It was exactly three quarters of the way into the 20th century
before the United States could claim its first native-born
saint: Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton. It was—she was—well worth
On the eve of the American Revolution the wealthy and distinguished
Episcopalian Bayley family from New York welcomed Elizabeth
into the world. It was 1774. Elizabeth’s physician-father,
William, quickly bonded with the child who shared his hunger
for learning and inherited his humanitarian instincts.
The father-daughter bond grew stronger yet when, three years
later, Elizabeth’s mother died. In time, Elizabeth grew into
a high-spirited woman who, by her late teens, was the belle
of New York society. Her 1794 wedding to William Magee Seton,
a wealthy merchant, was a major social event of the season.
In fewer than 10 years Elizabeth gave birth to two sons
and three daughters. She and her husband were deliriously
happy. Theirs was a model family.
But life-altering realities soon intruded. Elizabeth suffered
the loss of her father. When her young husband grew ill, he
was advised to travel to Italy to recuperate. With his business
in decline and his wealth disappearing, the couple could afford
to have only one child join them.
In late 1803, William Magee Seton died in his wife’s arms.
And Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was a young widow and mother
who had become sadly accustomed to death and who now faced
financial crisis and potential ruin.
New Chapter, New Directions
The tragedies she had experienced only spurred her to deeper
spiritual depths and greater trust in a just and merciful
God. She made the bold and risky decision to leave the Episcopalian
Church and become a Roman Catholic.
The disapproval of some family and friends was a major blow.
She entered the Catholic Church at St. Peter Parish in lower
Manhattan (the Catholic parish closest to “ground zero” in
the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City).
She was just 30.
The young widow looked about for ways to support her family—and
to serve. She was invited to open a school for girls in Baltimore.
It opened in 1808, the nation’s first parochial school.
Within a few months, the nucleus of a religious community
had developed. Five women joined Elizabeth, drawn to the idea
of becoming nuns. By 1809, they were officially known as the
Sisters of St. Joseph, later as the Sisters of Charity of
St. Joseph. Her children by then grown, Mother Seton led the
community until her death at 46 in 1821. Her community played
a central role in the growing parochial school system and
also established orphanages and hospitals.
A Life Lived Fully
The seeds of sainthood were planted and nourished early
in the life of Elizabeth Bayley Seton. The life of young America’s
pioneer saint was filled with trial, tribulation and death.
But she sought God—and found God—at every turn.
She became acquainted early in life with the mystery of
suffering. Her large, full heart was tested again and again.
Each time, she abandoned herself to God. Each time, God responded.
Elizabeth Seton is not just a saint for North America. As
a woman who knew bliss as well as failure, joy as well as
struggle, she is a saint of and for the universal Church.
Next month: St. Josephine Bakhita (1868-1947)