Courage, Charity and Sainthood
– St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
At a meeting of the American hierarchy in 1852, Archbishop Kenrick commented, “Elizabeth Seton did more for the church in America than all of us bishops together.” Unmistakably, Elizabeth Seton is a seminal character in the history of America’s Catholic church. She was the first American saint to be canonized by the Vatican and is foundress of the parochial school system in the United States.
Born August 28, 1774, just one week before the First Continental Congress, Elizabeth grew up in New York City during the American Revolution. She watched the rebel army battle the British and understood sacrifice at an early age. This understanding of the costs of personal beliefs was not lost on Mother Seton as a girl. Her own calling to the Catholic faith would later cost her family, friends and social status.
Married as a Protestant to William Magee Seton, son of a wealthy shipping merchant, Elizabeth bore five children. Her family were well to do aristocrats of New York Society. In 1797 for instance, Elizabeth Seton with the aid of several other women including Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, organized New York’s first private charity – the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children at Trinity Church. Elizabeth socialized with the premiere social and political diplomats of her time.
Unfortunately, due to the undeclared war on France, and its adverse effect on the shipping industry, the Seton’s soon went bankrupt. William lost his health and he, Elizabeth and their eldest child set sail for Italy to aid in his recovery. Soon after arriving in Pisa, William died. The Filicchi family of Leghorn, Italy who were business partners of William, were devout Catholics. They extended hospitality to Elizabeth and her daughter. They intimately observed the practice and devotion of Catholicism. Elizabeth and her daughter returned to New York and a year later, and to the horror of Elizabeth’s family and friends, she converted.
In March 1805, Elizabeth Seton was received by the Catholic Church. For three years she struggled to support herself and her five young children in her native city but without friends or family. Three years later she graciously accepted an invitation from Reverend William Dubourg, President of St. Mary’s Seminary, to open a school for girls in Baltimore. She did and from there founded America’s first religious order – the Sister’s of Charity. They created educational institutions, hospitals and social welfare agencies.
Thus by the age of 46, the time of her death, Mother Seton raised five children started the Catholic parochial school system in the United States as well as starting The Sisters of Charity. What makes her story more amazing is the instant recognition she received from the foremost ecclesiastics of the United States as foundress of the first distinctively American community of women, dedicated to active aposlate of education and charity.
On September 14, 1975 Elizabeth Seton was canonized in Rome as the first native-born American Saint.