Navigating the Faith: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton – Wife, Mother, Saint

by Dianne Rachal

The gate of heaven is very low; only the humble can enter it.”  – St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Elizabeth Ann Seton is the first native-born American to be proclaimed a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Elizabeth lived every role possible for a woman: daughter, debutante, wife, mother, widow, convert, grieving parent and founder of the first congregation of women in America – the Sisters of Charity.

Elizabeth was born on August 28, 1774, in New York City to Dr. Richard and Catherine Bayley. Elizabeth’s mother died when Elizabeth was three. A year later, her sister Kitty died. As a child and teenager, Elizabeth was left with family members while her father was gone for long periods. Elizabeth was 16 when she met the 22-year-old William Magee Seton; they married four years later. Elizabeth and William had five children: Anna Maria, William, Richard, Catherine and Rebecca. Elizabeth was a devout member of the Episcopal Church, joining with other young matrons in service to the poor, especially to widows and orphans. She established an organization in New York City called the Widows’ Society.

The Seton family’s shipping business went bankrupt when many ships were lost at sea during wars. Elizabeth’s husband William contracted tuberculosis, and a voyage to Italy was proposed in hopes of restoring his health. Elizabeth left four of her children behind, including baby Rebecca, and with eight-year-old Anna Maria, sailed with her husband to Italy. Upon arrival in Italy, the Setons were quarantined at Lazaretto due to Yellow Fever. Business associates of William, the Filicchi brothers and their wives, brought the Setons food and blankets during the quarantine. William died, leaving Elizabeth a widow at age 29 with five children.

The Filicchis welcomed Elizabeth and Anna Maria into their home, and it was there that Elizabeth was introduced to Catholicism. Elizabeth was impressed with Catholic piety and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. One year after her return to America, Elizabeth was received into the Catholic Church at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street in New York City. Alienated from her family and friends, and trying to support her five children, Elizabeth started an academy for young ladies. Rumors were spread that the academy was a Catholic school, and the venture failed.

In 1808 Elizabeth was invited by priests to start a school for girls in Baltimore on Paca Street. Within a year Elizabeth took vows as a religious. Soon other young women joined her. In 1809 the small group of religious moved to Emmitsburg, MD, to become the first American Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. Elizabeth became Mother Superior for 12 years. The order opened St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School—the first free Catholic school in America, and the beginning of the parochial school system. Revenue from the academy enabled the sisters to educate poor country children. Mother Elizabeth oversaw all aspects of the school: teachers, curriculum, discipline and taught French and religion.

The order adopted the habit of an Italian widow, and continued to grow. Mother Seton wrote textbooks, translated books from French into English, trained teachers and wrote articles on the spiritual life. During her years in Emmitsburg, Elizabeth suffered the loss of two of her daughters to tuberculosis: Anna Maria in 1812 and Rebecca in 1816. Elizabeth herself was weak from the effects of the disease. She spent the last years of her life directing St. Joseph’s Academy and her growing community. She died January 4, 1821, not yet 47-years-old.

Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton was declared Venerable in 1959 and beatified on March 17, 1963, by St. Pope John XXIII. She was canonized on September 14, 1975, by Pope Paul VI. Her feast day is January 4. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is the patron saint of seafarers, bakers, death of children, the homeless, nursing services, widows and young brides.  •

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