St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821)
Saint, foundress of the American Sisters of Charity. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was born in New York City on Aug. 28th, 1774. She was of colonial descent and renowned family background: her father Richard Bayley, a prominent physician and professor at King’s College (later Columbia University) and their first public health officer of the Port of New York; her mother was Catherine Charlton Bayley, was father was rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Staten Island, New York. She was less than three years of age when her mother died. Shortly thereafter her father married Charlotte Amelia Barclay. Her father’s second family numbered seven half brothers and sisters for Elizabeth and her older sister, Mary. Her father’s second marriage was not always pleasant for her and her sister, and often lived with their Bayley relatives at New Rochelle, New York. Meanwhile, her father provided her and her sister with a fine education, which included the study of French and piano at a private school known as “Mamma Pompelion’s” in New York City.
Sometime in 1791 Elizabeth was introduced to William Magee Seton. His father was the famous Anglo-Scottish family, one of the founders and first cashier of the Bank of New York, and also the founder of Seton, Maitland, and Company which became one of New York’s largest and most prosperous shipping companies. They were married on Jan. 25, 1794 in the Episcopalian Church.
Marriage and Widowhood-
The Setons made their home in New York City. Between 1795 and 1802 Elizabeth gave birth to five children (Ann Maria, William, Richard, Catherine Josephine, and Rebecca). Caring for the children and tending to other family responsibilities placed heavy demands on her time and energy. Her husband’s fortunes prospered and the Seton household was well staffed with servants. She was actively involved in social affairs, frequent attendance to the theater, in charitable works, especially as a member of the Society of Widows, an association founded to help destitute widows and children and in reading and discussing in intellectual circles a wide variety of works. As a devout Episcopalian and a member of Trinity Church, she was immersed in matters of spiritual nature, often under the guidance of a young clergyman of Trinity Church.
In 1799 Elizabeth and William were confronted with a critical financial situation, the result of varied factors: the continuance of declared war between England and France which threatened neutral American cargo vessels; William’s rapidly declining health as a result of tuberculosis; and his inability to adequately head the Seton, Maitland and Company since taking it over after the death of his father the previous year. In Dec. 1880 he was forced to file a petition of bankruptcy for his firm.
Until now he was not very interested in religion and seemed content with being a nominal Christian. Elizabeth and a clergy friend was mainly responsible for a spiritual conversion he experienced at the time of his loss of fortune and worsening of health. In an attempt to forestall his death, William, Elizabeth and their eldest child, Anna Maria, departed on a sea voyage for Leghorn Italy on Oct. 2 of 1803, having been offered hospitality by the Filicchi family. After seven weeks of travel, they were quarantined for a month (Nov. 18 to Dec. 19) in a dungeon like building called Lazaretto, located several miles from Leghorn because of recent outbreak of yellow fever in New York. Elizabeth offered both spiritual and physical courage for her husband and her daughter. The three stayed at a comfortable Filicchi house in Pisa. William died there Dec. 27 and was buried in Leghorn on the following day.
Conversion to Catholicism-
Elizabeth spent her early months of widowhood with the Filicchis and became knowledgeable of Catholicism. By the time she returned to New York in June of 1804 she desired to embrace Catholicism. Her close clergy friend, family and Protestant friends opposed her. She was received into the Catholic Church Mar. 14, 1805 by Fr. Matthew O’Brien, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in New York City.
She was now in great financial need and depended on the help of such people as the Filicchis etc. until she could find the means to support herself and her children. She undertook two projects in New York, a school and a boarding house for young children, both of which failed. She also considered relocating in Montreal Canada to assume a teaching position in what she thought was a less anti-Catholic climate.
On June 16, 1808 at the invitation of the Sulpician Fr. William DuBourg, founder of Baltimore’s St. Mary’s College and with the encouragement of Bishop John Carroll, she arrived in Baltimore, where the following September she opened a school for young girls. Her first successful school was located at Paca Street, near St. Mary’s Seminary. From the beginning of her stay in Baltimore, she desired to adopt a form of religious life. By early March of 1809 it was apparent that property purchased for her in Emmitsburg, Maryland by Samuel Cooper, a wealthy convert and seminarian, would be the site for her religious community and new school for girls. On March 25, 1809 she professed religious vows in the presence of Bishop Carroll and received from him the title “Mother”, thus becoming the foundress and first superior of the religious community to be established in Emmitsburg. In early June four young women presented themselves to her as candidates for her community and donned habits to what she had been wearing as a widow: a black dress, short black shoulder cape, and a white cap (later changed to black) which tied under the chin.
The Sisters of Charity-
On July 31, of the same year, after several weeks of temporary residence in a log house given them by Fr. John Dubois on the mountain overlooking his recently founded (1808) Mt. St. Mary’s College and Seminary in Emmitsburg, Elizabeth and the nucleus of her community, with her sisters-in-law, and her daughters (the sons’ were enrolled at Mount Saint Mary’s) and two students of the Paca Street school, settled into their home, a four room farm house called “Stone House” in nearby St. Joseph’s Valley. July 31, 1809 , marked the commencement of regular community life for Mother Seton and her sisters. It is recognized by the beginnings of her community, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph.
The rule for the community received final approval from Bishop Carroll on Jan. 17, 1812. It was based on the St. Vincent De Paul rule for the Daughters of Charity, but with certain modifications, one of which allowed for the foundress in living out the vow of poverty in order to care properly for her children. By the time the rule was approved the sister were successfully operating a free day school for young girls of the area and a boarding school for daughters of families whose homes were at a distance from Emmitsburg and whose tuition and room and board fees were a vital source of income for the community. As early as Feb. 1810, the increased numbers of the sisters and school caused them to move into a larger building known as the “White House”. There Mother Seton worked tirelessly to assure stability for her school and community. She observed classes, taught lessons, supervised the preparation of textbooks, conducted religious conferences and retreats for students, sisters and translated books form French to English and authored spiritual treatises.
From the White House, she and her sister engaged in various other ministries in the neighborhood. They visited and cared for the poor and sick, gave religious instruction to children and adults and served in domestic work and as infirmarians at Mt. St. Mary’s. In 1814 she accepted an invitation to send sisters to direct an orphanage in Philadelphia and in 1817 she responded in the same way to a similar request for New York City.
Mother Seton overcame vast obstacles in leading her community to growth and success: conflicts, conflicts especially administrative in nature with clergy and sisters; finacial problems; sickness and death of many sisters. At the same time she provided loving care for her children and she suffered the loss of two of them (Anna Maria and Rebecca) during their early years in Emmitsburg. Through it all she manifested a deep spirituality, being directed for many years by the saintly Fr. Simon Brute of Mount Saint Mary’s. Following a lengthy period of intense suffering brought on by tuberculosis, Mother Seton died in Emmitsburg on Jan. 4, 1821.
Mother Seton’s Legacy-
Following her death, Mother Seton’s sisterhood underwent a remarkable expansion. Her sisters have been serving Church and society in practically every ministry of education and charity. In 1850 her Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, were affiliated with the Daughters of Charity in France, later four other US provinces were established: Albany, NY; Evansville, IN; Los Altos, CA; and St. Louis, MO. Five other congregations trace their origin in North America to Mother Seton.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton—wife, mother, widow, convert, and foundress—was declared venerable Dec. 18, 1959, beatified on Mar 17, 1963 and canonized on Sept. 14, 1974. She is the first native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized.