Seton, Elizabeth Ann Bayley (1774-1821)

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Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821)


Catholic educator and saint

A Charitable Woman . Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is well known today as the first Roman Catholic saint born in the United States. Her pioneering career in Catholic education and her role in founding the Sisters of Charity, as well as her own spiritual life, are the achievements behind this singular honor. Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in New York City on 25 January 1774. Bayleys mother died soon after, and she was raised by her father, Richard Bayley, a prominent physician and later the first professor of anatomy at Columbia College. Bayley gave his daughter a broader education than most early American girls received, one that encouraged a sense of moral responsibility toward society. In 1794 she married William Seton, a businessman, and began a family that would eventually include five children. Despite her domestic duties, her earlier education prompted Seton to pursue many charitable activities. She helped to found the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children in 1797, the first charitable society in New York.

Conversion to Rome . Seton was widowed in 1803, her husband dying from tuberculosis in Italy, where the family had traveled hoping that countrys climate would cure him. While there Seton was drawn to the Roman Catholic Church and began her education in that faith. She returned to the United States and formally converted on 14 March 1805. This shocked her New York friends and family, and many abandoned her. Others, like John Hobart, later the Episcopalian bishop of New York, began a long but fruitless effort to bring her back to Protestantism. Seton started a school and struggled to support her children by teaching.

Catholic Educator . In 1808 she moved to Baltimore and started a girls boarding school with the help of Roman Catholic archbishop John Carroll. The success of this venture encouraged a further one: the establishment of a new religious community. In March 1809 Seton and four companions took vows and formed the Sisters of Charity, the first American order of nuns, devoting themselves to assisting the sick and poor and to education. The sisters established a center in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and there set up a new boarding school, as well as a free school for poor children. These educational ventures were among the first of many Catholic schools, and Seton in time came to be considered the founder of the American parochial school system.

American Saint . Seton led the Sisters of Charity for the rest of her life as they spread throughout the northeastern United States, founding schools, hospitals, and orphanages. She died on 4 January 1821, survived by two sons with naval careers and one daughter who later became a Sister of Mercy. Seton also left a growing group to carry on her work. These women kept her memory alive, as did others. Her half nephew, James Roosevelt Bayley, the first bishop of Newark, New Jersey, founded a college in her honor, todays Seton Hall University. Between 1935 and 1963 three people recovered from apparently fatal illnesses, and the church investigators attributed these cures to the miraculous intercession of Seton. Accordingly, in September 1975 Pope Paul VI proclaimed Mother Seton the first native-born American saint.


Joseph I. Dirvin, Mrs. Seton: Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1962);

Annabelle M. Melville, Elizabeth Bayley Seton, 17741821 (New York: Scribners, 1951).

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton

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Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821), the first American woman to be beatified, founded the first American order of nuns, initiated the parochial school system, and established the first Catholic or phanage in the United States.

Elizabeth Bayley was born in New York City on Aug. 28, 1774, a daughter of Richard Bayley, health officer for the port of New York and professor of anatomy at King's College. The Bayley family were members of the Episcopal Church. Elizabeth grew up in fashionable New York society. In 1794 she married William Magee Seton, a prosperous New York banker and merchant. They had five children. Seton was so active in her aid to the sick, the poor, and the unfortunate that she became known as the "Protestant Sister of Charity."

In the fall of 1803 the Setons went to Italy to visit friends, the Filicchi family, who were prominent bankers and shippers. Mr. Seton, already ill, was seriously affected by the voyage and died in December. The Filicchis introduced Mrs. Seton to Catholicism, and Antonio Filicchi accompanied her when she returned to America in 1804. Despite the opposition of her close friend, the Episcopal minister John Henry Hobart, she joined the Catholic Church in March 1805.

For her conversion Seton was ostracized by New York society. She had difficulty in supporting her family, although Antonio Filicchi was generous in giving her aid. She considered going into a convent but followed the advice of Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore and did not do so. Father William Dubourg of Baltimore told her that he wanted to establish a school in that city, and in September 1808 she opened a boarding school for girls. She and her small group of assistants adopted the name Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. The rules of the order were similar to those of a French order, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. In 1809 the sisters moved to Emmitsburg, Md., to property which had been given the Church for use in the education of the poor.

The first winter in the new location was harsh. The house was incomplete and the food inadequate, but within a few months the school was thriving. Members of the group took over an orphanage in Philadelphia in 1814 and established orphanages and schools in New York and Philadelphia.

Mother Seton died on Jan. 4, 1821. She was declared venerable on Dec. 18, 1959, and was beatified on March 17, 1963.

Further Reading

Joseph I. Dirvin, Mrs. Seton: Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity (1962), is a detailed, scholarly biography, based on an impressive bibliography, including many primary materials. Leonard Feeney, Mother Seton: An American Woman (1947), is written in a somewhat popular style, but it contains excerpts from some of Seton's letters. □

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