Elizabeth Ann Bayley was the daughter of a successful doctor and professor of anatomy at Columbia College in New York city. Her father had been a powerful man of influence and generosity who had insisted upon raising his children--first with Elizabeth's mother who died when she was three, and secondly with his new wife--in the Church (specifically, the Episcopal church). She became the wife of William Seton--an affluent businessman--at the age of nineteen and had five children before tragedy struck the young family. Several lost ships meant the loss of the business that provided for their needs. On the heels of their impoverishment, William took ill.Elizabeth went with him to Italy when the doctors suggested he take a vacation for his health and was there when he died young and in a faraway land. She was taken in by a wealthy and loving Roman Catholic family that saw her tragic circumstances and wanted to breathe a little hope into an otherwise bleak situation.
While mourning and grieving, she began to have conversations with her magnanimous hosts and found herself becoming more and more connected to the parish they attended. Eventually, she became a Roman Catholic. Therefore, it was as a Roman Catholic that Elizabeth returned to the States--specifically Maryland--and tried to pick up the fractured pieces of what remained of her life. When she arrived in the States she expected to wade back into family relationships that would provide a loving embrace of support but found nothing to aid her.Her family relationships had soured with her change to Roman Catholicism and so she found herself an impoverished and grieving woman with five children to support in a hostile environment. It would have been easy to give up on what she believed and professed but, instead, she committed to do something incredible. She built a Roman Catholic school and supplied her family from the meager income it provided her. It seemed that a success story had been begun out of the ashes of destruction. But it failed.
The first school she started failed miserably because of anti-Roman-Catholic sentiment. Given all that had befallen her, it is amazing that she pushed on and somehow endeavored to establish the first free school in the United States. She found a life of charity and generosity to be fulfilling but also commanding. She provided free education in a system designed to inhibit it. It was an incredible feat but it seems that Elizabeth never knew just how impossible her calling was. Instead, she strove to do what it was that God had called her to do in spite of adversity and resistance. Religious orders and schools sprung up in the wake of her daring faith and hope and the world was changed ever so slightly for the better because of one grieving woman's efforts to provide not only for her own children but also the children and future of a nation. She died at the age of 46 at the hand of tuberculosis.