ELIZABETH ANN SETON, WIDOW AND FOUNDRESS
– RICHARD P. McBRIEN –
Baptized Elizabeth Bayley (1774–1821), Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first American-born saint. She was raised in a devout and well-to-do Episcopalian family. At age twenty Ann married a wealthy merchant, William Magee Seton. Together they had five children. She became involved in social work and established the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Children in 1797, earning the epithet the “Protestant Sister of Charity.” After her husband’s bankruptcy and death from tuberculosis, Elizabeth became a Catholic in 1805.
The rector of St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore learned of her plight and invited her to establish a school for girls there. It opened in 1808. With four companions the following year, she founded a religious community, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and also a school for poor children near Emmitsburg, Maryland. She was elected superior and, with eighteen other sisters, took vows the following year. Thereafter, she was known as Mother Seton. Hers was the first American religious society, formally known as the Daughters of Charity of St. Joseph, devoted to the service of the poor and to teaching in parochial schools. Historians often credit her with laying the foundation for the Catholic parochial-school system in the United States.
Mother Seton died in Emmitsburg on January 4, 1821. She was canonized in 1975 by Pope Paul VI. Her feast is on the Proper Calendar for the Dioceses of the United States, but is not on the General Roman Calendar.