Elizabeth Seton was raised an observant Episcopalian in New York, but after she was widowed at age 29, with five young children while living in Italy, she was exposed to a tender Roman Catholicism that had an effect on her. She returned to the U.S. and converted two years later, then became a nun in 1809. Soon Seton and a few other nuns started America’s first sisterhood, the Sisters of Charity.
A wealthy Catholic donor named Samuel Cooper gave the church $10,000 and 269 acres near Emmitsburg, Maryland, to establish a home for the order. He continued to support its work for many years. A school for girls was launched—one of the first in the U.S. catering to needy children, and the foundation from which a vast network of American Catholic schools would soon grow. Seton taught, trained teachers, wrote textbooks, and later pioneered a new business model: admit some students whose parents could pay in order to subsidize students whose parents could not.
A whole string of other charitable entities developed simultaneously, including projects to aid the elderly and to help the poor find work. After assuming control of a Philadelphia orphanage in 1814, the Sisters of Charity began opening other orphanages. Then came hospitals, old-age homes, and settlement houses, all across the rapidly growing country.
Today the order has 1,246 sisters working in charitable establishments across the U.S. and South America. They run schools, nurseries, medical facilities, homes for the aged, and services for visiting the poor in their homes. In 1975, a century and a half after she died, Elizabeth Seton became the first native-born American to be canonized by the Catholic Church.
- Biography of Seton, emmitsburg.net/setonshrine/index.htm
- History of the order, famvin.org/wiki/Sisters_of_Charity_of_Saint_Joseph
- Joseph Dirvin, Mrs. Seton: Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975)