Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton – a devoted wife and mother, and later, an impoverished widow and struggling single mother – was the founder of the Sisters of Charity, the Catholic School System and many other institutions. She was the first American-born saint.
Elizabeth Seton was born in New York City on August 28, 1774, to devout Episcopalians, Dr. Richard Bayley and Catherine Charlton Bayley. Dr. Bayley taught surgery at King’s College (now Columbia University) and was the First Health Officer of New York City. At nineteen, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, a prosperous shipping merchant. Together they had five children. By 1803, the Seton shipping firm became bankrupt and William’s health failed. After a long sea voyage that he and Elizabeth took in order to improve his health, William died in Italy in late December of 1803.
The Filicchi family, Elizabeth’s friends from the shipping business, welcomed her into their home, where she encountered Roman Catholicism for the first time. Elizabeth returned to New York in 1804 and, against the wishes of her family and friends, she converted to Catholicism in the spring of 1805. Elizabeth’s family abandoned her and she became impoverished. To support her children, she began teaching. Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore soon invited her to establish a school. Through a ministry of education, she then formed a religious congregation known as The Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. In 1809, the Sisters of Charity moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland; by 1817, Elizabeth Seton was able to send three Sisters to St. Patrick’s orphanage on Prince Street in New York City. By the time of her death on January 4, 1821, Elizabeth had founded no less than 50 Catholic institutions, such as orphanages, schools and hospitals including St. Vincent Hospital in New York City.