keep your covenant of love and service to our fellowmen, in emulation of her exemplary life. May we learn to express our love for you in loving and caring for our brethren.
We ask this through Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us.