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Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Ann Seton’

A series on Nineteenth Century women who made a difference in society, following Christ by serving others must include Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton.

Elizabeth SetonElizabeth Seton founded the American Sisters of Charity in 1808 and served as the Mother Superior from 1809 until her death in 1821. At the time of her death there were more than twenty communities of Sisters of Charity. The sisters opened schools, built orphanages, boarding schools, and hospitals in 8 states and the District of Columbia.

Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born to a prominent Anglican family in New York on August 28, 1774. (2 years before the start of the American fight for independence.) Her mother died when she was only three and so her father raised her and her sister.

Elizabeth was bright, charming, fluent in French, a fine musician, and an accomplished horsewoman. She was popular wherever she went. She captured the heart of William Seton and they were married. They had five children and the marriage was a very happy one.

Sadly, after only a few years William began to suffer ill health. When his father died the Seton’s fortunes began to decline. William began to worry about being sent to debtor’s prison. Elizabeth was certain that God would provide. “Troubles always create a great exertion of my mind,” she wrote, “and give it a force to which at other times it is incapable… I think the greatest happiness of this life is to be released from the cares of what is called the world.” God would test Elizabeth’s resolve in overcoming the cares of the world again and again.

Elizabeth took care of her husband through his illness and bankruptcy. She had to take the children to live with her father for a time. Tragedy struck when the yellow fever came to New York and claimed Elizabeth’s father as a victim. She was grief stricken and lonely.

Elizabeth returned home to care for William. Elizabeth turned to her Bible to get comfort from God. In May of 1802 Elizabeth surrendered her life to God.

In 1803 a doctor suggested a sea journey for William’s health. Elizabeth sold everything to pay for the voyage. The Seton’s traveled to Italy to visit some friends. Unfortunately, when the boat arrived they were forced to stay in quarantine in primitive living conditions because they possibly carried the yellow fever from New York. Elizabeth later said that these were the most horrible forty days of her life. She nursed William but he died two days after Christmas in Pisa. He was only thirty-seven.

Elizabeth stayed with her Italian friends while waiting to return to America. Here she became deeply impressed with the Roman Catholic faith. For Elizabeth the Virgin Mary became a real person to her. Having been raised motherless, Elizabeth longed for a mother. When she decided to embrace the Roman Catholic religion Elizabeth said, “I felt really I had a Mother – which you know my foolish heart so often lamented to have in early days.” After finding Mary, Elizabeth felt that she had found even more than a mother, but a true friend as well.

Elizabeth returned to America. Her friends and relatives were mystified at her change of religion and did not give her much support. Elizabeth tried desperately to raise her family alone. Finally she opened a boardinghouse for schoolboys. After many struggles she was offered a home and a teaching position in Baltimore. She accepted and left New York for her new home in Maryland on June 8, 1808.

Within a year Elizabeth was given some property in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Here she, her sisters-in-law – Cecelia and Harriet, her three daughters, and four other young women founded the new religious order that would come to be known as the Sisters of Charity. The foundation began in a tiny log cabin in Emmitsburg. In the years that
followed orphanages and schools were founded. Women took the work to Philadelphia and New York, Ohio, Delaware, Massachusetts, Virginia, Missouri, and Louisiana, and the District of Columbia. Less than a decade after her death, the first Catholic hospital in America was established by the Sisters of Charity.

As the first Mother Superior of the new order, Elizabeth adopted the rules and with a few modifications the constitution of St. Vincent de Paul. The sisters received a group of buildings for their religious residence and charitable work. They had a boarding school for girls, a school for poor children, and an orphan asylum.

Elizabeth trusted and depended on God. She never let troubles get her down. She grew through her troubles. The excruciatingly horrible forty days of quarantine in a drafty cold stone building prepared her to have compassion on the poor and destitute. She never felt sorry for herself but trusted in God her Savior. Through all heartaches, deaths of her mother, father, and husband, poverty, and challenges as she started her charitable work she turned to God Who did not let her down but provided for her and often in unexpected ways.

Elizabeth worked tirelessly for twenty years and then slowly and painfully succumbed to tuberculosis. On her deathbed she offered prayers for the sick and dying. She was unselfish in her devotion to Christ and others right up to the end of her life. She died surrounded by Sisters on January 4, 1821.

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975.

Elizabeth was one of many Catholic women who contributed to the charitable care of the
poor in the nineteenth century. Before the Sisters of Charity went to Louisiana, theUrsulines health care Ursuline Sisters were already there. The Ursulines worked in a hospital in New Orleans in the eighteenth century. They founded Ursuline Academyan academy in 1727 for girls. It is still going today and is considered a foremost school. From there came the first female pharmacist. The Ursulines were the first in caring for and educating African-American girls before anyone else did.

Many Catholic women followed in Elizabeth Seton’s footsteps. Catholic hospitals were often the first institutions established on the frontier in the nineteenth century. The Sisters of Charity were invited to help at hospitals in Vancouver and other places in the Northwest. By 1902 there were eleven hospitals in Washington and Oregon. We thank God for women like Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton who will give their lives in service to others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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