Elizabeth Ann Seton

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As the first native born American to be declared SAINT, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton represents well the American spirit, American women, and the American church. Born two years before independence was declared, she grew up in New York City where the political experiment was developing. As socialite, wife, mother, and charity volunteer she was recognized for her beauty and vivacity as well as for her very broad array of feminine talents. Her anguished conversion to Catholicism, her founding of the Sisters of Charity , and her pioneer efforts in Catholic schooling distinguish her as a “Valiant Woman” of the Church in America.

Born in 1774, Elizabeth was the second daughter of the lovely Catherine Charlton and the brilliant physician Richard Bayley, a pioneer medical researcher, surgeon and professor. At three years of age, “Betty” encountered the first of a series of family losses when her mother died. Shortly thereafter her baby sister Kitty joined “God and Mama in our beautiful blue sky.” These childhood losses were major formative experiences for the young Episcopalian who throughout life encouraged others “to lift our eyes to the mountain.” “Courage,” “hope,” and “eternity” were well-worn words in her lexicon and the Good Shepherd Psalm was a favorite prayer.

In her early years, Elizabeth’s social standing offered her many opportunities to develop intellectually and culturally, but she suffered greatly from family tensions after her father’s remarriage. At 19, “Betsy” married William Seton, the European-educated son of a very successful business man, and they gave life to three daughters and two sons. However, that joy like so many in Elizabeth’s life was short-lived. In 1801, Elizabeth’s father died in her arms, a victim of “the fever” contracted as Chief Physician of the Port of New York. Her husband’s health and financial condition deteriorated rapidly and bankruptcy abruptly ended their comfortable life-style. In an effort to restore William’s physical and emotional health, Elizabeth, William and eight year old Anna Marie set out for Italy in 1803.

While that difficult visit, including a period of quarantine in the harbor of Livorno, precipitated William’s death, it also introduced Elizabeth to Catholicism where she found great consolation in the Real Presence and in Marian Devotion. Thus when the young widow returned to New York, not only did she face the challenge of supporting her five children but she also had to resolve her religious conscience. The price on both was high. Elizabeth declared her Catholic faith in 1805 in St. Peter’s, the Church of the poor immigrants. This action caused her extended family and most of her aristocratic friends to ostracize her and to cut off support, so Elizabeth moved her family to Baltimore in 1808.

In 1809 “Mother Seton” settled in Emmitsburg Maryland with a small band of widows and young women and established the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s who followed the rule of St. Vincent de Paul. Her community and school flourished. Despite the success, suffering was never far. During her twelve years in Emmitsburg, Mother Seton endured the deaths of two teen-aged daughters ravaged by tuberculosis which also claimed Elizabeth. on January 4, 1821 at 47 years of age in a room adjoining the chapel and her school. Today, not far from that humble site, Elizabeth, the loving daughter, dedicated wife, resilient widow, religious foundress, creative educator and first native-born American saint is honored in the grand Basilica of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Food for Thought

Catholic universities will be particularly attentive to the poorest and to those who suffer economic, social, cultural or religious injustice. This responsibility begins within the academic community but it also finds application beyond it.

Pope John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (40)