Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born Aug. 28, 1774, the second child of Dr. Richard Bayley and Catherine Charlton of New York City.
As chief health officer for the Port of New York, Dr. Bayley attended to immigrants disembarking from ships onto Staten Island, and cared for New Yorkers when yellow fever swept through the city. Dr. Bayley later served as the first professor of anatomy at Columbia College.
Elizabeth’s mother was the daughter of a Church of England priest who was rector of St. Andrew’s Church on Staten Island for 30 years. Elizabeth was raised in what would eventually become (in the years after the American Revolution) the Episcopal Church.
After Elizabeth’s mother died, her father remarried Charlotte Amelia Barclay who often took young Elizabeth with her on charitable rounds, as she visited the poor in their homes to distribute food and needed items. Though the Baileys produced five children, the marriage floundered and broke up. Elizabeth went to live with her grandparents after losing a second mother. In her daily journals from this period Elizabeth reflected on her loss, love for nature, poetry, and music, especially the piano. Other entries expressed her religious aspirations.
On Jan. 25, 1794, at age 19, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, 25, a wealthy businessman in the import trade. William had visited important counting houses in Europe in 1788, was a friend of Filippo Filicchi (a renowned merchant in Livorno, Italy, with whom his firm traded), and brought the first Stradivarius violin to America. When William’s father died, the Seton family fortunes waned during the volatile economic climate preceding the War of 1812. The couple took in William’s six younger siblings, ages seven to seventeen, in addition to their own five children.
Because of political and military actions between the United States and France and the British blockade of France, William’s company lost several ships and went into bankruptcy. The Seatons lost their home and Elizabeth and her children went to live with her father. The stress of all that had happened worsened William’s fight with tuberculosis and doctors advised him to go to the warmer climate of Italy. After a quarantine of a month (the Italians wanted to be sure the family wasn’t bringing in yellow fever from New York) the Seatons were able to establish a life only to lose William in 1803.
Elizabeth was taken in by her husband’s Italian business associates Filippo and Antonio Filicchi who introduced her to Catholicism. When she was able to return to New York she was received into the Catholic Church on March 14, 1805, by the Rev. Matthew O’Brien, pastor of St. Peter’s Church, then the city’s only Catholic church (anti-Catholic laws had been lifted just a few years before). A year later, she received the sacrament of Confirmation from the Bishop of Baltimore, the Right Reverend John Carroll, the only Catholic bishop in the nation.
To support herself and her children, Seton had started an academy for young ladies, as was common for widows of social standing in that period. After news of her conversion to Catholicism spread, however, most parents withdrew their daughters from her tutelage.
When things seemed the bleakest, Elizabeth was ready to move to Canada but a meeting with Louis William Valentine Dubourg, the president of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore who had envisioned a religious school to meet the educational needs of the new nation’s small Catholic community. In 1809 Seton accepted Dubourg’s invitation and established the St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, a school dedicated to the education of Catholic girls.
On July 31, Seton established a religious community in Emmitsburg dedicated to the care of the children of the poor. This was the first congregation of religious sisters to be founded in the United States, and its school was the first free Catholic school in America. This modest beginning marked the start of the Catholic parochial school system in the United States. The congregation was initially called the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s. From that point on, she became known as Mother Seton. In 1811, the sisters adopted the rules of the Daughters of Charity, co-founded in France by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac.
Today, six separate religious congregations trace their roots to the beginnings of the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg. The Daughters of Charity Health Network established Bayley Seton Hospital in 1980 on the site of the former Marine Hospital Service hospital in Stapleton, Staten Island. Most of the property is now the Bayley Seton campus of Richmond University Medical Center, while a portion is used by New York Foundling, a Catholic social services organization. In the Philippines, the Elizabeth Seton School in BF Resort Village, Las Piñas City was established in 1975, the year of Seton’s canonization. It is the largest Catholic school in the city in terms of population. Seton Hall College (now known as Seton Hall University) in South Orange, New Jersey, was founded in 1856 by Seton’s nephew Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley and named after his aunt. Niagara University in Lewiston, near Niagara Falls, also has a dormitory building named after her, called Seton Hall. Many schools and institutions in America bear her name.
Elizabeth Ann Seton died on Jan. 4, 1821, at the age of 46. Today, her remains are entombed in the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Seton was beatified by Pope John XXIII on March 17, 1963. The pope said on the occasion, “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.” Pope Paul VI canonized Seton on September 14, 1975, in a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Adapted by A. J. Valentini from: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton – Saints & Angels. (n.d.). Catholic Online. Retrieved December 30, 2020, from https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=180