Few people have changed the lives of so many children as Elizabeth Anne Seton, the first American-born saint.
Born in 1774 in New York City, just before the American Revolution, Elizabeth Bayley was home-schooled by her father, a Professor of Anatomy at King's College (now known as Columbia). At age 19, she married a wealthy young merchant named William Seton, and threw herself into social work; by age 23, she had founded the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children.
But she herself become a widow six years later, when her husband's death left her with five children to raise by herself. The family had traveled to Italy in attempt to improve William Seton's failing health; after his death in Pisa, she stayed on in Italy for two years, as she became increasingly interested in the novel (to her) religion of Catholicism.
Having been raised as an Episcopalian, she converted to Catholicism at age 31. Her grandfather had been rector at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church on Staten Island, and neither her family nor friends accepted her decision. She was immediately ostracized.
To support her children, she opened a school in New York City.
Hearing of the high quality of the New York school, the rector of St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore asked her to open a school in that city. A few years after moving to Baltimore (which was America's leading Catholic city), Elizabeth Anne Seton and four friends helped found a religious community, the Sisters of St. Joseph. They also founded a school for poor girls, which charged no tuition.
This school, in fact, turned into the foundation for the entire parochial education system in the United States - an education system which long predates the government schools, and which has consistently produced better results with fewer resources. In that first parochial school, Elizabeth Anne Seton trained the Sisters to become teachers and wrote the textbooks; all the while she continued her work to assist Maryland's poor, sick, and Black populations. Besides the school for girls, she founded St. Joseph's College for women. In 1812, she established the Sisters of Charity (the first American religious community) and was elected Superior. The order was based, with modifications, on the rule of St. Vincent de Paul. Nuns under her supervision opened an orphanage in Philadelphia in 1814, and in New York in 1817. By the time of her death on January 4, 1821, twenty communities of the Sisters of Charity had been established.
In just 45 years, she had accomplished several lifetimes' worth of great works.
When Pope Paul VI canonized her in 1975, one thousand nuns from Sisters of Charity all over the world attended. The Pope praised her for manifesting "that religious spirituality which your [American] temporal prosperity seemed to obscure and almost make impossible."
For more: National Shrine for Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Prayer in honor of St. Elizabeth Seton; from the church founded on the day of her 1975 canonization, in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Painting and stained glass portrayal of Elizabeth Seton.
Excerpts from her diary.
Report on SEA by Caitlin McRae, with numerous links and pictures.
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More by Kopel on Catholic Saints.