Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first US-born canonized saint in the Catholic Church. Mother Seton, as she was called, was one of the women I remember learning about in my Catholic grade school (although she had not yet then been canonized).
Elizabeth was born into a prominent Episcopal family in New York City and married the son of a wealthy New York mercantile family with international connections. As a young society matron, she enjoyed a life that included loving service to her family (she and her husband had five children) and care for the poor. (She and her sister-in-law became known as the “Protestant Sisters of Charity.”)
Near the end of the eighteenth century, political and economic turmoil took a severe toll on Elizabeth’s husband’s business and on his health and he became increasingly debilitated by tuberculosis. Hoping to improve his health, Elizabeth and her husband traveled to Italy. However, on their arrival, they were placed in quarantine and her husband died soon thereafter, leaving Elizabeth, then 29 years old, a widow with five children.
While waiting to return to the United States, Elizabeth spent several months with a Catholic family who had been business associates of her late husband. She was affected deeply by her experience of the family’s Catholic piety and began learning more about the faith. She returned to New York in June 1804 and a year later made converted to Catholicism, a choice that resulted in financial struggle and social discrimination. After receiving her First Communion as a Catholic, she proclaimed, “At last God is mine and I am His!…I have received Him!”
Elizabeth opened a school in New York City to support her children. Eventually, the school’s good reputation resulted in an invitation to open a school for girls in Baltimore. In June, 1808 she moved with her family to Baltimore to open the school. Ultimately, Catholic women from along the east coast came to join her work, leading to the establishment of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph. Elizabeth became the first superior of the congregation and served in that capacity until her death.
Widow, convert, single mother, educator and religious leader. Today we remember Elizabeth Ann Seton.