About St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

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St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

As the foundress of the first Catholic schools in America, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton set the stage for an educational system built upon the strong foundation of the Faith. A wife, mother, and later, religious sister, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton used the skills and talents she had developed through the challenges she faced in life to bring forth good, all in God’s name.

Born on August 28, 1774, Elizabeth Ann Bayley was the second daughter to Dr. Richard Bayley and Catherine Charlton of New York City. Theirs was a prominent family, among the first to settle in the area. St. Elizabeth’s mother was the daughter of an Episcopal minister, and she and her siblings were raised in the Episcopal Church.

St. Elizabeth’s mother died in 1777, possibly from complications due to childbirth. St. Elizabeth was only three at the time. Her father remarried, to a woman named Charlotte Amelia Barclay, in order to provide a mother for his children. The new Mrs. Bayley was also active in the Episcopal Church, and would often take St. Elizabeth with her when visiting the poor. Mr. and Mrs. Bayley unfortunately divorced. Mrs. Bayley refused St. Elizabeth and her older sister, Mary Magdalene, after this separation. The girls were sent to live with their uncle while their father traveled to Europe to continue his medical studies. Having lost two mothers, St. Elizabeth felt a sadness in her heart. She later wrote of this pain in her journals. St. Elizabeth was a contemplative spirit, drawn to nature, poetry and music. In her journals she would often write of her religious aspirations and reflections.

When St. Elizabeth was 19 years old she married 25-year-old William Magee Seton, a wealthy businessman in the import trade. His father was part-owner of an iron works company which brought him wealth and status. St. Elizabeth and her husband had five children - Anna Maria, William II, Richard, Catherine, and Rebecca Mary. The family lived in a beautiful home on Wall Street, and lived very happily. Then tragedy struck when St. Elizabeth’s husband’s father died, causing his profitable business to crumble around him. St. Elizabeth’s husband, William, feared he would be sent to debtor’s prison; however, St. Elizabeth placed her trust in God’s ability to carry her family through any difficulty, stating that it is a blessing to be released from the cares of the world. By 1802, William Seton was bankrupt.

St. Elizabeth and her children went to live with her father, who was the health officer at the Port of New York on Staten Island. Her husband William, who had been suffering with tuberculosis, experienced a worsening of symptoms and was urged by his doctors to go to the warmer climate of Italy for relief. St. Elizabeth sold off her remaining possessions - silver, vases, pictures, etc.- in order to buy tickets to sail to Italy. Upon arriving, they were placed in quarantine for one month, for at that time the yellow fever was common in New York and the Italians did not want the disease to be brought in and spread by St. Elizabeth’s family. As St. Elizabeth, her husband, and her daughter awaited release from quarantine, her husband’s health continued to decline. Two days after Christmas in 1803, not long after they were freed, William Seton died.

St. Elizabeth and her daughter, Anna Maria, went to stay with William’s business partners in Italy after he passed away. While living with them, St. Elizabeth was introduced to Catholicism. She was greatly influenced by the Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. When she and Anna Maria moved back to New York, St. Elizabeth felt drawn by God to become Catholic. Yet, at this time, society was very much against Catholicism, even though the Anti-Catholic laws had recently been lifted. St. Elizabeth knew that converting to Catholicism would create tensions and difficulties in her relationships and community; however, she could not deny the pull in her heart to follow where God was leading her. On March 14, 1805, St. Elizabeth was received into the Catholic Church in St. Peter’s Church in New York City - the only Catholic church in the city at the time. A year later she was confirmed by Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore - the only Catholic bishop in the land.

To support herself and her family, St. Elizabeth started an academy for young ladies. However, upon hearing of her conversion to Catholicism, many families withdrew their daughters from her school. After trying to keep the doors of her school open for some time, she decided to move to Emmitsburg, Maryland, upon the suggestion of a priest she had met. This priest was a part of an order called the Sulpicians. They were in the process of establishing the first seminary in the United States. Their invitation to St. Elizabeth was to establish a school to meet the needs of the young people in the local area. St. Elizabeth founded “St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School,” made possible by the funding of a wealthy man who had experienced a conversion and was entering the Sulpicians’ new seminary - Mount Saint Mary’s - to study for the priesthood.

Later, St. Elizabeth founded an order of religious sisters in Emmitsburg, whose mission it was to care for and educate the poor children in the area. This was the first order of sisters to be established in the United States, as well as the first free Catholic school in the nation. From this humble start began the parochial school system in America. The order was originally called “The Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.” St. Elizabeth became known as “Mother Seton.” Her three daughters, two sisters-in-law, and four other young women joined her in her newly-founded order. For special occasions they wore black dresses with shoulder capes and a simple bonnet tied beneath the chin. For everyday clothing, they wore whatever they had on hand. They adopted the rules and constitution of St. Vincent de Paul in 1811, and were officially sanctioned as a religious order by Rome.The Sisters began taking up missions throughout the United States, opening homes and schools for orphaned and poor children.

As time passed, St. Elizabeth began to show signs of deteriorating health due tuberculosis. On January 4, 1821, St. Elizabeth began the prayers for the dying, then passed away at age 46. At the time of her death, there were twenty communities of Sisters of Charity, running schools, hospitals, orphanages, and boarding schools. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton became the first American-born saint to be canonized when in 1975 Pope Pius VI named her a saint.

Patronage of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is the patron saint of Catholic schools, those rejected/persecuted for their faith, orphans, and widows. When she was very young, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton lost her mother. Her father remarried to provide his children with a stepmother; however, the marriage ended in divorce and St. Elizabeth was deeply saddened to lose another mother. Later, she lost her husband to tuberculosis, which is why she is the patron saint of widows. Also, since she was ridiculed for her conversion to Catholicism, St. Elizabeth has been named the patron of those who face challenges practicing their faith.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Art

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is depicted in artwork wearing the original habit of her order, the Sisters of Charity. The habit consisted of a black bonnet and black dress with a shoulder cape. Often she is pictured seated, seen in a profile view.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Prayers

Prayer of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

O Father, the first rule of our dear Saviour's life was to do Your Will. Let His Will of the present moment be the first rule of our daily life and work, with no other desire but for its most full and complete accomplishment. Help us to follow it faithfully, so that doing what You wish

we will be pleasing to You. Amen.

Prayer by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

Lord Jesus, Who was born for us in a stable, lived for us a life of pain and sorrow, and died for us upon a cross; say for us in the hour of death, Father, forgive, and to Your Mother, Behold your child. Say to us, This day you shall be with Me in paradise. Dear Savior, leave us not, forsake us not. We thirst for You, Fountain of Living Water. Our days pass quickly along, soon all will be consummated for us. To Your hands we commend our spirits, now and forever. Amen.

Prayer to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Lord God, you blessed Elizabeth Ann Seton with gifts of grace as wife and mother, educator and foundress, so that she might spend her life in service to your people. Through her example and prayers may we learn to express our love for you in love for others. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Prayer in Honor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Lord God, you blessed Elizabeth Ann Seton with gifts of grace as wife and mother, educator and foundress, so that she might spend her life in service to your people.

Through her example and prayers, may we, whose Faith Community is dedicated in her honor, learn to express our love for you in our love for all your children.

We ask this through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.