Elizabeth Ann Seton was born in New York City on August 28, 1774, of non-Catholic parents of high position. Her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, was the first professor of anatomy at Columbia College and eminent for his work as health officer of the Port of New York. Her mother died when Elizabeth was three years old, leaving two other young daughters. When her father remarried, Elizabeth showed great affection for her stepmother, who was a devout Anglican, and for her stepbrothers and sisters. Elizabeth's education was chiefly conducted by her father, a brilliant man of great natural virtue, who trained her to self-restraint as well as in intellectual pursuits. She read industriously, her notebooks indicating a special interest in religious and historical subjects. She was very religious and took great delight in reading the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, a practice she retained until her death.
Elizabeth was married on January 25, 1794, in St. Paul's Church in New York, to William Magee Seton. In her sister-in-law, Rebecca Seton, Elizabeth found the "friend of her soul," and as they went about on missions of mercy they were called the "Protestant Sisters of Charity." Business troubles culminated on the death of her father-in-law in 1798. Elizabeth and her husband presided over the large orphaned family; she shared his financial anxieties, aiding him with her sound judgment. The death of her own father, Dr. Bayley, in 1801 was a great trial to his favorite child. In her anxiety for his salvation, during his fatal illness, she offered to God the life of her infant daughter, Catherine. Catherine's life was spared, however; she died at the age of 90, as Mother Catherine of the Sisters of Mercy. In 1803, Mr. Seton's health required a sea voyage; he started with his wife and eldest daughter for Leghorn, where the Filicchi brothers, business friends of the Seton firm, resided. The other children were left to the care of Rebecca Seton.
From a journal which Mrs. Seton kept during her travels we learn of her heroic effort to sustain the drooping spirits of her husband during the voyage, followed by a long detention in quarantine, and until his death in Pisa on December 27, 1803. She and her daughter remained for some time with the Filicchi families. Moved by their example of Catholic faith, Elizabeth was also struck by the beauty of the Churches, the shrines to Our Lady, and most especially by the Eucharist. She wrote in a letter, "How happy would we be, if we believed what these dear souls believe: that they possess God in the Sacrament, and that He remains in their Churches and is carried to them when they are sick!"
After much prayer, reflection, and instruction, nine months after returning to the United States, Elizabeth was received into the Catholic Church. She had well predicted the storm that her conversion would raise among her Protestant relatives and friends. Being ostracized from them, Elizabeth started teaching in order to support her family. Anti-catholic sentiment was so strong that after the conversion of her sister-in-law, threats were made to have Mrs. Seton expelled from the State by the Legislature, so Bishop John Carroll invited Elizabeth to Baltimore where she opened a school for girls. When others joined in her endeavor, Elizabeth founded a religious community, the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph in Emmitsburg, Maryland, based on the Rule of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. Against her will and despite the fact that she had also to care for her children, Elizabeth was elected superior. The fervor of the community won admiration everywhere. The school they founded for poor girls turned into the foundation for the entire parochial education system in the United States--an education system which long predates the government schools. In that first parochial school, Elizabeth Ann Seton trained the Sisters to become teachers and wrote the textbooks, all the while continuing her work to assist the poor, sick, and Black populations.
Mother Seton had great facility in writing. Besides the translation of many ascetical French works for her community, she has left copious diaries and correspondence that show a soul all on fire with the love of God and zeal for souls. Great spiritual desolation purified her soul during a great portion of her religious life, but she cheerfully took the royal road of the cross. After suffering for a long time with tuberculosis, Elizabeth Ann Seton died on January 4, 1821, at the age of 47. Her last message to her Sisters was, "Be children of the Church." She was canonized by Pope Paul VI on September 14, 1975, the first American-born Saint.
The hallmark of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton was her love of the will of God. Hers was not just a submission to His will, but a real love for it. In her own words, "God has given me a great deal to do and I have always and hope always to prefer His will to every wish of my own. . . . Oh how sweet it is there to rest in perfect confidence."
From articles by Sister M. Elizabeth Ann McCullough, R.S.M., The Catholic Encyclopedia, and Dave Kopel at www.pitt.edu.