Seton, Elizabeth Ann

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Seton, Elizabeth Ann

Born August 28, 1774 (New York, New York)
Died January 4, 1821 (Emmitsburg, Maryland)

Educator, religious leader

Elizabeth Ann Seton was a convert to Roman Catholicism who formed a religious community and opened a school for poor children in Maryland. In 1809, she founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's, the first religious order of women in the United States. In 1813, Seton was elected mother superior, or head, of the Sisters of Charity—the same year the organization set up a national Catholic school system. By 1814, Mother Seton and her Sisters of Charity were also managing the first Catholic orphanage in the United States.

"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."

In 1828, shortly after Seton's death, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's began the first Catholic hospital in the United States, located in St. Louis, Missouri. Seton left a large body of writing in the form of journals and correspondence that helped document the historical development of American Catholicism in the nation's early years. In 1975, she became the first person born in the United States to be named a saint when she was canonized by Pope Paul VI (1897–1978).

New York charity

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was the daughter of Catherine Charlton and Dr. Richard Bayley. The couple had three daughters, Elizabeth arriving second in 1774. Her family called her by a number of nicknames including Betty, Betsy, Bette, and Eliza. Elizabeth's place of birth was most likely New York City, where her father was a prominent surgeon. Dr. Bayley's position gave his family access to the rich social and cultural life of New York society. The Bayley and Charlton families were among the earliest colonial settlers of the New York area. Catherine's father had come from Ireland and was pastor at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church on Staten Island. When Elizabeth was born, her grandfather had been a rector at St. Andrew's for nearly thirty years.

Elizabeth was a little over a year old when the American Revolution (1775–83) began. However, the biggest event in her early life was not the war, but the loss of her mother, who died in 1777. Catherine died after giving birth to her third daughter and namesake, Catherine Bayley. Richard Bayley remarried in 1778, and with his new wife, Charlotte Amelia Barclay, he had seven more children. Elizabeth's father was largely absent because of his career, and her young stepmother was busy raising her own children. Elizabeth's baby sister died in 1778, leaving her and her elder sister, Mary Magdalen, to be passed among relatives around New York. Elizabeth and Mary attended a school called "Mama Pompelion's," where they learned to speak French and studied music and dance. Elizabeth took comfort in her religious faith and immersed herself in her education as well as the social life of the city. She was fourteen years old in April 1789 when George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97; see entry in volume 2) was sworn in as the first president of the United States in downtown New York.

On January 25, 1794, at the home of her sister, Elizabeth was married to William Magee Seton by the Episcopal bishop of New York. William was a merchant from a wealthy trading family. Elizabeth gave birth to their first child, Anna Maria, in 1795. While her husband's business prospered during this period, Elizabeth united with several close friends to pursue charitable work. In 1797, they organized the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children in order to provide for the needy women and children in their community. Elizabeth served as the society's treasurer until 1804. She also continued in her own studies to deepen her spiritual life at Trinity Episcopal Church of New York. By 1802, the Setons had added two sons and two more daughters to the family.

Family tragedies lead to change

William Seton was the eldest of thirteen children, and when his father died in 1798, he inherited Seton, Maitland and Company, the family's importing business; he also inherited responsibility for the ongoing care of his siblings. Elizabeth, six months pregnant with her third child, managed the welfare of both families by day and balanced the firm's account books at night. Financial troubles began plaguing the business, and the company was finally forced to file a petition of bankruptcy.

During this time, William was diagnosed with tuberculosis (a lung disease), and his health was deemed critical. In a final attempt to save him, the Setons placed their hopes in the warm climate of Italy. They booked passage aboard the Shepherdess, bound for Livorno, Italy, and set sail from New York on October 1, 1803. Anna Maria accompanied her parents, while the younger children were left in America in the care of relatives. Yellow fever was prevalent in New York when the Shepherdess left port, so Italian authorities at the port of Livorno imposed a quarantine when the ship docked. The Setons were confined to a cold, damp public hospital outside Livorno for thirty days, which left William completely disabled. Upon their release, the Setons traveled to Pisa, Italy, where William died on December 27. He was buried in the little English cemetery in Livorno, leaving Elizabeth a widow at age twenty-nine.

With no husband and with five small children to raise, the impoverished (poor) Elizabeth Seton found herself in the same position as the women she had served through her charity work in New York. However, she found friendship with the Filicchi family while awaiting passage back to the United States. The Filicchis were business partners in her husband's firm. They introduced her to the culture of Leghorn and Florence in Italy. During her three-month stay, Seton toured museums and churches and was introduced to the teachings and devotions of the Roman Catholic Church. The Filicchis provided gracious hospitality along with financial, emotional, and spiritual support, helping the young widow and her daughter through their grief.

Antonio Filicchi accompanied Seton and her daughter, Anna Maria, now called Annina, as they boarded a ship christened the Flamingo for the return trip to New York. After nearly two months at sea, the ship arrived at port on June 8, 1804. Seton's exposure to the Roman Catholic Church in Italy, along with the Filicchis' influence, left her determined to join the Church upon her return to the United States. It was not an easy decision for Seton, because there was considerable anti-Catholic sentiment in New York City at the time. Many Americans still viewed Catholicism as associated with the strong central governments of Europe and worshiping the pope rather than God. The United States had only recently gained its independence from these heavy-handed authorities and gained their individual freedoms. Despite the objections of her friends and relatives, Seton left the Episcopal Church to become a Catholic on March 14, 1805. She was received into the Catholic faith at St. Peter's Church on Barclay Street in lower Manhattan in New York City. At this time, she added the name of Mary to her own names and often signed herself "MEAS," an abbreviation for Mary Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Moving on to Maryland

Elizabeth Seton spent the next three years in New York City trying to support her family as a teacher. She was in a difficult financial situation with five young children but she considered them her primary responsibility over every other commitment. In order to place her own sons in the Catholic academy in Georgetown, Maryland, Seton found it necessary to accept financial aid from family and friends. When the opportunity presented itself, she accepted a one-year assignment to open a Catholic school in Maryland.

In June 1808, Seton left New York to move to Baltimore, Maryland, where she established a small boarding school for girls. Classes began that September in a small house located next to St. Mary's College and Seminary on Paca Street. By December, several other women arrived to assist her at the school. The following spring, two of her late husband's sisters, Cecilia and Harriet Seton, who had also converted to Catholicism, joined Elizabeth.

On March 25, 1809, Elizabeth Ann Seton took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the presence of Archbishop John Carroll (1735–1815; see entry in volume 1). These vows, required annually, commit the person to an economic condition similar to those they will serve so they can relate to them more easily. The vows also include a full commitment to the religious mission without distractions of other commitments such as marriage. Carroll, from a prominent Maryland family, was elected bishop of Baltimore in May 1789. He was the first American bishop in the Catholic Church. His older brother, Daniel Carroll (1730–1796), was a member of the Continental Congress and one of only two Catholics to sign the U.S. Constitution in 1789. Archbishop Carroll's cousin Charles was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. Carroll worked to form a national church that was independent from government, which differed from the European experience where church and state were tied to one another. His primary concern was to provide educational opportunities for lay (non-clergy) leaders and to develop native clergy for the Catholic Church in America.

The archbishop gave Seton the title of "Mother Seton" when she took her vows. Seton's goal of beginning a new religious community became a reality on June 1 with the organization of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's (see box). It was the first religious order of women in the United States. Shortly after the organization formed, its members appeared in public dressed alike for the first time. Their religious garb consisted of a black dress with a shoulder cape and a white cap tied beneath the chin. The outfit was essentially the same as that worn by widows in Italy. It was not a major change for Elizabeth; she had been wearing similar clothing since her husband's death in Leghorn.

Sisters of Charity

On June 21, 1809, Mother Seton moved with her sisters-in-law and other women who had joined her sisterhood community to a larger property purchased for them near Emmitsburg, in Frederick County, Maryland. The purpose of their move was to establish an institution for the education of young women, an urgent need in America. Initially, the Sisters of Charity experienced a good deal of hardship as they prepared the primitive facilities and tried to attract pupils to the new school in Emmitsburg. However, Elizabeth's friend, Archbishop Carroll, introduced her to the leading Catholic families of Maryland, and their daughters soon became Elizabeth's students.

By February 1810, the Sisters of Charity had experienced enough financial success to allow Mother Seton to open a separate school for the needy of Emmitsburg. St. Joseph's Academy and Day School was the first free Catholic school for girls staffed by the Sisters in the United States. Classes included reading, writing, arithmetic, music, needlework, and languages. Mother Seton excelled in her role as organizer, encourager, and spiritual director, and the school ran smoothly right from the start. She remained a devoted mother to her own children, but she also watched over the physical and spiritual welfare of each pupil entrusted to her.

The Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's

Eighty-six members joined the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's during Elizabeth Seton's lifetime. Other communities who claimed Mother Seton as their founder in the nineteenth century include: The Sisters of Charity at Mount St. Vincent-on-the-Hudson (New York, 1846); The Sisters of Charity of Mount St. Joseph (Cincinnati, Ohio, 1852); The Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1856); The Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth (Convent Station, New Jersey, 1859); and The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill (Greensburg, Pennsylvania, 1870).

In 1947, all the existing communities of the Sisters of Charity in North America formed the conference of Mother Seton's Daughters. This conference developed into the Sisters of Charity Federation in the Vincentian-Setonian Tradition in 1996 with member congregations in the United States and Canada. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, thirteen religious congregations represented more than five thousand members located in seven states and two provinces. The Sisters of Charity is a voluntary membership association of Roman Catholic women who do not live in religious residences, or cloisters. Their mission in the Church calls them to a state of charity through ministry among the sick and the poor.

The Rule of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's was formally adopted in 1812. The French Common Rules of the Daughters of Charity, written by Vincent de Paul (1581–1660) in Paris in 1634 and adopted in final form thirty-eight years after his death, were adapted to fit the needs of the Catholic Church in America. The Rules establish the way in which the poor and needy would be administered, including how the sisters would lead their own lives in humility (having a modest self-awareness) and simplicity. Members of her community elected Elizabeth Seton to be the first mother superior, or head, of the Sisters of Charity. She held this position for the remainder of her life. By 1814, the sisterhood and its two schools in Emmitsburg were thriving, and although education remained the Sisters' main mission, they took on the added responsibility of managing St. Joseph's Asylum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was the first Catholic orphanage in the United States. Three years later, the Sisters began the New York City Orphan Asylum, later named St. Patrick's Orphan Asylum.

By 1818, Mother Seton had lost three children to illness, and her own health was on the decline. Elizabeth died of tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of forty-six and was buried at St. Joseph's in Emmitsburg. Pope Paul VI canonized her St. Elizabeth Ann Seton on September 14, 1975.

For More Information


Dirvin, Joseph I. Mrs. Seton: Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity. New ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giraux, 1975.

Gillis, Chester. Roman Catholicism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Melville, Annabelle M. Elizabeth Bayley Seton, 1774–1821. New York: Scribner, 1951. Reprint, New York: Paulist Press, 1993.

Stone, Elaine Murray. Elizabeth Bayley Seton: An American Saint. New York: Paulist Press, 1993.

Web Sites

"History." The Sisters of Charity Federation in the Vincentian-Setonian Tradition. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

McNeil, Betty Ann. "St. Elizabeth Ann Seton." National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

"St. Elizabeth Ann Seton." Catholic Online. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

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Seton, Elizabeth Ann

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