January 4 is the feast day of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint. Elizabeth was born in New York City on August 28, 1774. She grew up in a well-to-do family and married William Seton, a wealthy young New York shipping merchant. Elizabeth had five children, enjoyed a privileged social position, and devoted herself to several charitable activities.
In 1803, her world came crashing down around her. William’s shipping business went bankrupt, and he developed tuberculosis. They sailed to Italy in search of a healthier climate, but William soon died. While waiting for passage back to the United States, Elizabeth stayed with an Italian family and was deeply impressed with their devout Catholic faith.
Elizabeth returned to New York with little money. She soon made a decision that made her life even harder – she decided to become a Catholic. It was a time in American history when Catholics often suffered great prejudice. Rejected by family and friends, she struggled to support her children.
A rector in Baltimore heard of her plight and invited her to establish a school for girls there. In 1808, Elizabeth embarked on a remarkable new life. Settling in Baltimore, she started the Paca Street School, the country’s first Catholic elementary school. A year later she founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, a religious community of women devoted to teaching and serving the poor. As the community grew, it opened schools and orphanages in New York and Philadelphia.
Elizabeth Seton died on January 4, 1821. By then the Sisters of Charity were spreading across the country. Today Seton’s legacy includes thousands of sisters who work in hundreds of schools, hospitals, and social service centers throughout the world. In 1975, the Roman Catholic Church declared Elizabeth Ann Seton a saint.