Above: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
Image in the Public Domain
ELIZABETH ANN BAYLEY SETON (AUGUST 28, 1774-JANUARY 4, 1821)
Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity
In 2009 the General Convention of The Episcopal Church added St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to the denominational calendar of saints, expanded from Lesser Feasts and Fasts into Holy Women, Holy Men (2010), and now, in 2016, into A Great Cloud of Witnesses. Adding her to the list of commemorations might have surprised some, for she was a convert from The Episcopal Church to the Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, The Episcopal Church has never commemorated just Episcopalians.
Our saint was a cradle Episcopalian and a granddaughter (via her mother) of an Anglican priest. Her mother, Catherine Charlton Bayley, died when she was three years old. Elizabeth’s father was Dr. Richard Bayley, professor of anatomy at Columbia University and health officer at the Port of New York. Richard eventually remarried; he and his second wife raised their blended family devoutly. Our saint married Merchant William Magee Seton at St. Paul’s Church, New York City, on January 25, 1794. They had five children, two of whom she buried in time. Elizabeth founded the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. Then, when the fortunes of the family firm failed, the Setons found themselves struggling financially. In 1803, when the family was in Italy, William died of tuberculosis at Pisa. Elizabeth and her children remained in the country for a while, living with Roman Catholics, who befriended and supported her and her children. This made her amenable to Roman Catholicism. On Ash Wednesday 1805, in New York City, she crossed the Tiber River. Much ostracism followed, but Elizabeth and her family had the financial and spiritual support of certain Roman Catholics.
In time Elizabeth found her vocation. In 1809 she took vows and became the leader of seven sisters; they were the charter members of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. The following year, on donated land in Emmitsburg, Maryland, they opened a school for impoverished girls. This was the first Roman Catholic parochial school in the United States of America. The work of the order expanded under our saint’s leadership. For example, sisters went to work in orphanages in Philadelphia and New York City. Elizabeth would have been happy for another woman to serve as the Superior of the order, but she performed her duties faithfully until her death–of tuberculosis, like that of her husband–at Emmitsburg, on January 4, 1821.
The order continues to perform its many good works.
On a related note, our saint’s half-brother, James Roosevelt Bayley (1814-1877) was another convert to Roman Catholicism. He had been an Episcopal priest. Then he converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1844 he became a Roman Catholic priest. Seven years later he became the first Bishop of Newark. Then, in 1872, he became the eighth Archbishop of Baltimore.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
NOVEMBER 12, 2016 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINT JOSAPHAT, ROMAN CATHOLIC ARCHBISHOP OF POLOTSK, AND MARTYR
THE FEAST OF SAINT FRANCES XAVIER CABRINI, FOUNDER OF THE MISSIONARY SISTERS OF THE SACRED HEART
THE FEAST OF RAY PALMER, U.S. CONGREGATIONALIST MINISTER AND HYMN WRITER
THE FEAST OF WILLIAM ARTHUR DUNKERLEY, BRITISH NOVELIST, POET, AND HYMN WRITER
Holy God, you blessed Elizabeth Seton with your grace as wife, mother, educator, and founder,
that she might spend her life in service to your people:
Help us, by her example, to express our love for you in love of others;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
2 Esdras 2:15-24
—Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 157