St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) was born Elizabeth Ann Bayley on August 28, 1774, in New York and was raised Episcopalian. She was the daughter of Richard Bayley, a respected physician in the city, and Catherine, the daughter of an Episcopal rector. In 1777, Catherine died while giving birth, leaving St. Elizabeth Ann and her older sister, Mary, motherless. Richard Bayley remarried in 1778 and that new marriage changed St. Elizabeth Ann’s status in the family and her relationship with her father. As a highly respected physician, Dr. Bayley frequently traveled for long periods of time. Her young stepmother, Charlotte, while caring for Mary and St. Elizabeth Ann, obviously loved her own children more. Dr. Bayley, as a way to honor his new wife, focused his attention on his new children. Despite St. Elizabeth Ann being anxious for her father’s attention, at age eight, St. Elizabeth Ann and her sister, Mary, were sent to live with relatives in the country (Long Island, New York).
St. Elizabeth Ann benefited from her time in the country. She developed a keen love of nature and a sense of God’s presence. Often lonely, she turned to God for companionship, and it was during this period of time she began her life-long devotion to reading the Bible. Although she had a quiet, reflective side, St. Elizabeth Ann was also lively and vivacious. As she grew older, she loved to dance, sing, play piano and go to the theatre. In 1787, St. Elizabeth Ann and Mary returned to the city and their father’s house. St. Elizabeth Ann often took care of her stepbrothers and sisters (the oldest was seven). She sang and read to them and discovered the joy in helping.
Just as it seemed that life was becoming normal, the New York “Doctors’ Riots” broke out. The Doctors’ Riots occurred in April 1788 when it was discovered that physicians were using bodies from Potter’s Field to teach surgery to medical students at New York Hospital. Wild exaggerations about body snatchers stealing corpses from family plots lead to a full-scale riot, during which doctors’ homes were ransacked. Dr. Bayley was among the physicians who used these bodies, and though their home escaped intrusion, they were surrounded by angry mobs. This left everyone in the household visibly shaken. Soon, Dr. Bayley left to England to study new medical procedures.
St. Elizabeth Ann and Mary were sent back to live with relatives in the country. St. Elizabeth Ann missed her father greatly, but Dr. Bayley never wrote to his wife or to any family member during his year away. Although she never lost her loyalty to her father, St. Elizabeth Ann felt abandoned and sought solace through her attachment to God.
In spite of difficult and lonely times, St. Elizabeth Ann embraced life with joy and eagerness. In her late teens, she met William Magee Seton, the oldest son of a wealthy and distinguished shipping family of New York. They fell in love and married (St. Elizabeth Ann at nineteen, Will at twenty-five). The young couple took an active role in the New York social scene. President and Martha Washington were residing in New York which created a lot of diversions for the young couple to participate in. Her long years of loneliness and estrangement seemed exorcized by the young couple’s happiness.
St. Elizabeth Ann and Will had five children: three daughters and two boys from 1785 to 1802. In 1798, Will’s father injured himself with a fall on the ice resulting in his death. Will inherited the business and the responsibility for taking care of his seven younger brothers and sisters.
Soon, the “family disease,” tuberculosis, took hold of Will. In addition, the shipping business, plagued by piracy and bad investments, failed rapidly. A disastrous shipwreck in 1800 caused the family business to declare bankruptcy and reduced the Setons to near poverty. St. Elizabeth Ann found friendship with Will’s sister Rebecca, whom she called “my soul’s sister.” Rebecca and St. Elizabeth Ann prayed, read the scriptures and found strength in each other as they shared their faith. Together, they joined other women in New York to help the poor immigrants and established the “Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Children” where St. Elizabeth Ann was known as the “Protestant Sister of Charity.”
In 1803, Will’s tuberculosis became fatal. In the summer of 1803, Will turned to God, thus answering St. Elizabeth Ann’s prayers and mitigating her anxiety. Even though he would never be cured, Will and St. Elizabeth Ann tried one last separate attempt to alleviate his tuberculosis – a trip to the milder climate of Italy. Through the shipping business, the Setons formed a close relationship with the Filicchi family of Livorno (Leghorn) Italy. Will decided to visit them, and St. Elizabeth Ann went with him, even though their youngest was only a year old. Other than the eight-year-old, Ann, who accompanied her parents to Italy, the children were placed with relatives as St. Elizabeth Ann and Will left for Italy. The family thought they were crazy, but St. Elizabeth Ann said she was desperate.
They sailed from New York in early October 1803. During the seven-week journey, Will seemed to improve and they were quite hopeful. However, a yellow fever epidemic struck New York and because Will was visibly ill, the Italian health authorities quarantined the Setons in a cold stone tower near the entrance of the harbor used for the detention of those with contagious diseases. The Filicchis visited them through the grating and brought warm food to the Setons. The stone building grew cold (Anna warmed herself by jumping rope) and Will became steadily more ill. They were finally released on December 19, one month after their arrival in Italy. Will died eight days later, having spent his last hours praying with his wife.
The two Filicchi brothers and their families welcomed St. Elizabeth Ann warmly. They took St. Elizabeth Ann to Florence, where the churches overwhelmed her and the devotion of the common people impressed her. She began attending Mass with the Filicchis and witnessed people’s belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. This began a process of questioning and reordering her own faith. Unexpected delays in sailing home gave St. Elizabeth Ann more time to experience the Catholic faith. Such rituals as the ringing of the bells in the streets, which signaled that the Blessed Sacrament was being carried to the sick, stirred her discernment. By the time she sailed for New York in April 1804, she had new questions about her faith.
Arriving home, though joyous, she soon discovered her sister-in-law (and best friend), Rebecca, was also dying of tuberculosis. St. Elizabeth Ann cared for her “soul’s sister” until her death, and losing Rebecca caused grief for St. Elizabeth Ann as Rebecca was a strong support for her.
St. Elizabeth Ann needed financial help at this time, and at first her friends came to her aid. However, as she expressed interest in becoming Catholic, her Episcopal minister and many of her friends and relatives turned away from her. They called her deluded and demanded that she read books which expressed arguments against Catholicism. She understood this opposition to Catholicism, and the class disparity, as most of New York’s Catholics were poor Irish immigrants in run-down churches. The Filicchis supplied St. Elizabeth Ann with books about Catholicism and St. Elizabeth Ann read both views. Though a period of intense confusion followed, she prayed insistently for God to lead her to the truth and give her courage when she discovered it. Finally, St. Elizabeth Ann became a Catholic on March 14, 1805. Her first communion seemed to sweep away her doubts completely.
To support herself, she tried to start a boarding school, but her former Episcopal minister warned his parishioners against associating with St. Elizabeth Ann or supporting her business. These months of trial deepened St. Elizabeth Ann’s faith, but also deepened her financial difficulties. When her sister-in-law, Cecilia, became Catholic in June 1806, a new storm of opposition formed and parents withdrew their children from St. Elizabeth Ann’s school, her chief means of support.
As her financial situation became more tenuous, St. Elizabeth Ann met Fr. William Dubourg of the Society of Saint Sulpice, who was the founder of St. Mary’s College (now St. Mary’s Seminary) in Baltimore. After attending Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Church, where Fr. Dubourg presided, St. Elizabeth Ann knocked on the rectory to seek him out. They talked long and frankly, and at the end of the conversation, Fr. Dubourg asked St. Elizabeth Ann about her plans for the future. She described her concern that her two sons would not receive a proper education and her hope that she could continue her ministry of teaching.
Returning to Baltimore, Fr. Dubourg discussed various alternatives with Archbishop John Carroll (the first U.S. Bishop). They invited St. Elizabeth Ann to come to Baltimore and open a small Catholic school. Because Maryland was relatively free of anti-Catholic hostility, she opted for this opportunity. Her sons went ahead to begin their education at Georgetown University, thanks to the generosity of the Filicchis and Archbishop Carroll. Through the vision of Archbishop Carroll, St. Elizabeth Ann established a Catholic school which was open to all (free) and focused on the poor and impoverished. This began the Parochial Catholic School system in the United States. At the time, public schools charged tuition and were only available to the elite of the society.
In a letter to Antonio Filicchi, St. Elizabeth Ann mentioned the possibility of forming a community of women religious. St. Elizabeth Ann did not push this plan, but waited for God’s divine providence to lead her. Soon, Cecilia O’Conway (“Philadelphia’s first nun”), joined her in her work in December 1808. Samuel S. Cooper, a wealthy seminarian, gave $10,000 to help St. Elizabeth Ann establish a religious community, provided that the Mother House would be in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Archbishop Carroll appointed St. Elizabeth Ann to be superior of the new community and she received her first vows on March 25, 1809. St. Elizabeth Ann was then called “Mother Seton.”
Other young women joined St. Elizabeth Ann and on June 2, 1809, the sisters came to Mass imitating St. Elizabeth Ann’s style of dress, the dress of a widow – a black dress with a leather belt from which hung a rosary, a short cape and a white muslin cap. Some days later, St. Elizabeth Ann’s sister-in-laws, Harriet and Cecilia Seton, joined the community.
The Sulpician Fathers were appointed by Archbishop Carroll to be the ecclesiastical superiors of the Emmitsburg sisters. Since they had close ties with St. Vincent de Paul and the Daughters of Charity, they urged the sisters to model themselves after the French Daughters of Charity. It was hoped to bring the Daughters of Charity from France to unite the two communities and for the French sisters to instruct the American sisters in religious life. However, due to the turmoil in France from Napoleon’s adventures, the Daughters could not leave France. The Rule and constitutions did make their way to America and were adapted by St. Elizabeth Ann and her community. Archbishop Carroll approved the permanent rules of the Emmitsburg Sisters of Charity on September 11, 1811.
Life for the religious community was difficult. The sisters had little income and their housing was sparse. The cold winters took their tool, but the work prospered with St. Elizabeth Ann at the helm.
The community rose at 5:00A.M., said Morning Prayer, meditated, attended Mass and then had breakfast. At 9:00A.M., the community prayed an act of adoration. They worked until 11:45A.M. and made an examination of conscience and read the Scriptures. A brief recreation period followed lunch. At 2:00P.M., the sisters gathered to hear the Imitation of Christ, to read and to pray. They worked again until 5:00P.M., at which time they recited the rosary. During supper, they listened to spiritual readings. The community recreated until 8:30P.M., said night prayer and went to bed. Beside teaching and other ministerial duties, the sisters cleaned, sewed, tended their own garden and did their own laundry. Their lives were balanced between work, prayer and recreation. Like most women of their time, they lived hard lives. Yet, the community grew.
Tuberculosis ravaged the community. Anna, St. Elizabeth Ann’s oldest daughter, contracted the disease. Anna spent some time living in Baltimore, but she found herself lonely and unhappy while away from the community. She entered the community formally, but only lived a short while as a sister, dying a few months before her seventeenth birthday. Rebecca, St. Elizabeth Ann’s youngest child, fell on the ice and badly injured her hip. Not wanting to cause trouble, she did not tell her mother and tried to walk as straight as possible. This aggravated the injury and permanent damage resulted. Tuberculosis settled in the injured joint, and Rebecca died in her mother’s arms in 1816, when she was only fourteen years old.
St. Elizabeth Ann, too, was losing her own battle with tuberculosis. The trials of separation from her children, conflict and death had worn on her. The summer of 1820 marked the beginning of St. Elizabeth Ann’s last illness. She began to feel weaker. She tried to follow the exercises and rules of the community, but her condition grew worse. As the new year of 1821 began, St. Elizabeth Ann was urged to take her medicine, but she refused, saying “Never mind the drink. One Communion more – and then eternity.” Early on the morning of January 4, 1821, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton died peacefully. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is the first United States native to be canonized by the Catholic Church. Her motto was “Hazard yet forward” which is an indication of her deep conviction that Christ indeed is our Savior and everything we do ought to be done for him. Our “hazard” is being bold in proclaiming the Good News of Salvation, in proposing to live this Good News so that our lives are truly different and all people may see the face of Christ in our own. We celebrate St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s feast day on January 4.
Resources on St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
- Alderman, Margaret, and Josephine Burns. Companions for the Journey: Praying with Elizabeth Seton. Winona, MN: Saint Mary Press, 1992.
- Craughwell, Thomas J. Saints for Every Occasion: 101 of Heaven’s Most Powerful Patrons. Charlotte, NC: C.D. Stampley Enterprises, Inc., 2001.
- Delaney, John J. Dictionary of Saints. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980.
- Kelly, Ellin and Annabelle Melville, eds. Elizabeth Seton: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.
- McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Saints: from Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco (Division of HarperCollins Publishers), 2001.
- Walsh, Michael, ed. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Concise Edition. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1985.