Oldest Woman’s Religious Community in U.S. Celebrates 200 Years
CINCINNATI—She was a wife, a mother of five children and a widow, who went on to found a religious community for women, an extraordinary and pioneering move 200 years ago. The life of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint, is told in two articles in the July issue of St. Anthony Messenger, timed for the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Sisters of Charity. These articles will be posted after June 22 at: http://www.AmericanCatholic.org.
“Elizabeth Ann Seton: A Profoundly Human Saint” comes from Elizabeth Bookser Barkley, a professor of English at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio. “St. Elizabeth Seton: Mother to Many” was written by Sister Judith Metz, S.C., who is the historian/archivist for the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati, Ohio. Both authors relied on primary sources, like Seton’s letters. Barkley concentrates on Seton’s early family life; Metz delves into her example and vision of active religious life. Six women’s religious congregations claim her as foundress.
Barkley praises Seton for being “a well-rounded woman who knew how to love deeply and was always a person for others.” The daughter of a New York doctor, she married a rich merchant who brought the first Stradivarius violin to America and delighted playing it for his young wife. Elizabeth nearly died in childbirth, delivering the couple’s third child in 1789. She also took care of six of her husband’s younger siblings.
She had to cope with many deaths in her life: In 1801 Elizabeth’s beloved father died. Two years later, her husband, William, died in her arms in Italy after they were detained in quarantine under terrible conditions. Two of her daughters also died before Elizabeth did.
Through the kindness of Antonio Filicchi, the Italian partner of William’s importing business, Elizabeth Seton was introduced to the Catholic Church. Amabilia Filicchi, Antonio’s wife, had invited her inside a church where, Barkley says, “she was amazed by worshipers’ belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, a belief foreign to her experience as an Episcopalian. It was Antonio who first taught her to make the Sign of the Cross.”
Metz picks up Seton’s story at this point in her life when, at age 30 and back in New York, she decided to join the Catholic Church, a Church of poor immigrants, thereby losing the sympathy and support she might otherwise have had. She moved her family to Baltimore, the seat of the only Catholic diocese in the United States, to open a school for girls. “It was here that women from various cities around the country began to join her,” Metz says. “Gradually, and with the endorsement of Bishop John Carroll, the idea forming a religious congregation began to take hold.”
Within one year of its July 31, 1809, founding in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the community had grown to 12 women. Soon, the school for poor mountain children was attracting daughters of wealthy Catholic and Protestant families from Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. The sisters accepted orphans at their school and soon started caring for the elderly and infirm, an effort which has grown into many hospitals.
Elizabeth Seton died in 1821 of tuberculosis. But the religious sisters she gathered around her, Metz says, “were the mustard seed that has produced great abundance for our Church and society over the last 100 years, spreading throughout North America and beyond.”
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