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The Inspiring Legacy of Life:
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

Sister Betty Ann McNeil, DC,
Archivist, Emmitsburg Province

setonUntil June 22, 1809, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton's life was combined with happiness, uncertainty, and challenge. She was offered a teaching position in Baltimore, Maryland, which she accepted. It was here that her life changed once more. Her inspirational story is a legacy that lives on today in the many people who are devoted to her.

Elizabeth Ann Bayley's life began on August 28, 1774, in New York. Born to parents Dr. Richard Bayley and Catherine Charlton, her life was influenced by her family's allegiance to Great Britain. They provided her the foundation for her faith devotion in the American Episcopal Church.

Her early life was changed by the death of her mother. Elizabeth Ann was one of three daughters. Born in 1774, Elizabeth joined siblings Mary Magdalene (1768-1856) and Catherine (1777-1778). It is believed that Elizabeth's mother probably died in childbirth; her infant died the next year. Dr. Bayley remarried and his new wife, Charlotte Barclay Bayley, increased this blended family by seven more children. Charlotte's favoritism of her own children over her older step-daughters influenced the formative years of Mary and Elizabeth.

As family problems persisted, Elizabeth Ann found comfort in writing. Her father's marriage dissolved, and he seemed to have been more involved in his profession than parenting. Young Elizabeth Ann was lonely and melancholy, and faced periods of depression with thoughts of suicide during adolescence. Journaling, music and enjoying God's gifts of the seashore, shells, and nature helped her to cope.

Love and happiness entered Elizabeth's life when she met and soon married William Magee Seton (1768-1803), on January 25, 1794, in lower Manhattan. She wrote of her new home: "My own home at 20-the world-that and heaven too, quite impossible!" She and William were blessed with five children: Anna Maria (1795), William (1796), Richard (1798), Catherine (1800), and Rebecca (1802). Together they enjoyed the politics, and social life and events of the day, and were devotees to the fashionable Trinity Episcopal Church.

Elizabeth read the Bible faithfully. She and her closest friend were drawn to pious devotion and were frequent communicants. Their piety led them to be active in parish activities, most notably social ministry outreach, nursing family, friends, and needy neighbors. Elizabeth was a founding member of The Society to Assist Poor Widows with Young Children (1797). Little did Elizabeth dream that in a few years, she also would be on the brink of abject poverty.

The Seton family experienced still another crisis when a serious financial crisis befell the family's business in 1798. Elizabeth's husband, being the eldest son, was responsible to provide for the care and education of his minor half-siblings. Elizabeth and her family temporarily moved into the Seton household and discovered her talent for teaching. She wrote: "it has been only a pleasure." Six weeks later the elder Mr. Seton died.

A new challenge fell on the family as the family's mercantile firm began suffering financial difficulties as a result of piracy on the seas. Elizabeth assisted by taking care of the company's account books at night on her 19th century laptop, the writing desk. The Seton-Maitland Company went into bankruptcy, and the Setons lost their home.

Soon after, William Magee Seton's health began failing. With her husband and eldest daughter, Anna Maria, they sailed to Livorno (Leghorn), Italy, in 1803. Here they hoped that the mild Tuscan climate on the Tyrrenian Sea would help restore his health. The Italian authorities placed the Seton's in quarantine, fearing that his illness may be the dreaded yellow fever, then raging in New York. The living arrangements in the lazaretto were quite unsuitable to William's failing health. Despite their friends' efforts to improve his situation, William Magee died at Pisa two weeks after his release. Elizabeth Ann was widowed at age 29 with five young children and in a memoir (The Italian Journal) for her sister-in-law, Rebecca, Elizabeth wrote of her husband's illness and death: "Tuesday morning 27th December (1803) his soul was released-and mine from a struggle next to death."

Friends of William Magee, the Filicchi family of Livorno, welcomed Elizabeth and Anna Maria (now called Annina) into their home, providing hospitality until they could return home. During this visit Elizabeth learned about Roman Catholicism through the religious heritage and culture of Italy.

Elizabeth returned to New York and struggled with her grief, religious beliefs, her strained financial situation, as sole parent to her five children, ages one to eight years. Out of necessity they moved frequently to lower income housing. During her time of religious discernment, she struggled in heart-rending indecision, as she had to deal with the pain of opposition from family and friends.

Elizabeth's enduring trust in God helped her to make a decision. She to professed her faith and made her first communion at Saint Peter's Catholic Church on Barclay Street in March of 1805. The next year John Carroll, first bishop of the United States, confirmed Elizabeth on Pentecost Sunday, May 25. Elizabeth "added the Name of Mary to the Ann Elizabeth, which present the three most endearing ideas in the World-and contain the moments of the Mysteries of Salvation." Thereafter, she frequently signed letters as "MEAS."

Struggles, disappointments, and failures continued. She taught school for a brief time until the school failed and next operated a boarding house for boys, which also ended in failure. Life for Elizabeth would soon change.

French Sulpician priests, who had fled to the United States during the French Revolution, wanted to expand educational programs for girls in Baltimore, Maryland. Reverend Louis Dubourg and Elizabeth met in New York, and he invited her to Maryland. the Sulpicians offered to assist her in "forming a plan of life, and establish a small school for the promotion of religious instruction."

This plan of life would evolve life for Saint Elizabeth. Elizabeth trusted all to Divine Providence as her understanding of mission evolved. By mid-June 1808, Elizabeth became school mistress for a small girls' boarding school, located beside Saint Mary's College and operated by the Sulpicians on Paca Street.

The Sulpicians recruited prospects for the new sisterhood. Cecilia Maria O'Conway, from Philadelphia, was the first candidate who presented herself for the new community.

A wealthy convert and seminarian, Samuel Sutherland Cooper, financed the purchase of land where the Daughters of Charity reside today. Cooper's plan included: "establishing an institution for the advancement of Catholic female children in habits of religion and giving them an education suited to that purpose . . . [and] extending the plan to the reception of the aged."

By March 25, 1809, Elizabeth pronounced religious vows for one year. With the title, Mother Seton, bestowed on her, she wrote once more of her life: "But to speak the joy of my soul at the prospect of being able to assist the poor, visit the sick, comfort the sorrowful, clothe little innocents and teach them to love God!"

By June 1809, Mother Seton left Baltimore for a valley, which she affectionately named Saint Joseph's Valley, in the Catoctin Mountains. The old Fleming farmhouse (known today as the Stone House) near Emmitsburg, became the site for the foundation of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph's, July 31, 1809. With the community growing, Mother Seton's community moved in mid-February 1810, into the new "house in the field," Saint Joseph's House, known today as The White House. The Sisters launched their educational initiatives. Candidates for the new sisterhood began arriving: Sally and Ellen Thompson of Emmitsburg, and since then many familiar local names, including: Brawner, Chrismer, Cool, Crumlish, Goulden, Hobbs, Keepers, Peters, Rider, Roddy, Sanders, Stouter, Timmerman, Topper, Welty, Wivell, and Zurgable. Over seven thousand women since have come to Emmitsburg to join the Sisters and Daughters of Charity.

Elizabeth was elected the first Mother of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph's, until her death in 1821. The Sulpicians remained involved in its government through 1850, when the community at Emmitsburg formally united with the Daughters of Charity of Paris, France. It was Mother Seton who assured that all candidates were formed according to the spirit of Louise de Marillac and Vincent de Paul, who's Common Rules of the Daughters of Charity she adopted for her community, after their modification for the American culture. The most significant change in the Rule made education of female children a primary thrust of the mission of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph's.

Elizabeth Seton was a mother and teacher. In her words:

I am as a Mother encompassed by many children of different dispositions - not all equally amiable or congenial, but bound to love, instruct, and provide for the happiness of all, to give the example of cheerfulness, Peace, resignation, and consider individuals more as proceeding from the same Origin and tending to the same end than in the different shades of merit or demerit.

Reverend John Dubois, superior the Sisters of Charity, and Reverend Simon Brut became icons of "The Mountain" and "The Valley," making great contributions to the formation of the Sisters of Charity and their ministries. The people of Emmitsburg rallied around Father Dubois when there was danger of the Mount closing, and raised $8,000 to $10,000 cash for him to purchase the Mount Seminary, if he would not leave them in 1818.

Recent research on the Seton legacy, offers a fresh approach to the founding story of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph's, popularly called the American Sisters of Charity. The story of the Vincentian Family in North America is a journey of faith beginning with Mother Seton. It is a story full of human frailty, feelings, and dreams similar to what Vincent de Paul told the first Daughters of Charity, "I did not think of it; nor did your Sister Servant (local superior),you're your director. God thought of it for you. . . .and is. . . is the author of your Company."

Mother Seton referred to her community, as a "mustard seed,"-small and insignificant but with growth potential, which was "planted by God's hand in America." The Company of Charity in the North America developed as it did because of the historical context, which influenced its decisions at each stage of its growth. Our bicentennial logo was created from the 'mustard seed, and embraces the Seton Legacy of today.

As her spiritual daughters continued her legacy of education and service, Mother Seton's reputation for sanctity spread. The summer of 1882, Archbishop of Baltimore, James Gibbons (later Cardinal), visited Emmitsburg and suggested that her Cause for Canonization be begun. The Archdiocese of Baltimore launched the investigation. All documents were sent to the Vatican in 1940 and her cause made steady progress.

Two miracles required for beatification were approved in 1961. Through Mother Seton's intercession, Sister Gertrude Korzendorfer, a Daughter of Charity in New Orleans, was cured of pancreatic cancer. A four year old child, Ann Theresa O'Neill of Baltimore, was cured of acute, lymphatic leukemia. A third cure of Carl Kalin, New York, from a rare form of encephalitis was also declared miraculous. On September 14, 1975, during the International Year of the Woman, Pope Paul VI proclaimed the sanctity of Mother Seton, who became not only a devout convert but who was also a poet, musician, linguist, mystic, and woman for all seasons. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton offers a model of Christian living for all ages:

Let your chief study be to acquaint yourself with God because there is nothing greater than God, and because it is the only knowledge which can fill the Heart with a Peace and joy, which nothing can disturb.

Today's Continuing Legacy

The Daughters of Charity continue Mother Seton's mission through their ministries locally and globally: Saint Euphemia's School, Saint Joseph's High School, Saint Joseph College, Saint Joseph College High School, at Emmitsburg among others. The Daughters of Charity continue to offer services to our own community: The Seton Center Outreach Program, The Thrift Shop, Saint Catherine's Nursing Center, Mother Seton School, and the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

The Seton Legacy Garden adorns the hallowed grounds as a reminder Elizabeth Ann's love for nature. Located near the Stone House, a beautiful statue of Elizabeth with Children, is adjacent to a small water feature and adjacent to a berm containing an 1827 cistern used during the Civil War. The bricked pathways with inspiring texts are a lasting memorial and a beautiful testament to our loved ones.

A Short History of the Sister's of Charity

A Short History of St. Joseph College for Women

Have your own memories of the Sisters of Charity?  
If so, send them to us at history@emmitsburg.net