Historical Perspectives on Elizabeth Seton and Education: School Is My Chief Business

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Ann Seton--the first native-born U.S. citizen to be canonized--and her passion for education are the subjects of this historical essay. Implications for contemporary educational leaders are also discussed.


Born an Episcopalian in New York, Elizabeth Ann Bayley (1774-1821), married (1794) William Magee Seton (1768-1803). Blessed with three daughters (Anna Maria, Rebecca, and Catherine Charlton, called "Kit") and two sons (William and Richard), the couple briefly enjoyed the comforts of social status and prosperity. They opened their arms to care for extended family members, providing counsel and mentoring for the youngest Seton in-laws. To Cecilia Barbara (age 11), Elizabeth wrote a letter of spiritual advice prophetic of her future mission:

   Let your chief study be to acquaint yourself with God because there
   is nothing greater than God, and because it is the only knowledge
   which can fill the Heart with a Peace and joy, which nothing can
   disturb. (E. Seton, 2000, p. 214)

The Setons began to experience business losses, bankruptcy, and tuberculosis which threatened William Magee's life in 1798. The parents and eldest daughter desperately embarked on a sea voyage to Italy on October 2, 1803, in hope of regaining his health. Arriving at Livorno, authorities feared his disease was yellow fever, which was then raging in New York. The Setons were quarantined in the lazaretto. William Magee's death on December 27, 1803, thrust his widow, at age 29, into circumstances that changed her life and history.

The Filicchi family, business associates of the Setons, befriended Elizabeth and extended gracious hospitality to her during their stay in Italy. Accompanied by Antonio Filicchi (1764-1847), Elizabeth and Anna arrived in the United States on June 4, 1804. From the Filicchi family, Elizabeth learned about Roman Catholicism. After returning to the United States, the young widow converted to Catholicism (1805), struggled unsuccessfully to support her family in New York, and moved to Maryland (1808). Invited initially by Reverend William Dubourg, S.S. (1766-1833), Elizabeth began a school for girls in Baltimore. Through the generosity of Samuel Sutherland Cooper (1769-1843), a wealthy seminarian from Philadelphia who provided the property, Elizabeth moved to the Catoctin Mountain region of central Maryland in 1809. It was near Emmitsburg that she began the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph's, the first native community for religious women, founded in the United States on July 31, 1809. In 1812, Mother Seton adopted a modified version of the Common Rules of the Daughters of Charity (1646/1995) developed originally by Saint Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) and Saint Louise de Marillac (1591-1660) in Paris for their Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Sick Poor. Canonized in 1975, Elizabeth Ann Seton is the first native-born United States citizen to be declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.


The identity and location of the first Catholic school located within the present boundaries of the United States is unknown. Certainly, the Spanish Franciscans and French explorers would have preached and taught indigenous children. European chaplains probably conducted basic classes for ships' apprentices and native children in North American ports.

More formal Catholic education dates to about 1606 when Franciscans opened a school at Santa Fe de Toloca (Saint Augustine, Florida), to teach children reading and writing along with Christian doctrine. Somewhat later, Jesuits in the North instructed native pupils, including Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), in New York and the vicinity of Montreal. On the Pacific coast, Father Junipero Serra inaugurated the first of the California missions at San Diego in 1769.

Although a pioneer Catholic educator of the early 19th century, Elizabeth Seton was neither the first to establish a Catholic school nor the founder of the parochial school system in the United States (Maynard, 1941). …