Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

The Patron Saint of Grief

Portrait of Elizabeth Seton holding prayer beads.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton—also known as Mother Seton— is the patron saint of grief. She experienced the deaths of many loved ones in her own life—including her husband and two of her five children and suffered other significant losses, as well. Elizabeth went from enjoying wealth to struggling with poverty and from celebrating debutante life with society friends to being ostracized by people for her faith. As she went through the grieving process each time, she chose to move closer to God rather than farther away from him. As a result, God worked through her life to use her grief to accomplish good purposes. Elizabeth ended up founding the first Catholic schools in the United States, establishing the Sisters of Charity religious order to help poor people, and becoming the first American Catholic saint.

A Wealthy Early Life

In 1774, Elizabeth was born in New York City. As the daughter of the respected doctor and college professor Richard Bayley, Elizabeth grew up in high society there, becoming a popular debutante. But she got a taste of grief's suffering, too, when both her mother and her younger sister died during her childhood.

Elizabeth fell in love with William Seton, whose family ran a successful shipping business, and married him at age 19. They had five children (three daughters and two sons) together. All went well for Elizabeth for about a decade, until William's father died and the shipping business began to fail despite the family's hard work.

A Reversal of Fortune

Then William became ill with tuberculosis, and the business continued to decline until it went bankrupt. In 1803, the family traveled to Italy to visit friends in the hope that the warm climate might improve William's health. But after they arrived, they were quarantined for a month in a cold, damp building because they had arrived from New York, where there was an outbreak of yellow fever, and Italian officials had decided to hold all visitors from New York for that time to make sure they weren't infected. William's health declined still further while in quarantine, and he died two days after Christmas—leaving Elizabeth a single mother with five young children.

Moved by Compassion

The friends that the Seton family had traveled to visit took Elizabeth and her kids in, showing them so much compassion that Elizabeth was moved to explore their Catholic faith. By the time the Setons returned to New York in 1805, Elizabeth converted from the Episcopal Christian denomination to the Catholic one.

Elizabeth then started a boarding house and school for poor Catholic immigrants, but the school soon went out of business because she couldn't get enough support for it. After talking with a priest about her desire to start Catholic schools, he introduced her to the bishop of Baltimore, Maryland, who liked her ideas and supported her work to open a small school in Emmitsburg, Maryland. That was the start of the U.S. Catholic school system, which grew under Elizabeth's leadership to about 20 schools by the time she died in 1821, and expanded to thousands in the years afterward.

The Sisters of Charity religious order founded in 1809 by Elizabeth—who was known for her leadership work there as Mother Seton—still continues its charitable work today, by operating schools, hospitals, and social service centers that serve many people.

Losing More Family and Friends

Elizabeth continued to work tirelessly to help others even as she continued to deal with the deep pain of grief in her own life. Her daughters Anna Maria and Rebecca both died of tuberculosis, and many of her close friends and family (including fellow members of her Sisters of Charity order) died from various illnesses and injuries. She said about grief:

“The accidents of life separate us from our dearest friends, but let us not despair. God is like a looking glass in which souls see each other. The more we are united to him by love, the nearer we are to those who belong to him.”

Turning to God for Help

The key to handling grief well is to communicate often with God through prayer, Elizabeth believed. She said,

"We must pray without ceasing, in every occurrence and employment of our lives, that prayer which is rather a habit of lifting up the heart to God as in a constant communication with him."

Elizabeth prayed often, and when urging others to pray frequently, she reminded them that God is close to the brokenhearted and cares deeply about the sorrow of grief. She said:

"In every disappointment, great or small. Let your heart fly directly to your dear Savior, throwing yourself in those arms for refuge against every pain and sorrow. Jesus will never leave you or forsake you."

Miracles and Sainthood

Elizabeth became the first person born in the United States to be canonized as a saint in the Catholic church in 1975 after three miracles attributed to her intercession from heaven were investigated and verified. In one case, a man from New York who had prayed for Elizabeth's help was cured of encephalitis. The two other cases involved miraculous cancer cures—one for a child from Baltimore, Maryland, and one for a woman from St. Louis, Missouri.

When canonizing Elizabeth as a saint, Pope John Paul II said of her:

"May the dynamism and authenticity of her life be an example in our day, and for generations to come, of what women can and must accomplish[...] for the good of humanity."
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Your Citation
Hopler, Whitney. "Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, Hopler, Whitney. (2020, August 27). Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. Retrieved from Hopler, Whitney. "Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton." Learn Religions. (accessed March 25, 2023).