Elizabeth Ann Seton letters
Held at: Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center [Contact Us]100 E. Wynnewood Rd., Wynnewood, PA
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), daughter of Richard Bayley (1744-1801), a prominent physician in New York City, and Catherine Charlton (d.1777), was raised in the Episcopal Church. At the age of nineteen, Elizabeth married William Magee Seton (1768-1803), a wealthy businessman. Five children were born to the marriage, Anna Maria Seton (1795-1812), William Seton II (1796-1868), Richard Bayley Seton (1798-1823), Catherine Charlton (Josephine) Seton (1800-1891), and Rebecca Mary Seton (1802-1816). In New York, Elizabeth was involved in charity work on behalf of the city’s poor.
Around the time that his business began to fail, William Seton’s health too began to suffer from the effects of tuberculosis, a family affliction. In 1803, following doctors’ recommendations, William, Elizabeth, and their eldest daughter, Anna Maria, went to Italy for a recuperative trip. The trip did not have the desired effect and William died after a time in quarantine in port at Leghorn (Livorno) in December of that year. That winter and into the following spring, Elizabeth and her daughter stayed with the Filicchis, a Catholic family. Apparently impressed by the piety of the Filicchis and their fellow parishioners, Elizabeth, upon her return to New York, converted to Roman Catholicism on March 14, 1805. Her decision resulted in three years of financial struggle and social discrimination.
At the invitation of several priests, she moved with her family to Baltimore in June 1808 to open a school for girls. Catholic women from around the country came to join her work. The women soon moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where they formally began their religious life as the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s July 31, 1809. Elizabeth Seton was named the first superior and maintained that position for the next twelve years until she too died from tuberculosis on January 4, 1821. Elizabeth Seton was canonized September 14, 1975 by Pope John Paul VI as the first native-born saint of the United States.
Philadelphia served as the first city outside Emmitsburg where the Sisters of Charity performed their mission work. In 1814 the order began to run St. Joseph’s orphanage. Philadelphia was also home to several leading Irish Catholic families from which some of the order’s earliest members came, including Cecilia O’Conway, Philadelphia’s first nun.
Cecilia Veronica O’Conway (1788-1865) became the first member of the American Sisters of Charity when she joined Elizabeth in Baltimore December 7, 1808. She was recruited by Rev. Pierre Babade, S.S. (1763-1846), one of the founders of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore, and a friend of Elizabeth’s who supported her idea of establishing a religious community. A teacher at St. Joseph’s Academy, Cecilia was elected treasurer of the community (1816 and 1817). She was missioned to New York in 1817 to work with the orphans, but returned to St. Joseph’s (1819) temporarily because of poor health. In 1823, Cecilia transferred to the Cloistered Ursuline community in Montreal.
Cecilia O’Conway came from an early and prominent Philadelphia Catholic family. She was the first child of Matthias O’Conway (1766-1842) and Rebecca Archer. Matthias emigrated from Galway, Ireland to the United States at age 17. He served in the United States army and settled in Pittsburgh where he became a linguist. Rebecca Archer, daughter of Robin and Maria Trainer Archer, wealthy Protestants from Dublin, was the sole heir of her father’s estate but was disinherited because of her conversion to Catholicism. After living for a time in New Orleans and Havana, Cuba, the family settled down in Philadelphia in 1799 where Matthias worked as a Spanish and French interpreter.
Matthias and Rebecca’s other children included Joseph Mary O’Conway (1789-1830), James (Matthias Santiago) O’Conway (1791-1812), Maria de los Dolores O’Conway (1794-1796), Isabella Editha O’Conway O’Madden (b. 1796), Anna Maria O’Conway Coad (1799-1882), Columbkille O’Conway (1801-1843) , Columbkille Matthias O’Conway (b.1804), Ignatius O’Conway (1807-1839) and Peter Irenaeus O’Conway (1809-1844).
This collection includes eight letters from Elizabeth Ann Seton to Matthias and Joseph O’Conway. Cecilia O’Conway’s decision to join the Sisters of Charity sparked a very close relationship between Elizabeth and the O’Conway family that lasted until her death. Several of Matthias and Rebecca’s children were sent to Maryland in order to receive their education from Elizabeth and the Sisters of Charity. Elizabeth was also the godmother of Peter Irenaeus O’Conway. Correspondence relating to the O’Conway family includes information regarding Matthias and Rebecca’s children. In particular, Cecilia O’Conway, specifically her health and mission work in New York, is discussed. The letters also include information about the Sisters of Charity’s development and mission work.
Also included is a letter from Elizabeth to her sister-in-law Rebecca Seton regarding members of the Seton family. Through these letters, Elizabeth provides insight into her spiritual development and religious philosophy.
All of these letters are transcribed in Elizabeth Bayley Seton: Collected Writings Volumes I and II (2000, 2002), edited by Regina Bechtle and Judith Metz. Drafts of these transcriptions are located in the first folder of the box.
Annotated editions of these letters can be found in Bechtle, Regina and Judith Metz. Elizabeth Bayley Seton: Collected Writings Volumes I and II. (New City Press, 2000, 2002).
The first five letters were also transcribed in Smith, Sarah Trainer, “Philadelphia’s First Nun”. Records of the American Catholic Historical Society 5, no. 4 (December 1894).
Accession number 1990.045
Digital reproductions of the Elizabeth Ann Seton letters are available at http://digital.library.villanova.edu/Item/vudl:246171
An earlier finding aid with scope and content note and item-level description is also available in hard copy at PAHRC.
Finding aid updated by Faith Charlton, Assistant Archivist, October 2010.
- Babade, Pierre, 1763-1846
- O'Conway, Joseph Mary, 1789-1830
- O'Conway, Matthias J. (Matthias James), 1766-1842
- O’Conway, Cecilia, 1788-1865
- Seton, Rebecca Mary, 1780-1804
- Archdiocese of Baltimore (Md.).
- Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.
- Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.
- Catholic Church--Maryland--Emmitsburg--History
- Catholic Church--United States--History--19th century
- Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Faith Charlton
- Finding Aid Date
- ; October 2010
- Access Restrictions
The collection is open for research.
These are transcripts of the letters produced for the published volumes by Regina Bechtle and Judith Metz