Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821), the first American woman to be beatified, founded the first American order of nuns, initiated the parochial school system, and established the first Catholic or phanage in the United States.
Elizabeth Bayley was born in New York City on Aug. 28, 1774, a daughter of Richard Bayley, health officer for the port of New York and professor of anatomy at King's College. The Bayley family were members of the Episcopal Church. Elizabeth grew up in fashionable New York society. In 1794 she married William Magee Seton, a prosperous New York banker and merchant. They had five children. Seton was so active in her aid to the sick, the poor, and the unfortunate that she became known as the "Protestant Sister of Charity."
In the fall of 1803 the Setons went to Italy to visit friends, the Filicchi family, who were prominent bankers and shippers. Mr. Seton, already ill, was seriously affected by the voyage and died in December. The Filicchis introduced Mrs. Seton to Catholicism, and Antonio Filicchi accompanied her when she returned to America in 1804. Despite the opposition of her close friend, the Episcopal minister John Henry Hobart, she joined the Catholic Church in March 1805.
For her conversion Seton was ostracized by New York society. She had difficulty in supporting her family, although Antonio Filicchi was generous in giving her aid. She considered going into a convent but followed the advice of Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore and did not do so. Father William Dubourg of Baltimore told her that he wanted to establish a school in that city, and in September 1808 she opened a boarding school for girls. She and her small group of assistants adopted the name Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. The rules of the order were similar to those of a French order, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. In 1809 the sisters moved to Emmitsburg, Md., to property which had been given the Church for use in the education of the poor.
The first winter in the new location was harsh. The house was incomplete and the food inadequate, but within a few months the school was thriving. Members of the group took over an orphanage in Philadelphia in 1814 and established orphanages and schools in New York and Philadelphia.
Mother Seton died on Jan. 4, 1821. She was declared venerable on Dec. 18, 1959, and was beatified on March 17, 1963.
Further Reading on Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton
Joseph I. Dirvin, Mrs. Seton: Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity (1962), is a detailed, scholarly biography, based on an impressive bibliography, including many primary materials. Leonard Feeney, Mother Seton: An American Woman (1947), is written in a somewhat popular style, but it contains excerpts from some of Seton's letters.