Who was the first person born in the United States to be declared a saint? Who opened the first American Catholic parish school and established the first American Catholic orphanage? Who founded the first native American religious community of women? The answers to all these questions are the same: Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton.
Elizabeth’s Episcopalian parents handed on to her their own faith. Her mother and stepmother taught her to pray and read Scripture. Her father, a doctor, taught her to love and serve the poor. As a young girl, Elizabeth took food to the poor near her home. After she was married, she and her sister-in-law Rebecca visited the poor and sick in slums.
Elizabeth was prepared for New York high society. At the age of nineteen she married handsome William Seton, the son and business partner of the owner of a wealthy shipping firm. No one could have guessed the plans God had for her. Will and Elizabeth were devoted to each other. They loved their five children—three girls and two boys.
Everything went well until 1803, when Will Seton’s business went bankrupt and his health failed. The Filicchi family in Italy invited Will, Elizabeth, and their oldest daughter Anne to visit so that Will could recuperate in the warm, sunny Italian climate.
The journey was rough. Because there had been an epidemic in New York before the Setons left, when they landed in Italy the police quarantined them in an old fort. If after six weeks they did not come down with the disease, they would be able to enter Italy. Will, already ill, had to lie in the cold, damp room. Elizabeth cared for him as well as she could, but a few weeks after they were freed, Will died.
The Filicchis, who were Catholic, helped Elizabeth. Finally, she realized that God was calling her to become a Catholic. She went to a priest to learn about the truths of the faith. Later, she and her children became Catholics. Because of their decision, her family and many friends turned against her, and she found herself on her own.
To support herself and her children, she opened a Catholic boarding school for girls in Maryland. Women came to help Elizabeth, and the school grew. Soon it seemed obvious that God was asking Elizabeth to dedicate her life completely to him. She and the other women began a community of religious women known as the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s. Elizabeth Seton received the title of “Mother,” head of the community. They followed an adapted version of the Rule used by the Daughters of Charity founded in 1633 in France. After Mother Seton’s death, her community grew into several independent new congregations of Sisters of Charity in the U.S. and Canada. In 1850, the remaining Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph’s joined the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul of Paris, France.
Elizabeth raised her children. Her two sons entered the navy. Anna became a nun but died at an early age, as did Rebecca. Catherine became a Sister of Mercy and worked with those in prison.
Today thousands of Daughters of Charity carry on Mother Seton’s work. They serve in hospitals, homes for the aged, and schools.
John Neumann was a missionary priest in America and the fourth bishop of Philadelphia.
Saint Katharine Drexel founded a religious community and schools for Native American and African-American people.
Elizabeth Ann Seton (short bio)
Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774–1821) was born to parents who belonged to powerful non-Catholic families in the then British colony of New York. Her mother was the daughter of the rector of an Episcopal church, and her father was a renowned physician and professor of anatomy.
Because her mother died when she was only three, Elizabeth’s father assumed the responsibility of rearing her. He stressed education, sending Elizabeth to private school in New York as well as teaching her at home. Elizabeth’s goal as she matured was to devote herself to nursing the sick, particularly those who were poor. At age 20 she married a wealthy young shipping merchant, and the couple raised a family of five children.
Elizabeth’s good deeds earned her the name Protestant Sister of Charity, as she visited and cared for many who were poor and sick in New York City. Her transformation toward Catholicism began to take shape when she and her husband traveled to Italy in hopes of finding a cure for tuberculosis, with which he had become stricken. He soon died, and she returned with the children to the United States, became a Catholic, and formed a community of sisters whose mission was to open schools and teach children in orphanages.
Mother Seton, as she became known, was declared a saint by Pope Paul VI on September 14, 1975. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s feast day is January 4.