St. Isidore and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: Pioneers in Education - Seton Shrine

St. Isidore and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: Pioneers in Education

Although they lived many centuries apart, St. Isidore of Seville and Mother Seton were each leaders in the Church’s mission to preserve knowledge and expand education to all people.

At the risk of exposing myself as an official “old lady,” I will share that I am old enough to remember life before smartphones and the internet. At my first full-time job after college, I remember listening to a co-worker describe her family’s experience with setting up internet access at home. I listened to her description, but was still confused about what exactly this new “internet” thing was.

“What will you use it for?” I remember asking her.

“I’m still not sure,” she replied.

Well, the world has certainly gone on to find many uses for the internet in the short time that has passed since that conversation. For good or for bad, the internet has changed the way we work, learn, shop, and connect with others. Though I still sometimes feel nostalgic for handwritten letters and rotary telephones attached to the wall, I have to admit that modern technology has improved my life considerably.

When I was small, I used to browse the pages of the volumes that made up my parents’ Encyclopedia Britannica collection and marvel at the wealth of information they contained.

I often wonder if my children, and others who have never known a world without the internet, can fully appreciate what a powerful thing it is to have ready access to so much information at your fingertips.

But did you know that the modern concept of something like an encyclopedia or the internet as an all-encompassing source of information has its roots in ancient Catholic history? On April 4, we celebrate the feast day of St. Isidore of Seville, born in 560 AD, a Doctor of the Church and one who is sometimes called the “last scholar of the ancient world.”

St. Isidore was the first Christian to attempt to create a compilation of all the learning known to man, a work known as the Etymologiae. His book included not only summaries and digests of religious works and information, but secular knowledge as well. As such, Isidore’s “Etymologiae”—life’s accomplishment—is regarded as a precursor to more modern compilations like encyclopedias and the internet. For this reason, Pope John Paul II named Isidore the patron saint of the Internet and, in a 2008 General Audience, Pope Benedict XVI said of St. Isidore:

“The wealth of cultural knowledge that Isidore had assimilated enabled him to constantly compare the Christian newness with the Greco-Roman cultural heritage, however, rather than the precious gift of synthesis it would seem that he possessed the gift of collatio, that is, of collecting.”

Collecting, preserving, and organizing general knowledge is an essential part of education, and St. Isidore’s Etymologiae influenced generations of scholars from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton surely would have appreciated this great saint’s commitment to preserving knowledge with the goal of educating future generations.

Education was a cause near and dear to the heart of Mother Seton. Throughout her comparatively brief lifetime, she was devoted to providing access to education for those most deemed unworthy of education—poor, young girls who had few options for success in the world. The school she began, St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, which welcomed impoverished young girls and offered them a free education, was the first of its kind in the United States. St. Joseph’s Academy helped inspire was to become the American system of Catholic education which today serves over 2 million students, including many from disadvantaged families.

Though my parents long ago disposed of their collection of encyclopedias, I recently discovered that the Encyclopedia Britannica survives to this day in the form of a website instead of volumes of books. I was interested to read its description of St. Isidore’s Etymologiae: “an encyclopedia of human and divine subjects, was one of the chief landmarks in glossography (the compilation of glossaries) and was for many centuries one of the most important reference books.”

I also enjoyed reading the entry for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton which states that “Mother Seton and the sisters moved their home and school to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where they provided free education for the poor girls of the parish—an act later considered by many to be the beginning of Catholic parochial education in the United States.”

Throughout history, the Catholic Church and many of its great saints have been innovators in education, especially as an act of service to the poor and disenfranchised. Many of the American Catholic schools in operation today are sponsored by dioceses or were founded by religious orders devoted to providing opportunities for children living in poverty.

As the Church continues the vital work of education today, and as parents dedicate themselves to educating their children in matters of the faith, we can seek intercession from these two great saints:

St. Isidore of Seville and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, pioneers in the field of education, pray for us!

DANIELLE BEAN is a writer and popular speaker on Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. She is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest, and the author of several books for women including Momnipotent, You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast. Learn more at

This reflection was previously published. To read all of our Seton Reflections, click here.

Image: Public Domain

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