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Back to School: Thank ... or Blame This Teen-age Bride

By Bill Dodds
A young widow and mother of five opened the first parochial school in the U.S. 190 years ago.

Catholic Channel - -

Every fall, over two million students in the United States go back to school in the thousands of Catholic parochial schools across the country.  Would you believe that this huge, widely respected Catholic school system in the United States began with the work of a widowed mom with five kids?

Students in the United States heading off to Catholic schools this month can thank—or blame—a teenage bride.

Elizabeth Bayley was 19 when she married William Seton in 1794.

Her dad was a professor of anatomy at Columbia College and an official for the Port of New York health authorities. Her mother was the daughter of an Anglican minister.

Up until her marriage, she had led a pretty pampered life. There was no reason to think that would change. William was a successful merchant. The Setons, like the Bayleys, were upper-crust society.

But in 1798 her father-in-law died. Then her own dad passed away two years later. By 1803 William’s business had hit hard times and he, too, was seriously ill. The family went to Italy, hoping the climate would restore his health.

It didn’t. William died in Pisa two days after Christmas.

Now Elizabeth Bayley Seton—age 29—was a widow with five children.

A little help from her friends

The young mom and her little ones survived because some of William’s business friends helped out. But what they offered was more than food and shelter. Their generosity and the example they gave of family life encouraged Elizabeth to take a closer look at their religious beliefs.

For the first time, Elizabeth came face to face with Roman Catholicism.

After returning to the United States in 1804, the young mom became a Catholic. It was a decision that cost her dearly because of strong anti-Catholic sentiment in the newly-founded country.

At that time, in that place, among that level of society, such conversions were unheard of.

Elizabeth decided to eke out a living by teaching. She opened a boarding school, but her family and their friends tried to have her driven from the city. They were upset not only by her conversion but by her sister-in-law’s, too. Later, another sister-in-law would also join her.

Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore invited her to start a girls’ school there. In 1808 she opened one next to the chapel of St. Mary’s Seminary. Soon, other women asked to be a part of the new venture. The community became the Sisters of Charity. Mother Seton was elected the first superior.

In 1809 the sisters moved to Emmitsburg. The following year they opened a school for the local children, the first parochial school in the United States.

America’s saint

It wasn’t easy for the fledgling group. One sister-in-law died in December 1809; another four months later.

Two of Elizabeth’s children also passed away: Annina in 1812 and Rebecca in 1816.

Elizabeth died on January 4, 1821. She was 46.

Beatified in 1963, Mother Seton was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975. America’s first native-born saint is buried in Emmitsburg at the national shrine named for her.

The legacy

The teenage bride, young widow, single mom, brave convert, and educational pioneer has quite a legacy.

Last year there were more than 2.6 million students enrolled in Catholic elementary, middle, and secondary schools throughout the United States.

Copyright © 2000 Bill Dodds

To take a tour of the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, click on:

Considering a job in a Catholic school? Go to: and click on “Job Bank.”

Interested in Seton Hall University’s upcoming basketball season? (The school was founded in 1856 by Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley who named it for his aunt.) Zip over to:

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