Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born August 28, 1774 in New York City. Her mother, Catherine, the daughter of an Episcopal rector, died giving birth in 1777, leaving Elizabeth and her older sister, Mary, motherless. Their father, Richard, a respected physician, remarried the next year. Sadly, they lacked their father’s attention due to extended business trips and, when home, he focused his attention on his new wife and family. Their new mother cared for them but obviously loved her own children more. At age eight, Elizabeth and her sister were sent to live with relatives in the country.
In the country Elizabeth “developed a keen love of nature and a sense of God’s presence.” She often felt lonely and turned to God for companionship and began what would become a lifelong devotion to reading the Bible. Elizabeth also had a lively, vivacious side that loved to dance, sing, play piano and go to the theater.
When Elizabeth was 12, she and her sister moved back to New York City with their father and his family. Elizabeth helped care for her step-brothers and -sisters and “discovered
joy in helping.” At 14, her father went to England for a year and she and her sister returned to the country. She later lived with her sister, Mary, and husband and then with relatives on Staten Island. During this time, Elizabeth made some friendships that would last a lifetime as well as a genuine closeness to her father.
Despite difficult and lonely times, Elizabeth eagerly embraced life. In her late teens she met William Magee Seton and they married when she was 19 and he 25. He came from a wealthy and distinguished family and their social activity stilled her loneliness. They went on to have 5 children. During this time, Will’s father died and Will inherited the family shipping business as well as Elizabeth taking on the care of Will’s seven younger brothers and sisters. The “family disease”, tuberculosis, had already struck Will. The family shipping business – plagued by piracy and bad investments, finally ended in bankruptcy in 1800. “The trials served to strengthen the relationship between Elizabeth and Will, and Elizabeth found another source of support in her close relationship with Will’s sister, Rebecca. “They prayed, read scripture and found strength together. They worked with other women of the Episcopal Church to help the masses of poor people entering New York City.
Elizabeth’s father died of typhus which shook her profoundly. Simultaneously, Will’s TB worsened. In 1803, Will opened his heart to God and then they moved to Livorno, Italy in hopes the milder climate would ease his suffering. They planned to visit the Filicchi family with whom they’d formed close ties as a result of the shipping business. Upon arriving in Livorno and being visibly ill as well as possibly carrying yellow fever, the authorities had the family quarantined in a cold, stone tower used for the detention of those with contagious diseases. The Filicchi family brought warm food and, although the family was released one month later, Will died eight days after that. The Filicchi family welcomed Elizabeth, and one of the Filicchi’s sons and his wife became her lifelong friends. “They took her to see Florence where the churches overwhelmed her and the devotion of the common people impressed her.” She began attending Mass with the Filicchi’s. “She witnessed people’s belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and thus began a process of questioning and reordering her own faith that would ultimately lead her to Catholicism.”
She returned home to New York City in 1804 to find that her sister-in-law was now dying of TB, thus losing another strong source of support.
Elizabeth needed financial assistance and at first got it from her friends. But her interest in Catholicism gradually turned away her pastor as well as many of her friends and relatives. She continued to study and analyze Catholicism and prayed for God to guide her to the truth. The answer became clear, and she became a Catholic on March 14, 1805. Her First Communion affirmed her decision. Members of her former church were warned against associating with Elizabeth’s boarding house or school, her chief means of financial support. Elizabeth grew closer to her sisters-in-law, Cecilia and Hamet.
She met with Father William Dubourg of the Society of Saint Sulpice, who was the founder of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore. He and Bishop John Carroll, the first US bishop, invited her to open a small school in Baltimore and her sons were to begin their education at Georgetown thanks to Antonio Filicchi and Bishop Carroll. Her faith in God continued to deepen through all these hardships. Her school began with seven pupils, while consideration was given to forming a community of religious women. Things moved quickly and a wealthy seminarian donated $10,000 to establish the religious community, but required it be in Emmitsburg, about 50 miles west of Baltimore. Bishop Carroll appointed Elizabeth superior of the new community and she received her first vows March 25, 1809, becoming Mother Seton. Other women joined Elizabeth and the sisters’ dress to Mass imitated Elizabeth who was dressed as a widow – black dress, leather belt with rosary, short cape and white muslin cap.
Emmitsburg was home of St. Joseph’s Church and the sisters’ community was called Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. They provided regular spiritual exercises in the community and worked with the children in school. Then, for two years a new community director believed he should have complete control as well as replace Elizabeth with a pupil of his own. During this time, both Elizabeth’s sisters-in-law died. A new director was appointed and finally Elizabeth regained control.
A group of Sulpician priests who escaped the French Revolution and had close ties to the Daughters of Charity in France, assisted Bishop Carroll and were appointed ecclesiastical superiors of the Emmitsburg sisters by the Bishop. As a result, the Sisters of Charity modeled themselves after the Daughters of Charity. Life in the community was difficult – little income and spartan housing, but their work successfully continued under Elizabeth as their lives were made up of a balance of work, prayer and recreation. Elizabeth’s community grew and the school at St. Joseph’s became a parish school and is now considered the beginning of the Catholic parochial school system in the US.
Elizabeth’s oldest daughter became a sister, but TB swept through the community and she died before she was 17. Then her youngest daughter injured her hip and TB settled into the joint, taking her life at age 14. Elizabeth herself was battling TB and became much weaker. Forced to bed, she still followed community rules and exercises as closely as she could. She refused water and medicine, saying “one Communion more – and then eternity” (at that time, drinking water after midnight broke the required Eucharistic fast). Early January 4, 1821 Elizabeth died peacefully.
Mother Seton’s community spread during and after her life. The sisters took over orphanages, parish schools and other ministries throughout North America and formed several communities of Sisters of Charity.
“Given the amount of suffering in her life, it would have been understandable if Elizabeth had fallen into bitterness or despair. What held her up and kept her going was her tremendous faith in God’s unconditional love for her. She also held fast to her belief that doing God’s will would lead her to greater love and firmer hope. In short, Elizabeth Seton’s faith gave her supreme confidence that ultimately all would be well. Her faith was sustained by prayer and by nourishment of the Eucharist.”
In recognition of her holiness, Pope Paul VI declared on September 14, 1975 “Elizabeth Ann Seton … is a saint.” She is the first U.S. saint.
(Information and quotations were obtained from Praying with Elizabeth Seton by Margaret Alderman and Josephine Burns.)