On this day in 1774, Elizabeth Ann Bayley is born in New York City. She went on to found the first Catholic school and the first female apostolic community in the United States. She was also the first American-born saint beatified by the Roman Catholic Church.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born to an eminent physician, Richard Bayley, who served as the first health officer of New York City. Her mother, Catherine, was an Episcopal minister’s daughter who died before Elizabeth’s third birthday, leaving three daughters. Her father remarried and had four additional children. At age 19, Elizabeth married a wealthy shipping magnate, William Magee Seton, with whom she had five children in quick succession. Seton’s health deteriorated after his financial holdings collapsed and he died of tuberculosis in Italy shortly before the couple’s 10th anniversary. Elizabeth’s eldest daughter followed her father to the grave nine years later.
Following these traumas, Elizabeth, who was raised an Episcopalian, received her first Holy Communion and became a Roman Catholic on March 25, 1805. Seton taught in order to support her family and believed in free education for all children, male and female. In pursuit of this goal, she founded the nation’s first Catholic school in Baltimore, which had been the capital of the Catholic colony of Maryland. The school, St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, would eventually become part of Mount Saint Mary’s University.
In 1809, Seton took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, along with the moniker “Mother Seton.” She then founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, also in Maryland. Her efforts to establish Catholic institutions in the new United States, protected by the Bill of Rights’ guarantee of freedom of religion, saw her beatified in 1963, and canonized in 1975. Seton Hall University in New Jersey was named in her honor.