In 1810, Elizabeth Ann Seton began the first free Catholic school for girls in the United States in Emmitsburg, Maryland. It would become the model for the Catholic school system in our country. Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in August 1774 into a prominent New York City Episcopal family. Her mother died when she was three and she was extremely devoted to her father, who was a doctor, and her new stepmother who provided her religious education.
At age 19 she married William Magee Seton, the son of a wealthy shipping merchant. In quick succession she gave birth to five children, three daughters and two sons. In spite of her busy life, she managed to find time to engage in work with New York’s poor. She and her sister-in-law Rebecca Seton established a society for widows and poor children which led to them being called “the Protestant Sisters of Charity.”
Unfortunately, within the first ten years of their marriage, the Setons faced a harsh decline in both William’s health and their financial situation. They declared bankruptcy and were encouraged to travel to Italy in the hope of helping William’s health. Despite her efforts, William died two days after Christmas. After his death, Elizabeth met up with the Felicchis, family friends, who took in the widow and her daughter for a time. During this period, she was introduced to the Catholic faith. Upon her return to New York, she went ahead with plans to be confirmed a Catholic, even though doing so meant that she would be financially cut off by both her own and her husband’s family.
Attempting to support her family on her own, she opened a boarding school for boys, but when the parents discovered that she was Catholic, they withdrew the pupils. Elizabeth didn’t know what she was going to do. When the Archbishop of Baltimore asked her to begin a Catholic school for girls in that city, she welcomed the opportunity.
In 1809, Elizabeth, her three daughters, two of her sisters-in-law, and four other young women began the American foundation of the Sisters of Charity. It was an austere life, but eventually they were able to establish a permanent convent including a school, chapel, and workroom.
Beginning a Catholic School in 1810 was extremely challenging. Funds were always low. The sisters relied on the generosity of benefactors as well as the tuition from families who could pay to support their charitable efforts to educate poorer girls for free. The sisters struggled with educating students from various backgrounds with differing abilities. They had to deal with parents who questioned their methods. They did the best that they could under less than ideal circumstances. By the time Elizabeth died in 1821, the Sisters of Charity had begun five additional schools in Philadelphia and New York.
This is Catholic Schools Week, a time to celebrate Catholic schools and the wonderful people who have sacrificed to make them a reality during the past two hundred years. Through it all, the religious communities and lay people who have staffed Catholic schools have done the best they could to educate countless young people and help Catholic immigrants become part of American society. Yes, Catholic schools still face many challenges, many of which are the same that Elizabeth Seton and her Sisters of Charity had at the very beginning. The other fifty-one weeks of the year can be used to discuss the problems that Catholic schools face and work on solutions. This is a week to celebrate the tradition and to say a hearty “Thank You” to all the teachers and staff, religious and lay, who have sacrificed through the years and who continue to sacrifice to work in Catholic schools.