Elizabeth Bayley Seton, foundress of the Parochial School System in the United States was born in New York City on August 28, 1774 just six days before the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. She was the daughter of Dr. Richard and Catherine Bayley. Dr. Bayley later became the first health officer of the Port of New York and a professor of anatomy at Kings College (now Columbia University).
Elizabeth Ann Bayley grew up in New York when the City was under siege by the British. That she was a child of New York, growing up with the City and the Country, cannot be denied. The Bayley family and their friends can be traced in landmarks – streets, areas and buildings throughout New York City, the Bronx, Westchester and Richmond. In 1794 at the age of 19 she married William Magee Seton, son of a wealthy New York shipping merchant. They lived in lower New York -- one of their homes on State Street in Battery Park is now the official New York shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. The marriage of Elizabeth and William was blessed with five children. It was a happy marriage but doomed to be brief. Within the next eight years the Seton shipping business declined, both Dr. Bayley and the elder Seton died and William's health began to fail. In an effort to restore him to health, Elizabeth and William went to Italy in 1803 taking their eldest child. However, William died in Italy in December and Elizabeth Seton at the age of 29 was a widow in a foreign land. A wealthy Italian family, the Filicchis, close business and family friends of the Setons, did what they could to console her. She lived in their home for three months -- and for the first time became intimately acquainted with Catholicism. Always deeply spiritual, Elizabeth Seton was profoundly impressed with the devotion and faith of the Filicchis.
When she returned to New York after a year of prayer and discernment, she horrified her family and friends by her decision to become a Catholic. From old St Paul’s Episcopal Church to St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church was but a few blocks - but the decision to leave St. Paul's and be received into St. Peter's cost Elizabeth Seton both family and friends.
The next few years were filled with hardships for the young widow. To support five children was not easy. The entire Seton fortune had been lost and Elizabeth was penniless. Several attempts to earn a livelihood were failures - due to the hostility her new religion had brought upon her.
An opportunity to open a school in Baltimore now presented itself and on June 9, 1808 Elizabeth Seton and her five children left New York City. In Baltimore the School succeeded and in a short time Elizabeth Seton not only started the parochial school system in the United States but founded the first American religious order, The Sisters of Charity.
In 1817, Mother Seton, as she as then known, sent three Sisters of Charity to her beloved New York to the Roman Catholic Asylum on Prince Street. Today, the Sisters of Charity continue to work there in Saint Patrick School, thus completing 175 years of service to the children of New York. Our own parish school is illustrative of the great gift she bequeathed to the church.
On September 14, 1975 Elizabeth Seton was canonized in Rome by Pope Paul VI the first native-born American Saint.