Although Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was born in New York City on August 28, 1774, she has great appeal to people in our life today because of her various experiences: she married the man who filled her heart with love, bore five children, was widowed and disinherited, rich then poor … a teacher, a nun, a nurse, a social worker and finally a saint.
We first meet Elizabeth Ann Bayley, as the daughter of Catherine Charlton and Richard Bayley, a famous Colonial physician. At the tender age of three, she lost her mother along with her baby sister. Elizabeth’s father remarried a year later and though “Betsy” was devoted to her father, he had little time to give her because of his medical practice, research, and the seven children he fathered in his second marriage. Her early childhood was lonely and unhappy.
Elizabeth turned to God who heard her prayers, turning the tide of her father’s affection. The two forged a new and delightful bond. He sent her to a private school and was careful to guide her in line with her spiritual inclinations.
Elizabeth grew into a charming young woman and — in the time of the American Revolution — took her privileged place in the fashionable High Episcopalian society of old New York. She was beautiful and fun-loving, wealthy, cultured and courted on all sides.
At 19, she married William Magee Seton, an educated, well-traveled and handsome young man, the son of one of New York’s wealthiest importers. Their love and devotion never wavered for one minute of their married life. God blessed them with three girls and two boys in their seven years together.
It was during this phase of Elizabeth’s life that she embarked on her career of public charity by forming the “Widows Society of New York”, one of the first charitable organizations in the city and probably in the United States. These women raised money for poor widows and nursed and comforted them. Elizabeth was beloved by all for her kindness to those in distress and for her constant willingness to surrender everything to God’s will.
Ideal happiness was hers for a very short time. One disaster after another began to fall. Her husband Will was a fabulous dancer, but a poor businessman. Under his control, the shipping business went bankrupt. He became depressed and desperately sick from tuberculosis. At the end of a long ill-advised sea voyage to Italy, he died with the name of the Lord on his lips and firm in the faith they would be reunited in heaven.
Thus began the third and final phase of Elizabeth’s life — as a widow and single parent with no money. While in Italy, Elizabeth was greatly influenced by her husband’s business friends, the Filicchi brothers. She began to comprehend for the first time the meaning of Catholic piety. The Churches of Florence were a revelation to her and she sensed in the absorbed devotion of the worshippers a “presence”. Eventually, she converted to Catholicism in 1805.
Elizabeth was encouraged to begin life anew in Baltimore, where she founded a school — the beginnings of the Catholic school system in America. The hope of establishing a religious community connected with the school was apparent from the start.
Family troubles plagued Elizabeth through the rest of her life including the death of her beloved sisters-in-law, the heartbreak over the teenage romance of her oldest daughter, Anna Maria, and the restlessness of her two sons. Eventually, Anna Maria took vows as a member of the Sisters of Charity, but she died of consumption in 1812. Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, Rebecca, died at the age of 14. Elizabeth bore all with great resignation.
“Sorrow is the seed of holiness” and somehow the sorrows of her life — and the strength with which she turned them to spiritual advantage — nourished a profound goodness within her.
She was also a real woman. Her moodiness, fits of temper and jealousy are described in her journals and letters.
About 1820 Elizabeth’s heart began to fail and her struggle with tuberculosis returned. She died on January 4, 1821 at the age of 46. Elizabeth’s last words were, “may the most just, the most high, and most amiable will of God be in all things fulfilled, praised and exalted forever”.
On September 14, 1975, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was canonized, becoming the first American-born saint.