Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born on August 28, 1774 in New York City, the second child of Dr. Richard Bayley and Catherine Charlton. Both parents were devout Episcopalians. Her mother died in 1777 when Elizabeth was only three years old, possibly from complications that lingered from the birth of Elizabeth's younger sister, Catherine. Elizabeth's father remarried to Charlotte Amelia Barclay, a member of the Jacobus James Roosevelt family, who served as a step-mother to the children, and also played a formative role in inspiring Elizabeth's later charity work with the poor. Sadly, the marriage ended poorly, and Elizabeth and her sister were rejected by Charlotte, despite the time they spent together.
On January 25, 1794, at age 19, Elizabeth married wealthy New York businessman William Magee Seton, aged 25 at Trinity Church Parish, New York, New York. Together they would have five children; Anna Maria, William II, Richard, Catherine, and Rebecca Mary.
The young Seton family lived in a nice abode on Wall Street in New York, and were devoted Episcopalians. Her devotion to the church and to the social ministries she had participated in with her step-mother, helped lead her to found the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children in New York in 1797.
She and William traveled to Italy in 1803, where she first encountered the Roman Catholic Church. The trip, as well as the Setons taking in William's orphaned six younger siblings and conflict between the US and France's effect on the merchant trade, contributed to the family's bankruptcy, and not long after, William died of tuberculosis in 1803, leaving Elizabeth a widow with young children in a foreign land. Following William's death, Elizabeth converted to Catholicism, after being exposed to it by shipping partners of William's in Italy. Elizabeth started teaching to support her family.
In 1808, at the invitation of Archbishop John Carroll and encouragement from Dr. William Louis Dubourg, she started the first girls' Catholic school in the country, in Baltimore, Maryland. It was with money from charity given to Dr. Dubourg that she was able to start the school. Other young women joined her, and this led to her beginning her Sisters religious order.
In 1809, Elizabeth started the first religious order in the United States, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. Months after beginning, the now called Mother Seton, and her sisters moved the order to a poor parish, and began offering free education to the poor children there. The Sisters order grew swiftly. The order followed a modified set of rules based on the teachings of St. Vincent de Paul, the vows being those of service of the poor and to live in poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Besides the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph order that she began, her legacy lived on in various places, especially Catholic parishes, named after her, as well as Seton Hall University, named in her honor in 1856.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was beatified 17 March 1963 by Pope John XXIII, and canonized as a saint by Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in Rome 17 September 1974. She was the first American to be canonized. Her feast day is celebrated on January 4th. She is the patron saint of seafarers, in-law problems, against the death of children, widows, death of parents, and opposition of Church authorities.
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