Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is the first saint born (1774) in what would become the United States of America. And it seems right that first US-born saint would be an exception to so many rules. She was born a Protestant. She was married and she was the mother of five children (with whom she was known to jump rope). She chafed at convention and wrote, “rules (and) prudence…are dreadful walls to a burning soul wild as mine.” She compared herself to “a fiery horse.”
Elizabeth Ann grew up watching her doctor father care for the poor in New York City. As a young wife, she followed her father’s example and established the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. She never dreamed she would soon join their number.
She was married and she was the mother of five children (with whom she was known to jump rope).
Elizabeth Ann’s husband, William, grew ill after his business failed. She devoted herself to his care and to the care of their children. When William continued to decline, the doctor suggested he go to Italy, in hopes the warm climate would speed his healing. The Seton family packed up and sailed to Livorno, where William died.
Alone in a foreign land, without family or friends and with very little money, Elizabeth Ann and her children found refuge in the home of a kind Italian family. She observed their life of charity and hospitality and decided that she wanted to emulate them in every way, including their lives as Catholics.
On Ash Wednesday in 1805, she walked into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, sank to her knees and prayed, “My God, here let me rest.”
Her heart may have rested, but her hands did not. She returned home and became a teacher in New York to support her children. Word of her gifts as a teacher spread to the bishop of Maryland, who asked her to come there and start a school for girls from poor families. She packed up her children and moved to a ramshackle home in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Though snow fell through the roof onto their beds as they slept, Elizabeth Ann and her family were happy there. Near Baltimore, she started the first Catholic school in the country.
Later, she and eighteen other women founded the Sisters of Charity, the first native-born Catholic women’s religious order.
It’s hard to imagine, reading her story, that she died so young, in her late 40’s.
If you live near a Catholic school, call the principal today and ask how you can help their work and mission. The school surely needs books for the library and tutors for students. Perhaps they need volunteer coaches or scout leaders. Honor Elizabeth Ann by joining her work to educate young Catholics.