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St Elizabeth Ann Seton

Feast day: 4 January

Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) came from British and French ancestry. She was born in 1774, the daughter of Dr Richard Bayley and his wife Catherine Charlton, who were prominent New York Anglicans. Her mother died in 1777, probably as a result of childbirth. The baby died a year later. Dr Bayley remarried but the marriage was not a success and Elizabeth and her sister were abandoned by their stepmother. Their father was often away and the girls were taken in by an uncle. The period when her father and stepmother separated was a period of darkness for Elizabeth. She was always a very spiritual person who liked poetry, nature and music.

She married William Magee Seton at the age of nineteen. He was a partner in an import/export mercantile firm, the William Seton Company, which became Seton, Maitland and Company in 1793. The Setons attended the fashionable Trinity Church in New York. Elizabeth was devout and was directed by the Reverend John Henry Hobart who later became a bishop. Elizabeth and her sister-in-law Rebecca, who was her mentor and close confidante, nursed the sick and dying among their relatives and friends. Elizabeth was among the founder members of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with small children and also served as treasurer of that organization.

Elizabeth and William were happily married and had five children. Three of their children died young: Anna Maria (Annina), who suffered from tuberculosis and who made her vows as a Sister of Charity on her deathbed, Rebecca, who was injured as a result of a fall and died also from tuberculosis, and Richard, who joined the navy and died off the coast of Liberia. Catherine lived for some time with her brother William before joining the Sisters of Mercy in New York in 1846. She devoted forty years of her life to prison ministry. William received a commission as a lieutenant in the United States navy in 1826. He later married and had seven children, one of whom became an archbishop.

When William’s father died, he took over the business and became responsible for his young half-siblings. Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant at the time, took care of the two families and taught some of the children. By this time the business was failing. Elizabeth tried to help by working at the account books but the company went bankrupt in 1801. The Setons lost their possessions and their home at 61 Stone Street. William began to show signs of tuberculosis and he, Elizabeth and their eldest daughter Anna Maria went to Italy hoping that the warm climate would improve his health. Yellow fever was rampant at the time and the authorities in Livorno quarantined the family in bad conditions. Their friends the Filicchis helped them but William died leaving Elizabeth a widow of twenty-nine with five young children. The Filicchis took care of the family till they returned to New York. It was in Italy that Elizabeth first encountered Catholicism. She found a copy of the Memorare and she began to explore the main tenets of Catholic belief.

Elizabeth’s attraction to the Catholic faith aroused hostility from her family and friends but with the support of her clerical advisors and her devotion to Mary she became a Catholic in 1805, in St Peter’s Church in Lower Manhattan. She took Mary as her confirmation name and henceforth she was known as Mary Elizabeth Ann Seton. The three names had great meaning for her, as they recalled the three prominent women in the history of salvation.

Elizabeth’s conversion made life difficult for her. Anti-Catholicism made it hard for her to find work. However she always trusted in God’s providence. After a couple of short periods of teaching, she met the Reverend Louis William Dubourg who encouraged her to form a congregation of religious women to educate girls. She was invited to Baltimore and supported by the Society of St Suplice (Suplicians) who wanted to found a sisterhood based on the Daughters of Charity. She gathered round her a group of women but she was the only one who took vows of chastity and obedience. The Archbishop called her “Mother Seton”.

The wealthy seminarian Samuel Cooper, a Catholic convert, purchased land for the sisterhood at Emmitsburg, Maryland. Cooper wanted to provide Catholic education for women, services for the elderly, job skill development and a manufactory to help the poor find employment. The Sisters of Charity of St Joseph began in 1809 and St Joseph’s Free School in 1810 which provided education for poor girls. It was the first free Catholic school for girls staffed by sisters in the country. St Joseph’s Academy, which took boarders, was founded in 1810 and helped subsidize the charitable work of the sisters. Eighty-six new members joined the congregation. There were however many deaths, including eighteen sisters, her daughters Annina and Rebecca and her sisters-in-law Harriet and Cecilia.

Elizabeth formed her congregation in the spirit of St Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac. The sisters took annual vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and service of the poor. Their habit was based on that of Italian widows. with black dress, bonnet and cape. Elizabeth was elected as first Mother Superior. The sisters combined social ministry with education based on religious values. Elizabeth sent sisters to Philadelphia to manage St Joseph’s asylum, the first Catholic orphange in the United States in 1814. The next year she opened a mission at Mount St Mary’s to oversee the infirmary and domestic services for the college and seminary near Emmitsburg. In 1817 sisters went to New York to begin the New York City Orphan Asylum (later St Patrick’s Orphan Asylum).

Elizabeth Seton died of tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of forty-six. She was not a mystic but a practical woman, who from an early age had a deep spirituality and concern for the poor. In her life as wife, mother and religious sister she gave herself wholeheartedly to whatever was required of her. She was in many ways a pioneer of Catholic religious life and education in the United States. By 1830 the sisters were running schools and orphanages as far west as Cincinnati and south at New Orleans and had established the first hospital east of the Mississipi at St Louis. Elizabeth had a special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady. Psalm 23 was her favourite. She suffered rejection, hardship and many bereavements including her husband and two of her children. She was beatified by Pope John XXIII and canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975. Pope John said of her: "In a house that was very small, but with ample space for charity, she sowed a seed in America, which by divine grace grew into a large tree."

St Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us.