St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Founder, Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph (1774–1821)
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The first statue ever created of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton on the grounds of the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland attained via Wikimedia Commons

Born two years before the American Revolution, Elizabeth Ann Bayley was raised in a prosperous and staunchly Episcopalian family in New York City. At the age of twenty she married a successful merchant named William Seton, with whom she bore five children. Her fortunes underwent a drastic change, however, when her husband’s business failed and he was then stricken with tuberculosis. Desperate to improve his health, she accompanied him and their daughter on a voyage to Italy. But William did not survive the journey.  

Accepting hospitality from Italian friends, Elizabeth prolonged her stay for some months. So touched and consoled was she by her hosts’ faith that she determined to become a Catholic. Upon her return, however, she confronted severe anti-Catholic prejudices among her family and their social circle and soon found herself isolated and penniless.  

A priest in Baltimore provided Seton a way out when he invited her to start a school in his parish. Accepting this mission, she gradually attracted other women to join her. In 1809 they took religious vows and formed the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph—the first native-born congregation in the United States. Mother Seton was their first superior.  

Before long, schools and orphanages under her direction opened in several cities. By the time of her death on January 4, 1821, there were twenty such houses across the country— part of the great network of charity that would meet the vast wave of Catholic immigrants. With her canonization in 1975, she became the first native-born saint of the United States.  

“Oh my God, forgive what I have been, correct what I am, and direct what I shall be.”  

—St. Elizabeth Ann Seton 

© Liturgical Press.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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