St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is a woman of many firsts: she was the first native-born American saint, she established the first Catholic orphanage in the United States, and she founded the nation’s first Catholic free school for girls, considered a seed of the American parochial school system. Elizabeth also founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, a women’s religious congregation which soon after her death at the age of 46 had spread to communities across the nation, running orphanages and schools.
For all of this remarkable success in her short life, Elizabeth was known then and now as “Mother Seton,” which doesn’t merely reflect her formidable accomplishments as a religious community foundress and leader, but something else, too – her deep devotion to her children. Her first role as “mother,” in ways both large and small, helped prepare her to become the Mother Seton we remember today.
Contrary to the belief today that children hinder a woman’s success, Elizabeth never saw her children as an obstacle. Her remarkable work was largely motivated by the necessity of caring for them. Her children were what drove her efforts, not what stymied them.
Raised as a high-society Episcopalian, Elizabeth dined with the most illustrious men of her time – including the future President George Washington. Her world changed dramatically when she was widowed at 30. After her husband died of tuberculosis, she was left without means to support their five children. Her situation became more dire when she felt called to become a Catholic, a decision that would end many of her life-long friendships and the resources she had relied on to support her struggling family.
Keenly aware of meeting the needs of her children, the beleaguered Mrs. Seton departed from New York with her sons and daughters in tow and found a new home and employment among the Catholics of Baltimore through the friendship of Bishop John Carroll. The bishop of Baltimore offered her the opportunity to start a school in the city, which provided her family a home.
Despite her new responsibilities, Elizabeth made it clear that the needs of her children would always come first:
“[T]he dear ones have their first claim which must ever remain inviolate. Consequently, if at any period, the duties I am engaged in should interfere with those I owe to them, I have solemnly engaged with our good Bishop John Carroll, as well as my own conscience, to give the darlings their right, and to prefer their advantage in everything.”
Elizabeth referred to her children affectionately as “the darlings.” She took great delight in them and called them “marvels of perfection.” For her, motherhood was a joy, both in nurturing her children, but also educating them. From this first classroom, Elizabeth transitioned seamlessly from teaching five students of her own to taking on more than fifty students, first in Baltimore and then later in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Like every good mother, Elizabeth knew her limitations and worried about failing her children. She prayed, “I beg her [Mary] to pity us and guide us to the true faith if we are not in it, and if we are, to obtain peace for my poor soul, that I may be a good mother to my poor darlings.”
Since yellow fever and tuberculosis were rampant at the time, Elizabeth Ann kept her children on guard and aware of how passing this world is. When her eldest daughter Anna was just the tender age of eight, Elizabeth wrote her a letter warning her to always keep herself prepared for death.
Elizabeth’s devotion to her children was never more apparent than when death finally did make its way into her little family. Her eldest, Anna Maria, died of tuberculosis at 16. Elizabeth spent many months by her daughter’s bedside as she was slowly claimed by the same disease that took her father. Mother Seton grieved deeply afterwards.
“For three months after Nina [Anna] was taken,” Elizabeth explained, “I was so often expecting to lose my senses and my head was so disordered that unless for the daily duties always before me I did not know much of what I did or what I left undone.”
Sadly, the unbearable grief Elizabeth suffered may have prevented her from noticing the injury that would eventually claim the life of her youngest daughter, Rebecca, just four years later. Falling on ice, Rebecca injured her back or spine. When the damage finally became obvious, it was too late to save her. For nine weeks, Elizabeth held Rebecca day and night, “even eating my meal with one hand often behind her pillow while she rested on my knees – her pains could find no relief or solace but in her own poor Mother so happy to bear them with her.”
Despite the grief of losing both of her beloved daughters, and many members of her new community of women religious, Mother Seton carried on with tremendous success. Vocations to her community grew and continued to meet the needs of those who required the Sisters’ charity.
Mother Seton never lost sight of her role as a true mother to all who came to her in need. “I am at peace in the midst of fifty children,” she wrote. “I am as a Mother encompassed by many children of different dispositions… bound to love, instruct, and provide for the happiness of all, to give the example of cheerfulness.”
Mother Seton left the United States a tremendous spiritual legacy and offers all women a model for doing good in the world. When our culture tells us that children are an obstacle to our success, women like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton are strong reminders that our own legacies can be hewn out of our own motherhood.
CARRIE GRESS has a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. She is the editor of the online women’s magazine Helena Daily, and the author of several books, including her latest, The Antimary Exposed: Rescuing the Culture from Toxic Femininity (TAN Books, 2019).
This reflection was originally published in April 2019.