SETON, ELIZABETH (1774–1821), was the first American-born Christian saint, and first founder of a sisterhood in the United States. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was born probably in New York City, the second daughter of Richard Bayley by his first wife, Catherine Charlton. Little is known of her formal education save that she attended a school called Mama Pompelion's, learning to play the piano and to speak French.
On January 25, 1794, at the age of nineteen, she married William Magee Seton, a young New York merchant. The union produced five children. In 1797 she cooperated with Isabella Marshall Graham in forming a society to aid destitute widowed mothers. In 1800 she came under the influence of John Henry Hobart, an assistant at Trinity (Episcopal) Church in New York City, and under his guidance her spiritual life deepened perceptibly.
The next nine years tested these spiritual resources to the full. Her husband's business failed, along with his health. He died while on a trip to Italy in 1803. While waiting for passage back to New York, she was befriended by Antonio and Filippo Filicchi and their wives, who introduced her to Roman Catholicism. On her return to New York on June 4, 1804, she entered a period of religious indecision, torn between the entreaties of Hobart and her Protestant friends and relatives, and the urgings of the Filicchis and the American Catholic clergy enlisted by them to sway her. On March 14, 1805, she became a Roman Catholic.
Unable to earn support for herself and her five children in New York, she agreed to the proposal made by William Valentine DuBourg that she come to Baltimore to start a Catholic school for girls. Having already placed her two sons in Georgetown Academy, she embarked for Baltimore with her three daughters on June 9, 1808. Her year there as mistress of the Paca Street School confirmed her vocation to educate girls and found a community, the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph. In June–July 1809, she moved both the school and the sisterhood to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she spent the remainder of her life.
In Emmitsburg, Saint Joseph's School for boarders from more prosperous families soon furnished sufficient income to extend free schooling to needy girls of the local parish, which later earned Seton the title "foundress of the parochial school system in the United States." Adopting a modified rule of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul in 1812, her sisters rapidly extended their work to include nursing the sick, caring for orphans, and aiding the poor. The community spread to Philadelphia (1814), New York (1817), and Baltimore (1821) under her guidance. Since her death on January 4, 1821, her work has been spread by her spiritual daughters not only at Emmitsburg but also by the New York Sisters of Charity of Mount Saint Vincent-on-the-Hudson, the Cincinnati Sisters of Charity of Mount Saint Joseph, the New Jersey Sisters of Charity of Convent Station, the Pennsylvania Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill at Greensburg, and, in Nova Scotia, the Sisters of Charity of Halifax.
On February 28, 1940, the Roman Congregation of Rites formally introduced her cause for canonization. On December 14, 1961, the validity of two miracles was confirmed, and on March 17, 1963, John XXIII beatified her. On September 14, 1975, Paul VI proclaimed her Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.
At the time of its first publication my Elizabeth Bayley Seton, 1774–1821 (1951; reprint, New York, 1976) was judged the definitive biography. Prior to that time Charles I. White's Life of Mrs. Eliza A. Seton (New York, 1853) was the chief source of information. Additional published accounts include Memoir, Letters and Journal of Elizabeth Seton, 2 vols., edited by Robert Seton (New York, 1869), a not always reliable collection of memorabilia by Mrs. Seton's grandson; Hélène Bailley de Barbery and Joseph B. Code's Elizabeth Seton (New York, 1927), first published in French in 1868, which contains many documents; Letters of Mother Seton to Mrs. Julianna Scott, edited by Joseph B. Code (1935; 2d ed., New York, 1960), personal glimpses of Mother Seton's friendship with a Protestant friend of Philadelphia; Joseph I. Dirvin's Mrs. Seton, Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity (New York, 1962), combining biographical details with an analysis of Mother Seton's spiritual life, particularly as a religious superior; and Sister Mary Agnes McCann's The History of Mother Seton's Daughters, 3 vols. (New York, 1917–1923), most useful for the first century of their contributions.
Annabelle M. Melville (1987)