The first native-born American to be canonized by the Catholic church was Elizabeth Bayley Seton.
Elizabeth was born to wealth and status in New York, on August 28, 1774, the child of Episcopalians committed to philanthropy to the poor. Her mother, Catherine Charlton, was the daughter of the rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal church on Staten Island. Her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, was a physician and professor of anatomy at King's College (later to become Columbia University). Elizabeth's mother died when she was only three years old, and her father saw to her upbringing and education. She attended private school in New York City and was encouraged to read from her father's large library. As a child she was taught an ethic of service to the sick and those in need, and led a quiet and bookish youth, reading widely and taking special pleasure in the Bible.
Deeply in love at age 20, she married William Magee Seton, a wealthy young shipping merchant, and they became parents to five children, two sons and three daughters. Her yearnings toward service led her to found the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, which brought her the reputation as "the Protestant Sister of Charity" -- and, tragically, foreshadowed her own future.
William went bankrupt after many of his company's ships had been sunk in war, and soon was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He traveled to Italy with Elizabeth and their eldest daughter, Anna, in hopes of finding a cure in the warmer climate. Shortly after their arrival, in December of 1803, William Seton died, leaving Elizabeth in dire straits. The "Protestant Sister of Charity" now depended on the charity of family friends, the Filicchis, a Catholic Italian family.
The consolation and faith of the Filicchis intrigued Elizabeth and drew her to Catholicism. Upon her return to America, she took instruction and became a Catholic on March 14, 1805, over the strident protests -- and in some cases rejection -- of her family and friends.
Widowed, penniless, and isolated, Elizabeth faced not only the rejection of family and friends, but also of society overall. Her founding of a school in New York was sabotaged when anti-Catholic sentiment led parents to withdraw their children. She then opened a boarding house, where she supervised and cooked and sewed for fourteen boys attending school in the city. Working night and day, she eventually was invited to Baltimore by a priest there who had learned of her struggles. There she opened a school for girls, which flourished.
Over the next year, Elizabeth attracted around her several Catholic women committed to service, and in 1809, she took religious vows. Her community and school moved to Emmitsburg, near Baltimore, taking the name Sisters of St. Joseph. From then on, Elizabeth was known as Mother Seton.
Her community adapted and then adopted the rule of the French Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and became known as the Daughters of Charity of St. Joseph. By its third year, the community included twenty nuns, among them Elizabeth's sisters-in-law, Harriet and Cecilia. The Order expanded to open a home in Philadelphia in 1814, to staff an orphanage in Emmitsburg, and open its own orphanage in New York City.
Mother Seton wrote textbooks, translated books from French to English, and composed and published hymns and spiritual discourses. She and the Daughter of Charity of St. Joseph are considered the originators of the parochial school system in America. By the time of her death, on January 4, 1821, the twelve-year-old Order had swelled to twenty houses throughout the country. Descendant communities now staff hospitals, child-care centers, elderly homes and care facilities for the handicapped, as well as schools at every level. Their presence has spread not only through North America, but also South America, Italy and in mission countries.
When Pope Paul VI declared her a saint on September 14, 1975, over one thousand nuns of her Order were present.