St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native born American to be canonized by the Catholic Church. Born two years before the American Revolution, Elizabeth grew up in the “cream” of New York society. She was a prolific reader, and read everything from the Bible to contemporary novels.
In spite of her high society background, Elizabeth’s early life was quiet, simple, and often lonely. Having lost her mother at the age of three, she was deeply attached to her physician father. As a young girl, she experienced the ups and downs of adolescence, imagined now and then that her father did not love her (there was a stepmother), and on one melancholy occasion she fantasized ending it all. As she grew a little older, the Bible was to become her continual instruction, support and comfort; she would continue to love the Scriptures for the rest of her life.
In 1794, Elizabeth married the wealthy young William Seton, with whom she was deeply in love. The first years of their marriage were happy and prosperous. Elizabeth wrote in her diary at first autumn, “My own home at twenty-the world-that and heaven too-quite impossible.”
This time of Elizabeth’s life was to be a brief moment of earthly happiness before the many deaths and partings she was to suffer. Within four years, Will’s father died, leaving the young couple in charge of Will’s seven half brothers and sisters, as well as the family’s importing business. Now events began to move fast – and with devastating effect. Both Will’s business and his health failed. He was finally forced to file a petition of bankruptcy. In a final attempt to save Will’s health, the Setons sailed for Italy, where Will had business friends. Will died of tuberculosis while in Italy. Elizabeth’s one consolation was that Will had recently awakened to the things of God.
The many enforced separations from dear ones by death and distance, served to draw Elizabeth’s heart to God and eternity. The accepting and embracing of God’s will – “The Will,” as she called it – would be a keynote in her spiritual life. Elizabeth’s deep concern for the spiritual welfare of her family and friends eventually led her into the Catholic Church.
In Italy, Elizabeth captivated everyone by her own kindness, patience, good sense, wit and courtesy. During this time Elizabeth became interested in the Catholic Faith, and over a period of months, her Italian friends guided her in Catholic instructions. Elizabeth’s desire for the Bread of Life was to be a strong force leading her to the Catholic Church.
Having lost her mother at an early age, Elizabeth felt great comfort in the idea that the Blessed Virgin was truly her mother. She asked the Blessed Virgin to guide her to the True Faith. Elizabeth finally joined the Catholic Church in 1805.
At the suggestion of the president of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore, Maryland, Elizabeth started a school in that city. She and two other young women, who helped her in her work, began plans for a Sisterhood. They established the first free Catholic school in America. When the young community adopted their rule, they made provisions for Elizabeth to continue raising her children. On March 25, 1809, Elizabeth Seton pronounced her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, binding for one year. From that time she was called Mother Seton.
Although Mother Seton was now afflicted with tuberculosis, she continued to guide her children. The Rule of the Sisterhood was formally ratified in 1812. It was based upon the Rule St. Vincent de Paul had written for his Daughters of Charity in France. By 1818, in addition to their first school, the sisters had established two orphanages and another school. Today six groups of sisters trace their origins to Mother Seton’s initial foundation.
For the last three years of her life, Elizabeth felt that God was getting ready to call her, and this gave her joy. Mother Seton died in 1821 at the age of 46, only sixteen years after becoming a Catholic. She was canonized on September 14, 1975.
As a pre-condition for canonization (sainthood), the Catholic Church requires a saint who has not been martyred to have performed at least two miracles. The Holy See recognized that this pre-condition was met by attributing three miracles to Elizabeth: Curing Sister Gertrude Korzendorfer of cancer, curing Ann Theresa O’Neill of acute lymphatic leukemia, and curing Carl Kalin of encephalitis.