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St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Foundress and First Superior of the Sisters of Charity in the United States

setonConvert to Roman Catholicism; foundress of the American Sisters of Charity, which was the first sisterhood native to the United States; a wife, mother, widow, sole parent, foundress, educator, social minister, and spiritual leader, Elizabeth Bayley Seton was the first person born in the United States to become a canonized saint (September 14, 1975); b. August 28, 1774, New York City; d. Emmitsburg, Maryland, January 4, 1821. Of British and French ancestry, Elizabeth was born into a prominent Anglican family in New York and was the second daughter of Dr. Richard Bayley (1744-1801) and Catherine Charlton (d.1777). The couple's first child, Mary Magdalene Bayley (1768-1856), married (1790) Dr. Wright Post (1766-1828) of New York. Catherine Bayley (1777-1778), the youngest child, died the year after the untimely death of her mother, which was probably a result of childbirth.

Native of New York
The Bayley and Charlton families were among the earliest colonial settlers of the New York area. Elizabeth's paternal grandparents were William Bayley (c.1708-c.1758) and Susannah LeConte (LeCompte, b.1727), distinguished French Huguenots of New Rochelle. Her maternal grandparents, Mary Bayeux and Dr. Richard Charlton (d.1777), lived on Staten Island. where Dr. Charlton, was pastor at Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church.

After the death of his first wife, Dr. Bayley married (1778) Charlotte Amelia Barclay (c.1759-1805), of the Jacobus James Roosevelt lineage of New York, but the marriage ended in separation as a result of marital conflict. The couple had seven children, three daughters and four sons. Among them was Guy Carleton Bayley (1786-1859), whose son, James Roosevelt Bayley (1814-1877), converted to Roman Catholicism and became the first bishop of Newark (1853-1872) and eighth archbishop of Baltimore (1872-1877).

Elizabeth and her sister were rejected by their stepmother. On account of her father's travel abroad for medical studies, the girls lived temporarily in New Rochelle, New York, with their paternal uncle, William Bayley (1745-1811), and his wife, Sarah Pell Bayley. Elizabeth experienced a period of darkness around the time when her stepmother and father separated. Reflecting about this period of depression in later years in her journal entitled Dear Remembrances, she expressed her relief at not taking the drug laudanum, a opium derivative: "This wretched reasoning-laudanum-the praise and thanks of excessive joy not to have done the ‘horrid deed’- thoughts and promise of eternal gratitude." Elizabeth had a natural bent toward contemplation; she loved nature, poetry, and music, especially the piano. She was given to introspection and frequently made entries in her journal expressing her sentiments, religious aspirations, and favorite passages from her reading.

Elizabeth wed William Magee Seton (1768-1803), a son of William Seton, Sr., (1746-1798) and Rebecca Curson Seton (c.1746-c.1775), January 25, 1794, in the Manhattan home of Mary Bayley Post. Samuel Provoost (1742-1815), the first Episcopal bishop of New York, witnessed the wedding vows of the couple.

Socially Prominent
William Magee, a descendant of the Setons of Parbroath, was the oldest of thirteen children of his father's two marriages. The elder Seton married (1767) Rebecca Curson (c.1746-1775) and the year after her death he married (1776) his sister-in-law, Anna Maria Curson (d.1792). William Magee, educated in England, along with his father and brother James, was a founding partner in the import-export mercantile firm, the William Seton Company, which became the Seton, Maitland and Company in 1793. He had visited important counting houses in Europe in 1788 and was also a friend of Filippo Filicchi (1763-1816), a renowned merchant of Livorno, Italy.

Socially prominent in New York, the Setons belonged to the fashionable Trinity Episcopal Church. Elizabeth was a devout communicant there under the influence of Rev. John Henry Hobart (1775-1830, later bishop), who was her spiritual director. Elizabeth, along with her sister-in-law Rebecca Mary Seton (1780-1804), her soul-friend and dearest confidant, nursed the sick and dying among family, friends, and needy neighbors. Elizabeth was among the founders and charter members of The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1797) and also served as treasurer of the organization.

Happily married, Elizabeth and William Magee Seton had five children: Anna Maria (1795-1812), William (1796-1868), Richard Bayley (1798-1823), Catherine Charlton (1800-1891), and Rebecca Mary (1802-1816).

Anna Maria, who had accompanied her parents to Italy in 1803, became afflicted with tuberculosis as an adolescent and made her vows as a Sister of Charity on her deathbed. Rebecca fell on ice sometime before 1812, causing a hip injury which resulted in lameness and early death, also from tuberculosis. Both Anna Maria and Rebecca are buried in the original cemetery of the Sisters of Charity at Emmitsburg, Maryland. After joining the United States Navy (1822), Richard died prematurely off the coast of Liberia on board the ship Oswego.

Catherine Charlton (also called Josephine), was beautiful and witty. She distinguished herself by her linguistic and musical talents, developed at Saint Joseph's Academy, Emmitsburg. She was the only Seton present at her mother's death. Catherine later lived with her brother William and his family and traveled to Europe with them several times before entering the Sisters of Mercy in New York City (1846). As Mother Mary Catherine, she devoted herself for more than forty years to prison ministry in New York. William received a commission as lieutenant in the United States Navy in February 1826 and married (1832) Emily Prime (1804-1854). Seven of their nine children lived to adulthood, including Archbishop Robert Seton (1839-1927) and Helen (1844-1906), another New York Sister of Mercy (Sister Mary Catherine, 1879-1906).

Change of Tide
After the death (1798) of William Seton, Sr., her father-in-law, responsibility was thrust on Elizabeth's husband for both the Seton, Maitland and Company and the welfare of his younger half-siblings. About six months pregnant with her third child at the time, Elizabeth managed the care of both families in the Seton household. There she enjoyed her initial teaching experience with her first pupils, Charlotte (1786-1853), Henrietta (Harriet) (1787-1809), and Cecilia (1791-1810), her youngest sisters-in-law.

During their monetary crisis Elizabeth tried to assist her husband at night by doing the account books of his firm, but the Company went bankrupt (1801), and the Setons lost their possessions and the family home at 61 Stone Street in lower Manhattan. William Magee began to show evidence of tuberculosis as their financial problems escalated.

Faith-filled Journey
Elizabeth, William Magee, and their oldest daughter Anna Maria made a sea voyage (1803) to the warm climate of Italy in a desperate effort to restore her husband's health. Italian authorities at the port of Livorno feared yellow fever then prevalent in New York. As a result the officials quarantined the Setons in a cold, stone lazaretto. The Filicchi family did all they could to advocate for them and to provide some relief during their month of isolation. Two weeks after his discharge, William Magee died in Pisa, December 27, and was buried in the English cemetery in Livorno, leaving Elizabeth a widow at age twenty-nine with five young children.

The experiences in Italy of Elizabeth and her daughter (now called Annina) transformed their lives forever. Antonio Filicchi (1764-1847) and his wife, Amabilia Baragazzi Filicchi (1773-1853) provided gracious hospitality to the widow and child until the Setons returned to the United States the next spring. Filippo and his wife, the former Mary Cowper (1760-1821) of Boston, along with Antonio and Amabilia Filicchi, introduced Elizabeth to Roman Catholicism. Elizabeth came upon the text of the Memorare, and began to inquire about Catholic practices, first from her lack of familiarity with the religion, then her inquisitiveness arose out of sincere interest. She asked about the Sacred Liturgy, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and the Church’s direct unbroken link with Christ and the apostles. The Italian Journal, her long memoir written for her sister-in-law Rebecca Seton, reveals the intimate details of Elizabeth's heart-rending personal journey of inner conflict and conversion (cf. Bechtle and Metz, p. 243). Antonio, who had business interests in America, accompanied the Setons back to America, and instructed Elizabeth about the faith and offered wise counsel during her indecision. Elizabeth felt deeply for Antonio, who provided not only emotional support but also substantial financial resources to her.

Although Elizabeth left the United States a firm Protestant, she returned to New York with the heart of a Roman Catholic in June 1804. Immediately opposition and insecurity threatened her resolve. Elizabeth's religious inclinations incurred the ire of both family and friends. Their hostility coupled with the death of her beloved Rebecca, her sister-in-law and most intimate confidant, caused Elizabeth deep anguish. She was also troubled by her strained financial situation. Her five children were all less than eight years of age. As their sole parent Elizabeth faced many challenges and frequently had to relocate into less expensive housing.

While Elizabeth was discerning God's will for her future, the Virgin Mary became her prism of faith. In her discernment she relied on several advisors among the clergy, especially Rev. John Cheverus (1768-1836), the first bishop of Boston, and his associate Rev. Francis Matignon (1753-1818). After wrestling with doubts and fears in her search for truth, Elizabeth resolved her inner conflict regarding religious conversion and embraced Roman Catholicism.

Reverend Matthew O'Brien (1758-1815) received Elizabeth's profession of the Catholic faith at Saint Peter's Church, Barclay Street in lower Manhattan, March 14, 1805. Elizabeth received her First Communion two weeks later on March 25. Bishop John Carroll (1735-1815, later archbishop), whom she considered her spiritual father, confirmed her the next year on Pentecost Sunday. For her Confirmation name Elizabeth added the name of Mary to her own and thereafter frequently signed herself "MEAS," which was her abbreviation for Mary Elizabeth Ann Seton. Accordingly the three names, Mary, Ann, and Elizabeth, signified the moments of the mysteries of Salvation for her.

Elizabeth's initial years as a Catholic (1805-1808) in New York were marked by disappointments and failures. Rampant anti-Catholic prejudice prevented her from beginning a school, but she secured a teaching position at the school of a Protestant couple, Mr. & Mrs. Patrick White but they failed financially within a short time. Elizabeth's next venture was a boarding house for boys who attended a school directed by Rev. William Harris of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, but disgruntled parents withdrew their sons. Seton family members also distrusted Elizabeth's influence on younger family. members. Their fears were realized when Cecilia converted to Catholicism (1806), then Harriet also made her profession of faith (1809). During Cecilia's struggles as a new convert, Elizabeth wrote an instructive Spiritual Journal (1807) for her, offering her wise counsel.

Although Elizabeth was frustrated in establishing herself to provide for the welfare of her children, she remained faith-filled. She was convinced that God would show her the way according to the Divine Plan. In considering her future and examining alternatives, Elizabeth remained a mother first and foremost. She regarded her five "darlings" as her primary obligation over every other commitment.

Maryland Mission
Rev. Louis William Dubourg, S.S., (1766-1833), was visiting New York when Elizabeth met him quite providentially about 1806. Dubourg had desired a congregation of religious women to teach girls in Baltimore since 1797. He, with the concurrence of Bishop John Carroll, invited Elizabeth to Baltimore with the assurance that the French priests belonging to the Society of Saint Sulpice (Sulpicians), who were émigrés in Maryland would assist her in forming a plan of life which would be in the best interests of her children. The Sulpicians wished to form a small school for religious education of children.

After her arrival in Maryland, June 16, 1808, Elizabeth spent one year as a school mistress in Baltimore. The Sulpicians envisioned the development of a sisterhood modeled on the Daughters of Charity of Paris (founded 1633), and they actively recruited candidates for the germinal community. Cecilia Maria O'Conway, (1788-1865), of Philadelphia, was the first to arrive, December 7, 1808. She was followed in 1809 by Mary Ann Butler (1784-1821)of Philadelphia, Susanna Clossey (1785-1823) of New York, Catharine Mullen (1783-1815) of Baltimore, Anna Maria Murphy Burke (c.1787-1812) of Philadelphia, and Rosetta (Rose) Landry White (1784-1841), a widow of Baltimore. Only Elizabeth pronounced vows of chastity and obedience to John Carroll for one year in the lower chapel at Saint Mary's Seminary, Paca Street, March 25, 1809. The Archbishop gave her the title "Mother Seton." On June 16, 1809, the group of sisters appeared for the first time dressed alike in a black dress, cape and bonnet patterned after the widows weeds of women in Italy whom Elizabeth had encountered there.

Samuel Sutherland Cooper, (1769-1843), a wealthy seminarian and convert, purchased 269 acres of land for an establishment for the sisterhood near Emmitsburg in the countryside of Frederick County, Maryland. Cooper wished to establish an institution for female education and character formation rooted in Christian values and the Catholic faith, as well as services to the elderly, job skill development, and a small manufactory, which would be beneficial to people oppressed by poverty. Cooper had Elizabeth in mind to direct the educational program.

Emmitsburg Foundation
Their stone farmhouse (c.1750) was not yet ready for occupancy when Elizabeth and her first group arrived in Emmitsburg, June, 1809. Reverend John Dubois, S.S., (1764-1842), founder of Mount Saint Mary's College and Seminary (1808), offered his cabin on Saint Mary's Mountain for the women to use until they would be able to move to their property in the nearby valley some six weeks later. According to tradition, Elizabeth named the area Saint Joseph's Valley. There the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph's began July 31, 1809 in the Stone House, the former Fleming farmhouse (c.1750). In mid-February, 1810, Elizabeth and her companions moved into Saint Joseph’s House (now The White House.) Elizabeth opened Saint Joseph's Free School February 22, 1810. It educated needy girls of the area and was the first free Catholic school for girls staffed by sisters in the country. Saint Joseph's Academy began May 14, 1810, with the addition of boarding pupils who paid tuition which enabled the Sisters of Charity to subsidize their charitable mission. Saint Joseph's Academy and Free School formed the cradle of Catholic education in the United States.

Divine Providence guided Elizabeth and her little community through the poverty and unsettling first years. Numerous women joined the Sisters of Charity. During the period 1809-1820, of the ninety-eight candidates who arrived in Elizabeth's lifetime, eighty-six of them actually joined the new community; seventy percent remained Sisters of Charity for life. Illness, sorrow, and early death were omnipresent in Elizabeth's life. She buried eighteen sisters at Emmitsburg, in addition to her two daughters Annina and Rebecca, and her sisters-in-law Harriet and Cecilia Seton.

The Sulpicians assisted Elizabeth in adapting the seventeenth-century French Common Rules of the Daughters of Charity (1672) for the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph's in accord with the needs of the Catholic Church in America. Elizabeth formed her sisters in the Vincentian spirit according to the tradition of Louise de Marillac (1591-1660) and Vincent de Paul (1581-1660). Eighteen Sisters of Charity, including Elizabeth, made private, annual vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and service of the poor for the first time, July 19, 1813; thereafter they made vows annually on March 25.

Elected by the members of the community to be the first Mother of the Sisters of Charity, Elizabeth was reelected successively and remained at its head until her death. The Sulpicians, who had conceived and founded the community, filled the office of superior general through 1849. Elizabeth worked successively with three Sulpicians in this capacity: Rev. Louis William Dubourg, S.S., Rev. Jean-Baptiste David, S.S., (1761-1841) and Rev. John Dubois, S.S.

The Sisters of Charity intertwined social ministry with education in the faith and religious values in all they undertook in their mission. Elizabeth dispatched sisters to Philadelphia to manage Saint Joseph's Asylum, the first Catholic orphanage in the United States in 1814. The next year she opened a mission at Mount Saint Mary’s to oversee the infirmary and domestic services for the college and seminary near Emmitsburg. In 1817 sisters from Saint Joseph's Valley went to New York to begin the New York City Orphan Asylum (later Saint Patrick's Orphan Asylum).

The Seton Legacy
Reverend Simon Gabriel Bruté, S.S., (1779-1839), of Mount Saint Mary's served as the chaplain to the Sisters of Charity and Elizabeth's spiritual director until her death. He was her principle guide along the path to sanctity. He, along with DuBois, actively inculturated the spirit of Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac among the Sisters of Charity. Bruté advised Elizabeth to read and translate the lives of Louise and Vincent and some of their spiritual writings.

The work of education and charity lives on in Elizabeth's spiritual daughters around the world. James Gibbons (1834-1921, later cardinal), archbishop of Baltimore, initiated her cause for canonization in 1882. Officially introduced at the Vatican in 1940, it made steady progress. Blessed John XXIII declared Elizabeth venerable December 18, 1959, and also beatified her March 17, 1963. Pope Paul VI canonized Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton September 14 during the Holy Year of 1975 and the International Year of the Woman. The Holy See accepted three miracles through her intercession. These included the cures of Sister Gertrude Korzendorfer, D.C., (1872-1942), of Saint Louis, of cancer; a young child, Ann Theresa O’Neill, (b.1948), of Baltimore, from acute, lymphatic leukemia; and the miraculous recovery of Carl Kalin, (1902-1976), of New York, from a rare form of encephalitis.

The extraordinary manner in which Elizabeth lived an ordinary life flowed from the centrality of the Word of God and the Eucharist in her life. These strengthened her enabling her to be a loving person toward God, her family, her neighbor, and all of creation. She undertook works of mercy and justice. Not only did she and hers Sisters of Charity care for orphans, widows, and poor families, but they also addressed unmet needs among persons oppressed by multiple forms of poverty. Elizabeth had a special concern for children who lacked educational opportunities, especially for religious instruction in the faith.

Her life-long response to God's will throughout her life led her to sanctity. Her holiness developed from her early religious formation as an Episcopalian. Her longing for Eternity began at a young age. Throughout her earthly journey of forty-six years, Elizabeth viewed herself as a pilgrim on the road of life. She faced each day with eyes of faith, looking forward to eternity.

Dominant themes in her life and writings include her pursuit of the Divine Will, nourishment from the Eucharist and the Bible, confidence in Divine Providence, and charitable service to Jesus Christ in poor persons. From her deathbed in Emmitsburg she admonished those gathered about her: "Be children of the Church, be children of the Church."

She prayed her way through life’s joys and struggles using sacred scripture. This enabled her to live serenely come what may. Psalm 23, which she learned as a child, remained her favorite treasury of consolation throughout her life of suffering and loss. Elizabeth's pathway to inner peace and sanctity flowed from her way of living the Paschal Mystery in her own life.

She moved from devotional reception of Holy Communion as an Episcopalian to awe as a Roman Catholic and often ecstatic adoration of the Real Presence. Her Eucharistic devotion and faith in God's abiding presence nourished her imitation of Jesus Christ, the source and model of all charity. As she established the Sisters of Charity in their mission of charity and education, she adopted The Regulations for the Sisters of Charity in the United States (1812). The choice of the Vincentian rule reflects how Elizabeth understood her mission as one of apostolic service honoring Jesus Christ through service to poor persons. Elizabeth's spiritual pathway involved other people--her advisors, friends, collaborators, and those she served. The relational aspects of her spirituality were a natural gift which she used as a religious leader and animator in community.

Seton Writings. Elizabeth was a prolific writer. Extant documents are published in Elizabeth Bayley Seton Collected Writings (New City Press: New York). Also in her hand are some of the primitive documents of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph's and her own last will and testament. In addition to voluminous correspondence, Elizabeth also wrote meditations, instructions, poetry, hymns, notebooks, journals, and diaries. Her journals include both spiritual reflections and chronicle accounts, like The Italian Journal. Dear Remembrances is an autobiographical retrospective memoir or life review. Her meditations deal with the liturgical seasons, sacraments, virtue, biblical themes, and the saints, including Vincent de Paul whose rule of life the Sisters of Charity adopted. Among her instructions are those used in preparing children for their First Communion, and formation conferences for the Sisters of Charity on such topics as service, charity, eternity, the Blessed Sacrament, and Mary, the Mother of God.

Elizabeth rendered the prototypical English translation of their first biographies, The Life of Mademoiselle Le Gras (Nicolas Gobillon, 1676) and The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul (Louis Abelly, 1664). Elizabeth also translated selections from the Conferences of Vincent de Paul to Daughters of Charity and Notes on the Life of Sister Françoise Bony, D.C., (1694-1759). Also included among the Seton translations are excerpts from selected conferences of Francis de Sales, portions of works by Saint Theresa of Avila, meditations by Rev. Louis Du Pont, S.J., and the beginning of the life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Elizabeth had a habit of copying meaningful passages from books she was reading and of making marginal notes in her bible. Her copybooks containing notes from A Commentary on the Book of Psalms (1792 by George Horne, and notes on sermons of Rev. John Henry Hobart. Bibles containing her jottings and marginal notes are preserved in the Rare Books and Special Collections, Hesburgh Library, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, and in the Simon Bruté Collection of the Old Cathedral Library, Vincennes, Indiana.

The Sisters of Charity as a community grew and blossomed into independent new communities in North America: The Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul of New York (1846); the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati (1852); the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul of Halifax (1856); the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, Convent Station, New Jersey (1859); and the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, Greensburg, Pennsylvania (1870). As a result of mandates from their General Assembly (1829 and 1845) requiring the Sulpicians to return to their founding charism of the education and formation of priests, the Sulpician superiors arranged for the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph's to join (1850) the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul of Paris, France. These communities formed (1947) the Conference of Mother Seton's Daughters which developed into The Sisters of Charity Federation in the Vincentian and Setonian Tradition (1996) with member congregations from the United States and Canada. All Federation members are rooted in the rule of Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac.

Elizabeth left an enduring legacy, which makes Catholic education available for needy pupils. Popular devotion acclaims Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton as a patron of Catholic schools because of her pioneer role in values-based education.  Thanks to Elizabeth's role in getting children the education they needed, they had the opportunity to continue pursuing education! These children may not have had that ability if Elizabeth had not put the effort in. They would not have had the capability to get a masters in criminal justice or become a doctor and make an impact in the world. The values that were instilled in these children and in the future students helps to make this world a better place.

A woman whose vision of faith remains relevant for all ages. Elizabeth's journey of faith presents an outstanding model for all people. In a letter to her lifelong friend Julia Sitgreaves Scott (1765-1842), Elizabeth summarized her way of life: "Faith lifts the staggering soul on one side, hope supports it on the other, experience says it must be and love says let it be" (March 26, 1810). Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton died January 4, 1821, in the White House at Saint Joseph's Valley, near Emmitsburg, Maryland. Her remains repose there in the Basilica of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Excerpts from Elizabeth Bayley Seton Papers courtesy of Archives Saint Joseph's Provincial House, Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, (Emmitsburg, Maryland).