St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was born on August 28, 1774, in New York, at the time of the American Revolution. Her father was a physician and college professor, and her family was well-off financially. Her family was Episcopalian, and she was baptized and raised in the Episcopal faith.
Elizabeth Ann’s youth and young adulthood was beset by troubles. Her mother died when she was four. Her baby sister also died. Her father remarried, but her stepmother never accepted her and much of her childhood was unpleasant. She was married at the age of 19 to William Seton, a wealthy merchant, and they had five children. She had a tender heart for the poor and already at the age of 23 established the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows and Children, and she became popularly known as the “Protestant Sister of Charity.” But in 1803 things took a severe turn for the worse. Her husband’s business went bankrupt. Then he contracted tuberculosis. They quickly moved to Pisa, Italy, for a warmer climate where he might recover, but six weeks later he died, and at the age of 29 Elizabeth Ann was a grief-stricken widow and a single mother without adequate resources to care for her family.
Elizabeth Ann remained in Italy with her husband’s Italian family. They were devout Catholics with a chapel in their home where they prayed before the Blessed Sacrament each day. She joined them, and her prayer experience was so powerful that she decided to convert to the Catholic Church, which she did upon her return to New York on March 4, 1805.
Her Episcopalian relatives were angered by her conversion and refused to help her financially. A woman of great faith, she went to daily Mass and prayed the Memorare every day. She knew the benefits of a good education from her own childhood, so she decided to open a small boarding school which was a noble vocation and provided a meager income.
The rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore somehow found out about Elizabeth Ann’s talent for teaching and invited her to open a school for girls, and in 1808, at the age of 34 with five children, she moved her family to Maryland. The new school enjoyed tremendous success. Enrollment grew. A new building had to be built. She needed the help of others to run the school and she invited other women to join her. Suddenly she had a group of women living together and founded a community of religious sisters, the American Daughters of Charity of St. Joseph, and they dedicated themselves to care for the poor and to provide religious education. She was subsequently elected their superior and became known as Mother Seton.
With such great initial success, she was asked to open a second school, and then additional schools. She extended her work to found orphanages in both Philadelphia and New York. Her pioneering work was the beginning of Catholic schools, and she is considered the founder of the parochial school system in America. She died on January 4, 1821, in Maryland.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was canonized by Pope Paul VI on September 14, 1975, the first native-born American citizen to be canonized a saint. She is a patron saint for widows and converts.