Seton, Elizabeth Ann Bayley

Seton, Elizabeth Ann Bayley (1774-1821) First American Saint: Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in New York City on August 28, 1774. The Bayley family was Protestant, and belonged to the upper class of New York Society. When she was three years old, Mrs. Bayley died. Her husband, Dr. Richard Bayley, recognized that his daughter Elizabeth was extremely intelligent, and raised her to be independent and morally aware. Considered one of New York City's most beautiful debutantes, she married William Magee Seton, a rich young merchant, when she was nineteen. The couple had five children in the next eight years. Seton made time for her greatest interest - helping less fortunate people of New York City. She distributed food and helped find shelter and employment for those who were lacking. Her dedication to the poor and needy was so strong that she was called the "Protestant Sister of Charity." She and her friend, Isabella Graham, established New York's first charitable organization, "The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children," in 1797. Seton's husband became ill and faced serious financial problems. The two traveled to Italy with their oldest daughter, hoping that the trip would restore his health. A year later, in 1803, William Seton died, and Seton was a widow at the age of twenty-nine. While in Italy, Seton received consolation from the Roman Catholic Church. Upon her return to the United States, she joined the Catholic Church, alienating most of her Protestant family and friends. After unfortunate attempts to make a living, the church presented her with the opportunity to open a girl's school in Baltimore, Maryland. In the spring of 1809, Seton joined four others to form the first religious order in the United States, which they called the Sisters of St. Joseph. Seton was elected Mother Superior, and the school was moved to Emmitburg. After 1812, the order was called the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. The first years of the order were difficult, as Mother Seton trained Roman Catholic teachers; provided shelter and food for the poor children of the school and the neighborhood; and spent time in prayer and contemplation. She established the first Catholic orphanage, maternity hospital, and parish school. Seton continued to work for improved social welfare until her death, at the age of 46. The order she founded eventually grew to include thousands of women, as well as a national system of charitable and educational organizations. A college, Seton Hall College, was named after her. In 1963, Pope John XXIII beatified her (officially declared her to be enjoying the happiness of heaven, and thus eligible to receive religious honor). On September 14, 1975, she was canonized (declared a saint), the only native-born American to be so honored.