Elizabeth Bayley was born into a prominent old New York family. Her promising, privileged life, however, was marked by tragedy early on as her mother died when she was three years old. Her father remarried and had seven children with his second wife before they divorced. She and her sister were rejected by their stepmother and were left in the care of relatives while their father was studying medicine in London. During what she described as her dark years, she took comfort in reading the Scriptures, meditating, and writing in her journals. At nineteen, she was happily married to William Seton, a successful businessman. Although they had five children and a busy household, Seton was drawn to charitable causes and organized a group of society women who visited the sick poor in their homes.
Tragedy stuck Seton’s life once again—after losing two children at young ages, in 1802, her husband faced bankruptcy and became critically ill. At the suggestion of his physician, Seton and one of her daughters traveled to Italy with him, hoping the milder climate would improve his health. Instead,William Seton died there and the women were taken in by the family of his Italian business partners. In the home of these practicing Catholics, Seton was drawn to Roman Catholicism and converted when she returned to New York.
The young widow soon suffered discrimination in virulently anti-Papist New York. She was shunned by her family and her friends, and the academy for young women she had founded to support her family lost its students when her conversion became known. Seton left New York and resettled in Maryland where she established the first community of religious sisters in the United States, dedicated to the care of indigent children. She also established the first free Catholic school in America, and is now considered the patron saint of Catholic schools.
Mother Seton, as she was known, died of tuberculosis 1821. In 1959, preparations were made for her sainthood, which required proof that she performed miracles. When it was verified that her intervention saved three people from death, she was beatified in 1963 and canonized in 1975, thereby making her America’s first saint. There is a bronze image of Mother Seton on the main doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with the title “Daughter of New York.” The Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, located in the Church of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, was built on the site of her former home in Manhattan at 7 State Street in lower Manhattan.
Rev. Joseph I. Dirvin, C. M. Mrs. Seton: Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962.
Power-Waters, Alma. Mother Seton: First American-Born Saint. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.
White, Charles Ignatius. Sisters of Charity. New York: Doubleday, 1949.