The American Catholic Almanac, co-written by Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson, is a daily reader of American Catholics who changed the United States. It tells of Catholics who stepped foot on this soil long before the American founding, through the early years of the nation, and to the present day, visiting all kinds of people and places in between. Saints and sinners appear alongside heroes, children, politicians, athletes, and artists who all have one thing in common: their Catholic faith. To be released on September 30. Pre-order now to get your copy!
Every Thursday in September leading up to The American Catholic Almanac’s release, we will post a sneak preview of that day’s entry! Today, we tell the story of Elizabeth Ann Seton, our country’s first saint.
In 1805, Elizabeth Ann Seton left the Episcopal Church and became Catholic. In the mind of the world, that decision made little sense.
Three years earlier, in 1802, the business of her husband, William, failed, leaving the once wealthy and prominent couple nearly destitute. The following year, William died of tuberculosis. At 29 years old, Seton was a widow with five young children to support and no means to do so. She did have prosperous friends and relatives to whom she could turn, but she knew she would lose their support if she became Catholic. Conversion meant alienating those in the best position to help her.
But Seton was convinced of the Church’s claims. After her husband’s death, she spent nearly a year with friends in Italy and came to love the Catholic Faith. Motherless since childhood, Seton found comfort in her new relationship with the Virgin Mary, and she longed to receive the Eucharist. So, she risked everything and converted, trusting that God would provide.
At first, it was rough going. Friends cut her off. Family members isolated her. And rampant prejudice prevented her from founding a school in New York. She did succeed in opening a boardinghouse for schoolboys, but as word of her conversion spread, parents removed their children and the enterprise failed.
In 1808, however, at the invitation of the Sulpician priest (and future bishop) Father Louis William DuBourg, Seton moved her young family to Baltimore to open a Catholic school for girls. There, with DuBourg’s help, Seton devised a plan to both keep her children and live the religious life for which she longed.
She embarked on that plan in 1809, leaving Baltimore for Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she founded the first American religious order for women— the Sisters of Charity— and opened the first free Catholic school in the country. Her order grew rapidly, eventually giving rise to six separate congregations.
Mother Seton died of tuberculosis in 1821. When Pope Paul VI canonized her 154 years later on September 14, 1975, she became America’s first native- born saint.