Seton, Elizabeth Ann Bayley (Saint)

A devout Catholic, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton chose a life devoted to serving the needy and providing education for all by founding the Sisters of Charity in Baltimore in 1809. Her small group of Sisters moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland and opened St. Joseph Academy, providing an education for rural poor children. The original small group of five sisters grew to over fifty by 1821, the time of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton's death. Mother Seton's greatest impact was in the growth of the Sisters of Charity that began during her lifetime and in the influence of her example which continues through today. From the work of these original Sisters and many others to follow, new community mission houses, hospitals and colleges grew throughout the United States and worldwide.


Biographical Highlights

Many social problems related to immigrants, epidemics and the lack of education existed in America during Elizabeth Ann Seton's life. As a well-educated child, she was taught to serve those in need and treat all human beings with dignity. She saw the need and begged her father to allow her to feed the starving Irish immigrants that she saw in New York City. Elizabeth carried these lessons with her and a sense of compassion continued throughout her life.

It was these formative lessons that led Elizabeth to choose a life as a Catholic devoted to serving the needy and providing an education for all by founding the Sisters of Charity in Baltimore in 1809. Her small group of Sisters moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland and opened St. Joseph Academy, providing an education for rural poor children. The original group grew from five sisters to over fifty by 1821, the time of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton's death.

Mother Seton's greatest impact was in the growth of the Sisters of Charity that began during her lifetime and in the influence of her example which continues through today. In 1814, she sent three sisters to Philadelphia and, three years later, three others to New York City to open an orphanage. From the work of these original Sisters and many others to follow, new community mission houses, hospitals and colleges grew throughout the United States and worldwide.


Historic Roots

Elizabeth Bayley was born into a prominent New York family on August 18, 1774. At the age of three, Elizabeth's mother died and she was left with her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, and one sister. Even before her death, Elizabeth's mother began the development of her daughter's faith as she taught her about serving others, prayer, and scripture. When Dr. Bayley remarried, Elizabeth's stepmother continued lessons about the Episcopalian faith and God. Also educated by her father, Elizabeth learned from his great virtue to serve the poor of the community. From a young age, Elizabeth could be found bringing food to those less fortunate than herself.

Elizabeth was married to William Magee Seton, a wealthy businessman, in January of 1794; she was nineteen years old. They began having children and, eventually, their family was complete with three girls and two boys. Elizabeth received great joy in caring for and educating her children. She continued to support the poor and founded the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children.

When William's business and health started to decline, Elizabeth cared for him with the hope he would recover. The couple and Anna Maria, their eldest daughter, traveled to Italy to visit family friends in an effort to help William's health. Arriving in Italy, the family was quarantined in a stone tower due to an epidemic in New York. Passengers were required to stay for six weeks, after which, they could continue on their business if they did not have the disease. William's health on arrival and the poor conditions in which they were quarantined contributed to his death in December 1803. Elizabeth looked to the Scriptures and her spiritual life to help her survive the pain of her loss.

After William's death, Elizabeth and her daughter remained with William's longtime friends, the Filicchi family, until the spring of 1804. While in Italy, she experienced, first hand, the ways of the Roman Catholic Church. Upon their return to America, Elizabeth pursued her interest in Catholicism. In 1805, she was welcomed into the Church, though her conversion created great friction among friends and family.

Feeling a calling to serve, and left destitute by the death of her husband, Seton accepted an invitation to teach at St. Mary's College in Baltimore in the summer of 1808. The next year, she became a sister of the Church and was given land in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Joined by her two converted sisters-in-law and four other young women, the Sisters of St. Joseph (later known as the Sisters of Charity) became the first American religious society. Seton based the rules of the Sisters of Charity on the Daughters of Charity established in 1633 by Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac which cared for sick and uneducated poor people in France. One of their first acts was to open a school for poor girls in Emmitsburg; this became the basis for the parochial school system in the United States.

Elizabeth was elected superior (called Mother Seton) of the eighteen sisters that took their vows in July 1813. The sisters' St. Joseph's Academy prospered, allowing them to serve the poor. By the next year, they were placed in charge of an orphanage in Philadelphia. The Sisters of Charity began establishing orphanages and hospitals across the United States and continued teaching the poor through parochial education.

On a personal note, by a few years after her death on January 4, 1821, three of Elizabeth's five children died except her youngest daughter, Catherine, and William. Perhaps as a testimony to her influence, Catherine became a Sister of Mercy in New York City and lived to the old age of ninety-one.

Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was the first American-born person to be canonized. Sainthood was given by Pope Paul VI and the Catholic Church on September 14, 1975. "The Pope praised her for manifesting "that religious spirituality which your [American] temporal prosperity seemed to obscure and almost make impossible" (Kopel 2002). Her feast day is celebrated annually on January 4.


Importance

Elizabeth Ann Seton founded the Sisters of Charity in America in 1809. Before the idea was popular, Seton and the Sisters shared a commitment to education for all. Eventually, Elizabeth and the Sisters of Charity helped further the education of many individuals by operating and, in some cases, developing elementary schools, high schools, trade schools and colleges. These opportunities for the poor helped address a growing educational problem of the 1800s.

Along with furthering the educational system, Mother Seton focused on helping those in need. She provided a home for the homeless orphan, fed the hungry immigrant and educated the "unworthy." Likewise, easing the burdens felt by those in need became the work of the Sisters she sent throughout America's cities and towns. Her work continues today through the worldwide Sisters of Charity Federation.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The Emmitsburg community of Sisters of Charity was the first American religious society. In 1850, it formally united with the international Daughters of Charity. Today, the Sisters of Charity Federation consists of thirteen congregations with 7,000 Sisters. The group of religious women continues to grow and serve by running schools, hospitals, and other service centers. They are committed to service and to a selfless way of living.


K ey Related Ideas

  • Aid for the Poor

  • Education for All

  • Humanitarian Thought

  • Selflessness

  • Sisterhood

The humanitarian thinking of Elizabeth Ann Seton has created a large number of individuals who are willing to serve others in society without personal gain. The Sisters are role models who believe that giving individuals respect helps restore the dignity they deserve as humans. By providing an education, health care and other services for the poor, Mother Seton and her fellow Sisters of Charity served society by working with the uneducated and indigent that others were unwilling to help. Seton was a great example of someone who was willing to serve others and try to help address the social concerns of the day.


Important People Related to the Topic

Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) began the Company of the Daughters of Charity in France on November 29, 1633 when he asked Louise de Marillac (1591-1660) to lead the first sisters devoting themselves to the social ministry of care for the sick poor. The Daughters cared for the sick in their homes across France and in hospitals. They also cared for children in orphanages and began to provide an education to young orphans, galley slaves, the elderly, and those others who fell in their path.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Daughters of Charity: Today, over 13,000 women belong to this society of Catholics known as Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Servants of the Sick Poor. These are religious women (not nuns) who take vows to serve the poor.

The Sisters of Charity Federation: A federation of thirteen congregations of women, numbering over 5,000, devoted to the tradition began by Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. http://www.sisters-of-charity.org/.

Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children: Established in 1797 by the young Elizabeth Seton and her sister-in-law, Rebecca, the Society was staffed solely by women, and by 1816, supported 200 women and 500 children in New York City.

In addition, many schools, hospitals and other service centers have been created by the Sisters of Charity who have taken the same vows as Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. The list of different organizations that have been formed since the early 1800s is endless. They can be found around the United States and beyond. Examples of organizations include:

  • Seton Hall University: Established in 1856, this New Jersey university offers academic programs devoted to the museum profession.

  • St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Specialty Care Hospital: A hospital of St. Mary's Medical Center in Evansville, Indiana, which serves long-term care patients suffering from complex, multiple health problems.

  • St. Elizabeth Seton School: K-8 Catholic diocesan school located in Palo Alto, California.


Related Web Sites

The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul Emmitsburg Province Web site gives an example of what a Sister of Charity community looks like today. It has a great map that shows the number of Sisters across the world. http://www.daughtersofcharity-emmitsburg.org/dc_today.htm

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Museum Web site offers individuals the opportunity to explore an on-line museum. Great educational resources and quotes from Seton. http://www.setonmuseum.org/index.html

A Saint from New York: Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton Web site contains a detailed biography on Elizabeth Ann Seton's life. https://catholicism.org/elizabeth-ann-seton.html

A Short History of the Sisters of Charity Web site contains a history of the Sisters and many examples of different communities they have formed. This web site also gives details on what the community is doing in today's society. http://www.emmitsburg.net/archive_list/articles/
history_articles/sisters_of_charity.htm
.


Bibliography and Internet Sources

Delaney, John. Dictionary of Saints. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1980. ASIN: 0385135947.

Greater Emmitsburg Historical Society. A Short History of the Sister of Charity. [cited 22 September 2002]. Available from http://www.emmitsburg.net/archive_list/articles/
history_articles/sisters_of_charity.htm
.

Kopel, Dave. Elizabeth Ann Seton. [cited 15 October 2002]. Available from http://www.pitt.edu/~eflst4/seton2.html.

National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Biography of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton 1774-1821. [updated 1979; cited 16 September 2002]. Available from http://emmitsburg.net/setonshrine/.

New Advent. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. [updated 1999; cited 16 September 2002]. Available from https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13739a.htm.

New Advent. Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. [updated 1999; cited 16 September 2002]. Available from https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03605a.htm.

Seton Hall Univeristy. Blessed Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton. [updated 2001; cited 16 September 2002]. Available from https://www.shu.edu/offices/provost/index.cfmcharterday/seton-links.htm.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.