The First Native-Born American Saint, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, Spent Time in Pelham
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During the late 1700s, Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, the first native-born American canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, spent portions of her childhood in a lovely home that still stands at 145 Shore Road, partially in Pelham Manor and partially in New Rochelle. The 18th century colonial farmhouse has been expanded and incorporated into a larger residence that is located next to the service station at the intersection of Pelhamdale Avenue and Shore Road.
I have written before about Pelham's Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton. See Bell, Blake A., Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton's Time in Pelham, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 30, July 30, 2004, p. 9, col. 1.
The original portion of what came to be known as the Kemble House was built before the Revolutionary War, likely in about 1750. It was the main farmhouse on a 102-acre farm owned by British Loyalist John Pell. John Pell's land included the mainland section off Hog Island (now known as Travers Island).
With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, John Pell's loyalist estate was confiscated and, in the 1780s, was sold to William and Sarah Pell Bayley. (Local historian and Pelham Manor resident Mark Gaffney has done a great deal of research regarding the lands that comprised John Pell's 18th century farm.) William and Sarah Pell Bayley, it turns out, were the Aunt and Uncle of Elizabeth Ann Bayley who later became Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in New York City on August 28, 1774. Her father, Richard Bayley, became the first Professor of Anatomy at Columbia University. Her mother, Catharine Charlton, was the daughter of Rev. Richard Charlton, Rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Staten Island.
Shortly after Elizabeth was born, her father left for England for advanced medical studies. He returned to America in the midst of the Revolutionary War as staff surgeon to British General Sir Carleton.
The family was Loyalist and maintained a residence in New York City during the War. Elizabeth’s mother died on May 8, 1777 when Elizabeth was not even three years old. According to those who have studied Elizabeth’s life, this cut “short her father’s career as an army surgeon”.
Two years later Richard Bayley remarried. He married Charlotte Amelia Barclay, daughter of Andrew Barclay and Helena Roosevelt whose father has been described as “the founder of the Roosevelt dynasty in America”. Elizabeth and her sister Mary, however, reportedly “suffered from their father’s frequent absences and the indifference of their step-mother”.
Perhaps as a consequence, at about this time, the two girls began spending time with Richard Bayley’s brother and sister-in-law, William and Sarah Pell Bayley, at the farmhouse known today as the Kemble House. According to one account, she spent an entire year in the home at the height of the War when she was eight years old and spent other long periods including many summers in the home. See Saunders, James B., ed., THE PELHAM MANOR STORY, p. 45 (Pelham Manor, NY: Privately Printed, 1991). See also Daughters of Charity Archives, Mother Seton’s Life in New York, undated typewritten manuscript, p. 1 (copy in the collection of The Office of The Historian of the Town of Pelham) (“She and her sister Mary spent long intervals at the farm of their Uncle William Bayley in New Rochelle. In fact, Elizabeth spent her entire eighth year of life there.”).
Later in her life, Elizabeth even wrote about her girlhood days in Pelham, recalling that in 1789 and 1790:
“I delighted to sit alone by the waterside, or wander for hours on the shore singing and gathering shells. Every little leaf and flower, or insect, animal, shades of clouds, or waving trees, were objects of vacant, unconnected thoughts of God and Heaven.”
Source: Daughters of Charity Archives, Mother Seton’s Life in New York, supra, p. 1 (citing “Remembrances” written by Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton).
On January 25, 1794, at the age of nineteen, Elizabeth married a young New York financier named William Magee Seton, a member of a wealthy Scottish shipping family. For a time, she traveled in New York social circles and was the Belle of the Ball. During the fall of 1797, Elizabeth took on the cause of widows and orphans in New York City by helping to found the “The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children.”
A short time later, however, Elizabeth’s happy life changed. Her father-in-law died, leaving her and her husband to care for her husband’s seven younger brothers and sisters as well as her own three children. Her husband’s business began a rapid decline until its bankruptcy in late 1800.
Elizabeth and Will Seton had two more children for a total of five. At about this time, Elizabeth and those with whom she worked for the poor of New York City were being referred to as the “Protestant Sisters of Charity”.
In December 1803 Elizabeth suffered a devastating personal loss. Her husband, Will, had contracted tuberculosis. On a trip to Leghorn, Italy intended to improve his health, Will died and was buried in Pisa. While in Italy, Elizabeth reportedly was profoundly affected by her exposure to the Roman Catholic faith. Upon her return to New York, she joined the Church of Rome, making her profession of faith in old St. Peter’s, Barclay Street, on Mar. 14, 1805.
Her conversion reportedly estranged her from friends and family who attempted to dissuade her from her new found faith. According to one of her many biographers:
“After several vain attempts to support herself in New York, in June 1808 she accepted an invitation to open a school for girls in Baltimore. Guided by the Sulpician Fathers at St. Mary’s Seminary, she conducted classes in a house on Paca Street, and there, in the spring of 1809, with four companions, formed the community which adopted the name ‘Sisters of St. Joseph.’ In the summer they moved to Emmitsburg [Maryland]. They adopted with some modifications, the rules of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, and after 1812 were known as the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. This first native religious community was destined to number more than ten thousand women and to conduct a nation-wide system of charitable and educational institutions, among them the country’s first Catholic orphanage, its first Catholic hospital, and its first maternity hospital.”
Source: Code, Joseph B., "Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton" in DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN BIOGRAPHY, Base Set, American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936, Reproduced in History Resource Center (Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group).
On March 25, 1809, Elizabeth took her first vows and received the title “Mother”, becoming the first superior of the Community. As such, Mother Seton prompted her sisters to open the earliest American parish school which they located in Philadelphia.
The process for the canonization of Mother Seton began on August 22, 1882 when James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, “was inspired to initiate the Process for the Cause for Canonization”. The process ended on September 14, 1975 when she was canonized in Rome by Pope Paul VI. Among those who attended the ceremony in Rome from Pelham were the Rt. Rev. Msgr. Vincent W. Jeffers of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Mrs. Robert Cremins and her daughter, Patricia.
In short, Pelham has a Saint. She is Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, a patron saint of: the death of children, in-law problems, loss of parents, opposition of church authorities, people ridiculed for their piety, widows and parochial schools.
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