Elizabeth's zeal to uplift the poor and downtrodden was unmatched. In starting the American Sisters of Charity, a community of teaching sisters which began Catholic schools throughout the United States, she and her fellow sisters helped educate and inspire underprivileged children. In so doing, Mother Seton laid the foundation of the American parochial school system. [See video below.]
The Life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
She was born Elizabeth Ann Bayley, the second daughter of a prominent Anglican family in New York City in 1774. Her father was an eminent physician and professor at what is now Columbia University. Brought up as an Episcopalian, Elizabeth received an excellent education, and from her early years manifested an unusual concern for the poor.
Elizabeth's mother died 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, to the point of being afflicted with a serious depression. Her own life would take a more positive direction in 1794, when she married William Magee Seton; their marriage would eventually produce five children.
In 1797, 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 by 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 moved to Livorno, 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 that Elizabeth 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.
When Elizabeth returned to New York City some six months later, she was already a convinced Catholic. She met with stern opposition from her Episcopalian friends but was received into full communion with the Catholic Church on March 4, 1805.
Abandoned by her friends and relatives, Elizabeth was invited by the superior of the Sulpicians in Baltimore to found a school for girls in that city. The school prospered, and eventually the Sulpician superior, with the approval of Bishop Carroll, gave Elizabeth and her assistants a rule of life. They were also permitted to make religious profession and to wear a religious habit.
In 1809 Elizabeth moved her young community to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she adopted as a rule of life an adaptation of the rule observed by the Sisters of Charity, founded by St. Vincent de Paul. Although she did not neglect the ministry to the poor, and especially to Negroes, she actually laid the foundation for what became the American parochial school system. She trained teachers and prepared textbooks for use in the schools; she also opened orphanages in Philadelphia and New York City.
She died at Emmitsburg on January 4, 1821, was beatified by Pope John XXIII in 1963, and was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975.
Adapted excerpt from Saints of the Roman Calendar by Enzo Lodi.
Patron: Death of children; in-law problems; loss of parents; opposition of Church authorities; people ridiculed for their piety; Diocese of Shreveport, Louisiana; widows.
O God, who crowned with the gift of true faith Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton's burning zeal to find you, grant by her intercession and example that we may always seek you with diligent love and find you in daily service with sincere faith. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Prayer by St. 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.