June 2012: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

The patron saint of Catholic schools is also the first Roman Catholic saint to be born in the United States. By the time of her death in 1821 at the age of 46, Elizabeth Ann Seton had established the first Catholic school as well as the first American congregation of religious sisters, the Sisters of Charity, in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

The life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was an amazing and unexpected faith journey for a woman who had been raised in a socially prominent, Episcopalian family and married Will Seton at the age of 19. She was the mother of five children by the time her husband’s business went bankrupt less than 10 years later, and the family pinned their hopes on staying in Italy’s warm climate to prevent Will’s declining health from getting worse.

Elizabeth Ann Seton was traveling with her husband and eldest daughter when the Italian government ordered everyone on their ship to be held in a temporary quarantine because of a recent yellow fever epidemic in their native New York City. A few weeks later Will died; Elizabeth was 29 years old, in a country far from home, and responsible for the upbringing of five children.

Before returning to New York, Elizabeth spent time with the Filicchi family that had invited the Setons to come to Italy, and they introduced her to the Catholic faith. Elizabeth began attending Mass at St. Peter Catholic Church in New York (the only Catholic church in New York in those days) before making her profession of faith as a Roman Catholic in 1805.

After becoming Catholic, many of Elizabeth’s friends and family members turned their backs on her, but she was not alone because God was with her and others soon followed. After Elizabeth opened a Catholic boarding school for girls she established the Daughters of Charity of St Joseph, a religious community where the sisters ministered to people in hospitals, homes for the aged, orphanages, homes for the mentally challenged, and schools. Elizabeth’s three daughters became nuns, and her two sons joined the navy. Her feast day is January 4.