October 9, 2010

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton: A Life

Most people know that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first American-born person to be declared a saint (she was canonized on September 14, 1975) and that she is regarded as being one of the driving forces behind the rise of parochial education in the United States. They are also aware that she was the foundress of the American Sisters of Charity, which was the first order of sisters native to the U.S. What many may not realize, however, is that her road to sainthood was paved with difficulties that sound quite modern in their familiarity.


Born the second daughter of a prominent Anglican family in New York in 1774, she suffered the death of her mother in 1777, most likely as a result of childbirth. The woman that her father married in 1778, Charlotte Barclay, never accepted the children from her husband’s first marriage. That marriage eventually ended in a separation due to irreconcilable conflicts.

Elizabeth suffered greatly as a result of all this, to the point of being afflicted with a serious depression. However, her own life took a more positive direction in 1794, when she married William Magee Seton; their marriage would eventually produce five children.

In 179, when Elizabeth was pregnant with her third child, her father-in-law died and her husband had to assume total responsibility for the family business. Elizabeth helped out as much as she could be doing the account books at night, after caring all day for her own family and her husband’s younger half-siblings.

Despite their hard work, the company went bankrupt in 1801 and the family lost their home and all their possessions as a result. It was about this time that William began to show symptoms of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. Seeking to restore her husband’s health, Elizabeth and her family journeyed to Italy for the more favorable climate; it did not help, however, and William Seton died in 1803, leaving Elizabeth a 29-year-old widow with five small children.

It was in Italy, however, that she began her own conversion to Catholicism, which ultimately culminated in her sainthood. In the end, it would be both her strength and her new faith that would enable her to be a wife, mother, widow, single parent, foundress, educator, social minister, and spiritual leader, and do them all well.

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