St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is the first native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. The saint’s feast day takes place on Wednesday, Jan. 4.
St. Seton is the patroness of one Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau parish and elementary school in Anchorage.
The saint is remembered as a wife, mother, widow, educator of young ladies, founder of the first American congregation of sisters, and spiritual leader to the many she has impacted during and after her 47 years of life on earth.
“Her struggles are just as relevant today as they were 200 years ago,” said Sister Mary Catherine Norris, visitatrix of St. Louise Province in St. Louis, Missouri. “The legacy of Mother Seton is she was fearless at a time when women weren’t exactly known for that. She’s a great role model whether you’re a mother, an educator, a daughter, or a widow.”
St. Seton was born on Aug. 28, 1774, in New York, New York, to a distinguished physician, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. It notes that she devoted much of her time working with the poor; and in 1797, she joined Isabella M. Graham and others in founding the first charitable institution in New York City, the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. She served as the organization’s treasurer for seven years, Britannica states.
St. Seton married William M. Seton in 1794, and they went on to have five children: Anna Maria Seton (1795-1812), William II Seton (1796-1868), Richard Bayley Seton (1798-1823), Catherine Charlton Seton (1800-1891), and Rebecca Mary Seton (1802-1816). However, in 1803, she, her husband, and their eldest daughter made a sea voyage to Italy for warmer climates to restore her husband’s health. William Seton was suffering from tuberculosis.
Italian authorities at the port of Livorno feared yellow fever, then prevalent in New York. As a result, the officials quarantined the Setons in a cold, stone lazaretto.
In this faith-filled journey, they met the Filicchi family, who were business partners of her husband. The Filicchi family advocated for them to authorities, so they could provide some relief during their month of isolation. Two weeks after his discharge, William Seton died in Pisa, Italy, on Dec. 27, 1803. He was buried in Italy’s Old English Cemetery in Livorno, leaving 29-year-old St. Seton a widow with five young children.
The experiences in Italy of St. Seton and her daughter, now called Annina Seton, transformed their lives.
Antonio Filicchi and his wife, Amabilia Baragazzi Filicchi, provided gracious hospitality to the widow and child until the Setons returned to the United States the following spring.
The Filicchis introduced St. Seton to Roman Catholicism. Elizabeth came upon the text of the “Memorare,” and began to inquire about Catholic practices because of her lack of familiarity with the religion, but then her inquisitiveness arose out of sincere interest. She asked about the Sacred Liturgy, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and the Church’s direct unbroken link with Christ and the apostles.
Antonio Filicchi, who had business interests in America, accompanied the Setons back to America. He instructed St. Seton about the faith and offered wise counsel during her indecision. She felt deeply for Antonio Filicchi, who provided not only emotional support but also substantial financial resources to her.
Born of a prominent Anglican family in New York City, St. Seton was received into the Roman Catholic faith at Saint Peter‘s Church in lower Manhattan on March 14, 1805.
St. Seton’s initial years as a Catholic, 1805-1808, in New York were marked by disappointments and failures. Rampant anti-Catholic prejudice prevented her from beginning a school, her hopeful means of support for her family.
Although St. Seton was frustrated in establishing herself so she could provide for her children, she remained faith-filled. She was convinced that God would show her the way according to the “Divine Plan.” In considering her future and examining her alternatives, St. Seton remained a mother first and foremost. She regarded her five “darlings“ as her primary obligation over every other commitment.
In 1789, the Archdiocese of Baltimore was established as the first Catholic diocese in the United States. And around 1806, Rev. Louis William Dubourg, S.S., president of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore, was visiting New York when St. Seton met him. Rev. Dubourg desired a congregation of religious women to teach girls in Baltimore since 1797. He, with the concurrence of Bishop John Carroll, invited St. Seton to Baltimore with the assurance that the French priests belonging to the Society of Saint Sulpice (Sulpicians), who were émigrés in Maryland, would assist her in forming a life plan that would also support her children. The Sulpicians wished to form a small school for the religious education of children.
After she arrived in Maryland on June 16, 1808, St. Seton opened a school for girls, next to the chapel of St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. St. Seton spent one year as a schoolmistress in Baltimore, where she founded the first free Catholic school in the United States.
The Sulpicians envisioned the development of a sisterhood modeled on the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul in France, founded in 1633, and they actively recruited candidates to start this community.
Women came from Baltimore and Philadelphia. Only St. Seton pronounced vows of chastity and obedience to Archbishop Carroll for one year in the lower chapel at Saint Mary‘s Seminary on March 25, 1809. The archbishop gave her the title “Mother Seton.”
On June 16, 1809, the group of sisters appeared for the first time dressed alike in a black dress, cape, and bonnet patterned after the widows’ weeds of women in Italy whom St. Seton had encountered there.
Spiritual leader: Emmitsburg Foundation
Samuel Sutherland Cooper came from a prominent Anglican family in Norfolk, Virginia. He was a wealthy convert to Catholicism and a seminarian of St. Mary’s College and Seminary in Baltimore and Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He provided funds to purchase 269 acres of land for the establishment of the sisterhood near Emmitsburg in the countryside of Frederick County, Maryland. Cooper wished to establish an institution for female education and character formation rooted in Christian values and the Catholic faith.
Their stone farmhouse was not yet ready for occupancy when St. Seton and her first group arrived in Emmitsburg in June 1809. Reverend John Dubois, S.S., founder of Mount Saint Mary‘s College and Seminary, offered his cabin on Saint Mary‘s Mountain for the women to use until they would be able to move to their property in the nearby valley some six weeks later.
According to tradition, St. Seton named the area Saint Joseph‘s Valley. There, the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph‘s began on July 31, 1809, in the Stone House. In mid-February of 1810, St, Seton and her companions moved into Saint Joseph’s House, which is now The White House.
St. Seton opened Saint Joseph‘s Free School on Feb. 22, 1810. It educated needy girls in the area and was the first free Catholic school for girls staffed by sisters in the country. Saint Joseph‘s Academy began on May 14, 1810, with the addition of boarding pupils who paid tuition, which enabled the Sisters of Charity to subsidize their charitable mission. Saint Joseph‘s Academy and Free School formed the cradle of Catholic education in the United States.
Divine Providence guided Elizabeth and her little community through the poverty and unsettling first years.
Numerous women joined the Sisters of Charity. During the period 1809-1820, 86 of the 98 candidates who arrived in Elizabeth‘s lifetime joined the new community — seventy percent remained Sisters of Charity for life.
Illness, sorrow, and early death were omnipresent in Elizabeth‘s life. She buried eighteen sisters at Emmitsburg, in addition to her two daughters Annina Seton and Rebecca Seton, and her sisters-in-law Harriet and Cecilia Seton.
The Sulpicians assisted Elizabeth in adapting the 17th-century French Common Rules of the Daughters of Charity for the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph’s in accord with the needs of the Catholic Church in America. Elizabeth formed her sisters in the Vincentian spirit according to the tradition of Louise de Marillac and Vincent de Paul. Eighteen Sisters of Charity, including Elizabeth, made private vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and service of the poor for the first time on July 19, 1813; thereafter, they made vows annually on March 25.
Editor’s note: Sources include the Emmitsburg Area Historical Society, the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the American Catholic Historical Society, and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Jay Luzardo also contributed to this article.