Seton, Elizabeth Ann (1774–1821)
Seton, Elizabeth Ann (1774–1821)
Catholic convert and founder of the American Sisters of Charity who was the first person born in the U.S. to be canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Name variations: Elizabeth Bayley Seton; Mother Seton; Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. Born Elizabeth Ann Bayley in New York City on August 28, 1774; died of tuberculosis at Emmitsburg, Maryland, on January 4, 1821; daughter of Richard Bayley (a prominent physician) and Catherine (Charlton) Bayley; attended Mama Pompelion's academy for girls in New York, where she learned French and piano; married William Magee Seton, on January 25, 1794 (died 1803); children: Anna Maria Seton (b. 1795); William Seton (b. 1796); Richard Bayley Seton (b. 1798); Catherine Josephine Seton (b. 1800); Rebecca Seton (b. 1802).
Helped found the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1797); following the death of husband, received into the Catholic Church (1805); moved to Baltimore to found Catholic school for girls (1808); took first vows as Sister of Charity of Saint Joseph, received first recruits into the order, and moved school and her community to Emmitsburg, Maryland (1809); cause for canonization introduced at the Vatican (1907); declared Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton by Pope Paul VI (1975).
In 1774, the year Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in New York City, the American colonies were on the verge of their War of Independence. She grew up as a member of New York's elite in the newly emerging nation, descended on both sides of her family from distinguished forbears of British, French, and Dutch origin. Her father Richard Bayley was a brilliant physician and the health officer of New York City, as well as the first professor of anatomy at Columbia; her mother's father was rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church on Staten Island. Elizabeth herself married into a wealthy merchant family and spent her young womanhood as a rather typical, if unusually religious, New York society matron, with a deep commitment to her Episcopal faith. But she ended her life in poverty as a Roman Catholic nun, and a century and a half after her death she was canonized as the first American-born Catholic saint.
Although she was reared in a privileged milieu, Seton suffered tragedies and emotional hardships early in life. Her mother Catherine Charlton Bayley was frequently ill and died before Elizabeth was three years old, leaving a widowed husband with three small daughters: Elizabeth, Mary Magdalene , and Kitty . Richard Bayley's dedication to his profession often seemed to take precedence over his family's needs, and he was away from home during much of Elizabeth's childhood. Shortly after the requisite year of mourning following the death of his first wife, he married Charlotte Barclay , a young woman of 18, who never showed much affection toward her stepchildren.
About a year after her father's remarriage, the death of her younger sister Kitty, coupled with the loss of her mother, seemed to prompt the deep religious feelings that would be a constant factor in Seton's life. In later years, she remembered the intense yearning to join her mother and little sister in heaven that lasted throughout her childhood. Seton grew up as a lonely, solitary, and introspective child who spent much of her time taking care of her six young half-siblings, who apparently returned the deep affection that she lavished on them.
We must walk, and walk confidently, in the obscurity of faith.
—Elizabeth Ann Seton
As teenagers, Elizabeth and her sister Mary were packed off to live with their father's relatives for years at a time. The difficult relationship between stepmother and stepdaughters, notes biographer Joseph Dirvin, can probably be confirmed by the fact that they were sent away at an age when they would have been most helpful in a household full of small children. According to her journals written years later, the loneliness and despair during this period may have led Seton to contemplate suicide. She wrote:
Alas, alas, alas! Tears of blood—My God!—horrid subversion of every good promise of God in the boldest presumption—God had created me—I was very miserable. He was too good to condemn so poor a creature made of dust, driven by misery this the wretched reasoning—Laudanum—the praise and thanks of excessive joy not to have done the horrid deed the thousand promises of Eternal gratitude.
However, at age 15 she also wrote of a beautiful May morning, of experiencing the sustaining power of her religious faith. She was in a meadow, lying under a chestnut tree, when she felt overwhelmed by a religious awakening:
God was my Father, my all. I prayed, sang hymns, cried, laughed, talking to myself of how far He could place me above all sorrow. Then I laid still to enjoy the heavenly peace that came over my soul; and I am sure, in the two hours so enjoyed, grew ten years in the spiritual life.
Although her religious beliefs were deep and ever present, Seton led the life of a typical upper-class girl. Her formal education apparently did not go far beyond lessons in French and playing the piano at a fashionable French academy in New York, but she was intelligent and well read. She studied the Bible, knew the religious verses of Thomason and Milton, and was familiar with secular literature; later in life she expressed horror in recalling that, as a young woman, she had been enamored of the writings of Rousseau. She spent summers at her family's country house, went on picnics, and greatly enjoyed balls and dinners, but frequently felt torn between the pleasures of society and a serious spiritual life. When she returned home after a ball and wanted to think of her dance partners instead of God, she found it difficult to pray. At such times, she would reproach herself for her frivolity.
In 1794, after a year of courtship, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton. He was 25 years old, and heir to the fortunes of the Seton-Maitland Company, a thriving mercantile business; she was 19. The marriage was a close and happy one, and Elizabeth's relationship with her father also grew warmer and more intimate at this time. He seems to have found pleasure in her intelligent companionship, and made almost daily use of the boat assigned to him as the health officer of New York to row out to her house on Staten Island. Even during this period, however, Seton felt the transient nature of her happiness and peace. In the enjoyment of her husband, family, and home, she sensed the danger of losing God.
In 1797, Seton and her friend Isabella Graham helped found the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, and Elizabeth served as the organization's treasurer until 1804. Around this time, she also came under the spiritual influence of Dr. John Henry Hobart, the new evangelical assistant at Trinity Church in New York City, who would later become the Episcopal bishop of New York. This began a pattern in her life of looking to male clergy for spiritual guidance, as well as a tendency on her part to influence the religious lives of those around her. One of the first to be affected was her husband, who had been religiously indifferent, but became a devoted follower of Hobart. Seton also developed deep friendships with several women who shared her spirituality and remained close throughout her life. These included Julia Scott , who was married to New York Secretary of State Lewis Allaire Scott, and Catherine Dupleix , another founder of the Society for Poor Widows. One especially close confidante was her sister-in-law Rebecca Seton , whom she referred to as her "soul's sister."
After a few happy and prosperous years in which her first three children were born, Seton
and her family were struck by a string of terrible calamities. Her vigorous father-in-law, who had been the linchpin of his large family, suffered a bad fall from which he inexplicably never recovered, and died in the spring of 1798. Without his leadership, the family was never to be the same.
The Setons had to take on the responsibility of William's seven younger siblings, and William had to take over the family business. But the merchant trade was already being seriously damaged by the undeclared war with France of the 1790s, and he did not have the business skills of his father. The business went into a steady decline, and by December 1800 the firm was in bankruptcy. Then Elizabeth's father, who had been fighting a yellow fever epidemic in the city, succumbed to the disease. Soon, illness struck again. Before his marriage, William had contracted tuberculosis, which afflicted several members of his family. Now, worn down by his struggles in business, he grew seriously ill with a recurrence of the disease.
Doctors recommended a trip to Italy to help William recover, and the couple set sail, along with their oldest child, Anna Maria Seton (nicknamed Anina), in 1803. Before they could disembark in Livorno, however, their ship was placed in quarantine because of an outbreak of yellow fever in New York prior to their departure, and the family was forced to stay in a dirty and drafty lazaretto (public hospital) on a canal at the outskirts of the city. Seton was enraged, fearing that the terrible conditions would kill her husband. After four weeks, the family was released into the care of associates of the Seton firm, Antonio and Fillipo Filicchi, but William died a few days afterward, in Pisa.
For three months, Seton and Anna Maria lived in Florence with the Filicchis, who introduced them to Catholicism during their time of grief. In letters home, Seton admitted that she found the rituals and symbolism of Catholicism intriguing. She liked that her hosts had a family chapel and that the devout could go to church as often as they wished. She was impressed by the beauty of the Italian churches and the intense piety of the Italian people. She found the doctrine of atonement for sins particularly consoling, but she reassured her family that she would not convert.
Seton and her daughter returned to New York, accompanied by Antonio Filicchi. Back under the influence of John Hobart, she attended St. George's Episcopal Church, but began to feel torn between Catholicism and her old religion. A month after her return, her spiritual uncertainties were intensified by the death of Rebecca, her "soul's sister," from tuberculosis. Seton had confided her religious concerns to Rebecca in her letters, and now she became tormented by the thought that her sister-in-law might have died in a false religion. She suffered constant doubts, pressured by Hobart and her Protestant friends on one hand, and by Filicchi and Catholic priests on the other. Each faction gave her reading matter to win her over, warning her of the dire consequences to her soul if she abandoned true religion; Filicchi enlisted Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore to help convince Seton to convert, and her Methodist maid begged her not to go over to the Catholics.
On a day she felt exhausted by spiritual confusion, she went to her old church of St. George's, thinking that she would remain with the familiar faith until God gave her a clear sign to do otherwise. "If I left the house a Protestant," she wrote, "I returned to it a Catholic." During the service, as she bowed her head to receive absolution en masse in the usual manner of the Episcopal Church, she realized that she had no belief in the sacrament or in the bishop who performed it. She knew then that she had to become a Catholic. Wrote Seton: "The controversies on it I am quite incapable of deciding; and as the strictest Protestant allows salvation to a good Catholic, to the Catholics I will go and try to be a good one. May God accept my intention, and pity me."
On March 14, 1805, Seton was formally received into the Catholic Church. There is no doubt that her friends and relatives were shocked and disturbed by her decision, but some biographers of Seton may have exaggerated the social stigma attached to religion by Protestants in the early American republic. The Catholic community of that time was tiny, grown from about 30,000 in 1790, and was dominated by a few wealthy families of English origin concentrated in Maryland and Pennsylvania. There were also small congregations of French, Irish and German immigrants in the major seaboard cities. Republican attitudes on freedom of religion had caused many of the anti-Catholic laws of the colonial era to be revoked, and Catholics had obtained full political rights in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Rhode Island. Many states maintained some religious restrictions on office-holding (New Hampshire required until 1877 that the governor, state senators and assemblymen be Protestant), but nativist movements that targeted Catholics were not part of the nation's social and political life until a later period.
However, the republicanism that encouraged tolerance of religious differences also encouraged suspicion of the authoritarianism, ritualism, and monarchical allegiances of the Catholic Church. Also, although America was a nation of religious pluralism, the country was overwhelmingly Protestant in its society and its culture. Hobart warned Seton that in becoming a Catholic she was joining "a corrupt and sinful communion," and her godmother, Sarah Startin , disinherited her, although many who had known Seton continued to be supportive. Ironically, Seton, one of the founders of the Society for Poor Widows, was now a penniless widow with a young family to feed; with the help of friends, she set up a boarding house for boys attending an Episcopal school nearby.
When it appeared that Seton was influencing young people to convert to Catholicism, the acceptance of her new religion became more problematic. In one instance, her 14-year-old sister-in-law, Cecilia Seton , became severely ill with tuberculosis, and Seton became terrified that she would die as Rebecca had done, outside the Catholic faith. When Cecilia announced that she was converting to Catholicism, her family reacted with horror. They forbade Seton to see the girl, and threatened to send Cecilia to the West Indies to remove her from her sister-in-law's influence. Cecilia became a Catholic nonetheless, and Seton was eventually reconciled with the family, but the incident lost her support for her boarding house. Others who followed her into Catholicism included her close friend Catherine Dupleix, who was converted in 1812, and her sister-in-law Harriet Seton , who later converted and followed Elizabeth to Maryland.
For several years Seton scraped by, living off the generosity of friends. Then the Reverend William Dubourg, of the French order of the Society of St. Sulpice, invited her to Baltimore to open a Catholic school for girls. Archbishop Carroll agreed to the plan, and, in June 1808, she moved with her five children to Baltimore. She opened the girls' school on Paca Street and began to live a convent-like existence with her daughters and a handful of female recruits; her two sons entered St. Mary's College, where Dubourg was president. Seton wrote to Cecilia, "Everything you wish to know of me is said in a few words. In the chapel at six until eight, school at nine, dine at one, school at three, chapel at six-thirty, examination of conscience and rosary, sometimes at the chapel also at three—and so goes day after day without variation."
On March 25, 1809, Seton pronounced her first vows before Archbishop Carroll. She and four sisters began appearing in public in their black religious dress. On June 21, the small community, including Cecilia and Harriet Seton, left Baltimore to establish a convent and school in a remote rural hamlet 50 miles inland. The day that the group arrived at Emmitsburg, Maryland, July 31, 1809, is celebrated by the American Sisters of Charity as the founding day of their community. The sisters were sponsored by the Sulpicians, with the Reverend Dubourg as their superior and Seton as mother superior. Their new site was apparently the choice of another supporting sponsor, a wealthy and eccentric convert named Samuel Cooper. The first home of the sisters was a nearly uninhabitable stone farmhouse, where they slept on mattresses on the floor and the snow blew in through the cracks in the walls during winter. A priest was seldom available, and the sisters had to walk two miles to Mount St. Mary's to attend Sunday Mass. Nearly everyone became ill. Mother Seton's son William was staying at the Mount when he became so ill that she believed he was going to die and sewed him a burial shroud. William recovered, but then Harriet Seton died suddenly; she was buried in the shroud that had been intended for her nephew.
In February 1810, the community moved to a better site, then known as St. Joseph's and now called the White House. But ill health continued, and Cecilia died later that year. In 1812, the worst blow came when Seton's oldest daughter Anina died at the age of 16. Anina had been her mother's constant companion, and had happily joined her mother in the life of a Catholic sister. Seton became so grief-stricken at this loss that friends feared she would go insane. "After Nina was taken I was so often expecting to lose my senses," she said, "and my head was so disordered" that if it were not for "daily duties always before me I did not know much of what I did or what I left undone." Still, despite all the hardship, the life of the community was not always sad. Elizabeth wrote in a letter:
You will hear a thousand reports of nonsense about our community which I beg you not to mind. The truth is that we have the best ingredients of happiness—order, peace, and solitude…. [T]ake a look at our black gowns and demure looks, which, however, hide a set of as lively, merry hearts as ever met together.
The continuing order of the community was not yet settled. Mother Seton had to battle her male superiors for a say in the writing of the constitution and the community rule. Dubourg wanted to establish the sisters under the rule of the French Sisters of Charity, but Seton believed that important modifications needed to be made to accommodate the order to American conditions. For example, the French order concentrated on caring for the sick, but the need in America was for schools for Catholics. In France, the sisters were under the patronage of the wealthy and were required to teach girls who were generally poor. In America, the sisters had to be self-supporting and therefore needed to take in wealthy student boarders in order to finance their work. Not least, Mother Seton was concerned about how her own children, and her responsibility to them, would be treated under the new rule.
Most of all, Seton believed that the sisters had a right to participate in the decisions that would determine the life of their community. In this she faced a problem common to sisterhoods through the centuries. Though the authority of the male clergy over them was not questioned, the sisters felt a duty to uphold the spirit and purpose of their communities. In early 19th-century America, the problem was compounded by a Catholic clergy that was primarily French in origin and perspective.
Further difficulties arose when a new superior, Sulpician John Baptist David, made plans to write the rules himself, obtain the approval of his fellow Sulpicians, and then submit them to the sisters. David also intended to replace Seton as mother superior with his own recruit, Rose White . Archbishop Carroll urged Seton to be compliant, but she told him, "if any [regulations] are proposed to us without going through the necessary discussion and approbation, I can never give the example of accepting them."
The issues were resolved after the appointment of a new Sulpician superior, John Dubois, in 1811. Dubois favored a rule making the American sisters independent of the French, and Archbishop Carroll followed his lead. At a time when Catholic ecclesiastical authority in America was only vaguely defined, the archbishop was bound to favor a policy guaranteed to increase his own authority. The constitutions, modified from the French rule, gave the community the name of Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's, and identified its members as daughters of St. Vincent de Paul, founder of the original Sisters of Charity in France in 1633. Education of all female children was emphasized; Seton was allowed to continue as mother superior and keep her children with her; and enforcement or further changes of the rules required the approval of three clergy members: the archbishop, the Sulpician superior in Maryland, and the Sulpician superior residing in Emmitsburg.
Before Seton's death in 1821, a community of Sisters of Charity had been established in Philadelphia in 1812, and another in New York City in 1817. By 1900, the American Sisters of Charity were in communities from Cincinnati to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and had missions in China, Korea, and Bermuda. They numbered 5,000 and represented 12% of the 40,000 Catholic sisters in America at the turn of the century. In the 20th century, this population would nearly triple by the 1960s, when the number of sisters began to decline.
The immigration of the 19th century vastly expanded the small numbers of American Catholics of Seton's day. Without the labor of sisterhoods such as hers, the building of the institutional Catholic Church in America would have been impossible. By 1900, Catholicism was the single largest religious denomination in the United States (one in six Americans by then were Catholic), and the Church had established thousands of schools, hospitals, orphanages and missions. This huge institutional structure was almost entirely dependent on the services of Catholic sisters.
Even before her death, friends and confidants of Mother Seton called attention to her unusual piety, devotion and spirituality; Archbishop Carroll was already saying that she was a saint. At the time she died, her confessor Father Bruté instructed everyone who knew her to save all her writing and correspondence. In 1907, her cause for canonization was introduced to the Vatican, and 12 volumes of her diaries, letters, prayer books and other material were submitted for study as authenticated writings, in place of living witnesses to her sanctity. In 1936, the Vatican declared that her cause could be formally introduced. In 1959, her spirituality was declared "heroic," and she was given the title of venerable. In 1963, Seton was beatified and called blessed after two miraculous cures were credited to her intercession. Another cure in 1963 was studied by the Holy See, which finally declared it truly miraculous. On December 12, 1974, Pope Paul VI decreed her Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. The first American-born saint, she was canonized on September 14, 1975, at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Dirvin, Joseph I. Mrs. Seton: Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
Dolan, Jay P. The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present. NY: Image Books, 1985.
Elizabeth Seton: Selected Writings. Edited by Ellin Kelly and Annabelle Melville. NY: Paulist Press, 1987.
Jarvis, William. Mother Seton's Sisters of Charity. Columbia University, 1984.
Melville, Annabelle M. "Seton, Elizabeth Ann Bayley," in Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.
Ewens, Mary. The Role of the Nun in Nineteenth Century America. NY: Arno Press, 1978.
Laverty, Sister Rose Maria, S.C. Loom of Many Threads: Sisters of Charity, 1958.
Melville, Annabelle M. Elizabeth Bayley Seton, 1774–1821. NY: Scribner, 1951.
Ruether, Rosemary Radford, and Rosemary Skinner Keller. Women and Religion in America: The Nineteenth Century. San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1981.
Thompson, Margaret Susan. "Discovering Foremothers: Sisters, Society, and the American Catholic Experience," in U.S. Catholic Historian. Vol. 5, 1986, pp. 273–290.
Elizabeth Seton Papers, Archives of St. Joseph's Provincial House, Emmitsburg, Maryland; letters of Elizabeth Seton, manuscripts, Archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore; letters of Carroll and Elizabeth Seton, Archives of Georgetown University, Special Collections Division.
Elizabeth Milliken , Ph.D. in American History, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
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