Emily M. DeArdo


The First American-born saint: Elizabeth Ann Seton

Catholicism, women saints seriesEmily DeArdo2 Comments

I've always loved this saint, and while she's not as obscure as some of the other saints we've talked about this week, her story is definitely worth telling. 

Elizabeth was born on August 28, 1774 (she was a contemporary of Jane's!) and was raised Anglican. Her father was a New York City doctor. Her mother died when Elizabeth was three. Her father remarried, but that marriage ended in separation. For a few years, Elizabeth lived with family in New Rochelle while her father studied in London. A gifted horsewoman, she also spoke French and loved music, poetry, and nature. 

 At the age of 19, she married William Seton, a wealthy businessman who worked in the import trade. They had five children: Anna Maria, William II, Richard, Catherine, and Rebecca. The family was socially prominent and happy, and Elizabeth was heavily involved in charitable activities. 

 William's business went bankrupt due to the Napoleonic Wars., and he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Elizabeth, William, and Anna  went to Italy for the climate, hoping for a cure, but William died. God, however, had other plans for Elizabeth's time in Italy.

After William's death, she stayed with the Fellici family, who were William's friends. They were devout Catholics who had Daily Mass said in their chapel. Elizabeth began to attend, and was drawn to their faith and worship practices. By the time she left Italy, she knew that she would receive instruction in the faith when she returned home. She was received into the church on March 14, 1805. 

This wasn't the simple decision it may seem. Anti-Catholic feelings were high in the new country (New York's Anti-Catholic laws had just been lifted in 1804, but Catholics still weren't allowed to vote in some places, and their churches were routinely destroyed), and Elizabeth's family warned her that they would withdraw all financial support from her if she did this. She converted, however, and was left to raise her five children without her family's financial help. 

Let's restate that: five kids. no job. Family has abandoned her. 

Was she crazy? Maybe. 

Fortunately, God provided. She started an academy for young ladies, and with the help of Bishop Carroll of Baltimore, she started an order of sisters--the Sisters of Charity, which still exist today. With her fledgling order and her children, she moved from New York City to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she opened her first school and first convent. 

The first few years in Emmitsburg were hard. Few students, little money, and no luxuries--all of which were hard for her children, who had been raised in the upper echelons of New York City society. 

The Stone House, Elizabeth and her sisters' first school/convent in Emmitsburg, MD. 

The Stone House, Elizabeth and her sisters' first school/convent in Emmitsburg, MD. 

Her two sons joined the Navy, but her daughters helped their mother in her work; however, Anna and Rebecca both died of tuberculosis. Katherine became the first American to join the Sisters of Mercy. 

On July 31, 1809, Elizabeth established a religious community in Emmitsburg dedicated to the care of the children of the poor. This was the first congregation of religious sisters to be founded in the US, and its school was the first free Catholic school in America. Mother Seton (as she was known in religious life) can therefore be called the founder of the American Parochial School system. 

Elizabeth died on January 4, 1821, of tuberculosis. By 1830, her order was running schools as far west as St. Louis and New Orleans, and had established a hospital in St. Louis. She was canonized on September 14, 1975, by Pope Paul VI. 

Her Feast Day is January 4, and she is the patron saint of seafarers, Catholic schools, and the state of Maryland. 

Can you expect to go to heaven for nothing? Did not our Savior track the whole way to it with His tears and blood? And yet you stop at every little pain.