Elizabeth Ann Seton was known for her work later in life as foundress of the Sisters of Charity and a pioneer in Catholic education. Because of the importance of this work, it’s easy to overlook her earlier, less obvious accomplishments as wife, mother and friend to the poor. Yet this was the initial context in which she responded to God’s call to holiness and became the first American-born saint.
Elizabeth Bayley Seton was born in New York City on August 28, 1774. Elizabeth experienced a troubled childhood; her mother died when Elizabeth was young and her stepmother rejected her and her sister. At age 19 she married William Seton, a partner in an import-export firm. Elizabeth had always been a devout member of the Anglican Church, and as a young woman she became known for her charity as well, nursing the sick and dying among friends, family and neighbors. She had five children, two of whom pre-deceased her.
William Seton’s company went bankrupt and the family lost their home. When William developed tuberculosis, the couple sailed to the warmer climate of Italy, where he died, leaving Elizabeth a widow at age 29. The Filicchi family, who had befriended the Setons, offered support and financial assistance and introduced Elizabeth to Catholicism. When she returned to the U.S. she was received into the Church in 1805.
The following few years were hard. Anti-Catholic prejudice prevented Elizabeth from establishing a school that would have helped to provide for her children. As she considered the difficult alternatives, she remained a mother above all else. As one of her official biographies points out, “She regarded her five ‘darlings’ as her primary obligation over every other commitment” (National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton website).
Invited to Baltimore by the Sulpicians, a religious order of men, Elizabeth founded the Sisters of Charity in the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac. In 1809 the sisters arrived in Emmitsburg, Maryland and opened St. Joseph’s Free School and Academy. Their numbers grew and the Sisters opened and maintained numerous educational and charitable facilities. Today their work lives on around the world.
Elizabeth died in Emmitsburg on January 4, 1821. Pope Paul VI officially declared her a saint in 1975. Her feast day is January 4.
Mother Seton’s vocation to religious life flowed from her vocation to marriage and family life. She understood that the call to holiness is expressed differently in the life of a husband or wife, mother or father, priest or religious. Yet the virtues that make for a holy spouse and parent—compassion, patience, humility, the ability to ask for and to offer forgiveness—also make for a holy priest or religious, and vice versa. Mother Seton’s unique life shows that all vocations work together for the good of the Church. She reminds us that, in the words of the U.S. Bishops, “As a vocation, marriage is just as necessary and valuable to the Church as other vocations” (Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan).