By Patricia Smith
Forty years ago on September 14, 1975, Pope Paul VI canonized Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint. As he proclaimed the words “Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is a Saint!” the world rejoiced and paid homage to God for the good works Mother Seton accomplished in her lifetime.
Elizabeth Ann Seton lived 46 years (1774-1821), many of which were filled with suffering and sorrow. As a young child, Elizabeth lost her mother and newborn sister, Catherine. When her father remarried, she was rejected by her stepmother and went to live with her aunt and uncle. Years later, along with the early death of her 35 year old husband from tuberculosis, she endured the deaths of her daughters Anna Maria at age 17 and Rebecca Mary at age 14; 18 Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg; and her beloved sisters in law, Harriet and Sister Cecilia Seton.
As a devout member of the Church of England in New York, her conversion to Catholicism led to a contentious break with her family, as well as becoming a social outcast among friends and neighbors. As members of her society distanced themselves, Elizabeth garnered new relationships that propelled her forward in discerning God’s will. John Carroll, the first American Catholic bishop, and Reverend Louis William Dubourg, Society of Saint Sulpice, invited Elizabeth to Baltimore. It was their hope that she would take on the role of mistress for a small school for religious education for children.
She answered their call to service and spent a year as school mistress in Baltimore. Eventually, Elizabeth was called to create a sisterhood modeled on the French Daughters of Charity, a community founded in Paris in 1633 by Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Louise de Marillac. On March 25, 1809, she pronounced vows of chastity and obedience to Bishop John Carroll in the chapel at Saint Mary’s Seminary on Paca Street in Baltimore. On June 16, Mother Seton and her Sisters of Charity appeared in public for the first time dressed in black dresses, capes and widow’s bonnets.
When Samuel Sutherland Cooper, a wealthy sea captain from a prominent Virginia family, purchased 269 acres of land in Saint Joseph’s Valley in Emmitsburg, Maryland with plans to build an educational and spiritual institution for girls, Mother Seton and her band of sisters traveled and established their new home. They then became the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph’s. By February 1810, they opened Saint Joseph’s Free School and by May also offered students an education at Saint Joseph’s Academy. Both schools formed the basis for Catholic education in the United States.
She died on January 4, 1821, in the White House at Saint Joseph’s Valley, near Emmitsburg, Maryland, where her remains lie in the Basilica of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.
The road to canonization was smooth, but slow. On February 28, 1940, 58 years after the first statement of intent, Pope Pius XII signed the Decree of Introduction of her Cause. In 1957, the Sacred Congregation of Rites approved the documentation of the Cause. On December 18, 1959, Pope John XXIII declared her Venerable Elizabeth Ann Seton. In 1961, two of the mandatory four miracles accepted by the Holy See included: the cure from acute, lymphatic leukemia of Ann Theresa O’Neill, a young child and the cancer cure of Sister Gertrude Korzendorfer, DC. When her beatification on March 17, 1963 proclaimed her Blessed Elizabeth Ann Seton, a third miracle was accepted: the recovery of Carl Kalin from a rare form of encephalitis.
On September 14, 1975, as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims lined Saint Peter’s Square for the solemn canonization of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Holy Father called to mind her sanctity, faith, and commitment to God’s Will. Her rich legacy endures today as we welcome and celebrate the 40th anniversary of her sainthood.