St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church has been a staple of the Summerlin area for years. Catholics are familiar with the name, but perhaps not many outside the religion realize that Elizabeth Ann Seton’s deeds affected all of society.
She was born Elizabeth Ann Bayley on Aug. 28, 1774, in New York City. The second child of a socially prominent couple, Dr. Richard Bayley and Catherine Charlton, Elizabeth was raised in an influential Episcopalian family.
She was 3 when her mother died. A baby sister died the following year. Seton’s father remarried, and his second wife was Charlotte Amelia Barclay. Charlotte became active in the social programs of the church, visiting the poor and bringing them food and clothes. She would take the young Elizabeth with her on these trips.
When Elizabeth was 19, she married a wealthy businessman, William Magee Seton. He was 25. They began a family and had five children: Anna Maria (Annina), William II, Richard, Catherine and Rebecca Mary.
Elizabeth told her sisters, “The first end I propose in our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner he wills it; and thirdly, to do it because it is his will.”
Soon after the turn of the century, tragedy struck. Her husband’s business failed, and he contracted tuberculosis and died in 1803. Elizabeth was left an impoverished widow with five small children to raise alone.
Although raised Episcopalian, Elizabeth felt drawn to Catholicism. She was among the founding members of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children and served as its treasurer. She converted to Catholicism in 1805. It was a move that alienated her from her strict Episcopalian relatives.
As a way to support her family while ensuring her children got a proper education, Elizabeth opened a private school in Boston. It was a secular institution, but she ran it almost as though it was a religious one.
Seeing her success, the archbishop had her establish a Catholic girls’ school in Baltimore. History recognizes it as the beginning of the parochial school system in America. To help run it, Seton founded the Sisters of Charity in 1809, the first female American religious community.
Seton involved herself in work through that group, seeing to the needs of the sick and poor. She helped establish the first American Catholic orphanage.
She once wrote a friend, Julia Scott, that she would prefer to exchange the world for a “cave or a desert … But God has given me a great deal to do, and I have always and hope always to prefer his will to every wish of my own.”
Seton died of tuberculosis in 1821. She was 46.
At the time of her death, the community had grown to 50 and operated in 20 locations. Today, six congregations of Sisters trace their roots to her work.
Her remains are entombed in the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Md.
Seton was canonized in 1975 by Pope Paul VI.
While she is not the only woman to be named a saint — Joan of Arc of France is the probably the best known — she was the first American woman to be honored that way.
The Rev. Bede Wevita, who took over as head of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton church, 1811 Pueblo Vista Drive, about two years ago, said he has prayed to Seton many times, asking for her assistance with a need or a situation and that she has come through.
Many people speak to the school she founded, and indeed the Summerlin-area church has a school component, but Wevita said Seton was more than that.
He said he regards her act of taking care of the poor as most admirable.
“Because, as Christians, we have responsibilities … when we do something for others, we believe that we are doing it for Christ,” Wevita said.
Is Elizabeth still relevant today?
“Yes, because of the school system,” Wevita said. “… She influenced the country to train teachers, and she wrote textbooks.”
Victoria Bentley is past state regent for the Catholic Daughters of the Americas Court. Her home court is Elizabeth Ann Seton and she said she was introduced to the saint as a child through the church.
“You learned different saints, growing up,” she said. “I thought she had a lot of struggles and a lot of issues, which she overcame.”
What could we learn from her today?
“Just to never give up and to keeping going forward,” Bentley said.
Contact Summerlin Area View reporter Jan Hogan at email@example.com or 702-387-2949.