The “Firsts” at Mother Seton’s Canonization 45 Years Ago

Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton was canonized as the first American-born, United States-born saint. But there were other “firsts” at her canonization too.

This stained-glass window in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, depicts St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, American saint and founder of Daughters of Charity.
This stained-glass window in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, depicts St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, American saint and founder of Daughters of Charity. (photo: Nancy Bauer /

Sept. 14, 1975, was a banner day for the Catholic Church in the United States. Elizabeth Ann Seton, familiarly called Mother Seton, became the first American-born person to be canonized. She was born during America’s colonial period then was automatically a citizen of the new United States, so she’s also the first native United States saint.

That day included several other “firsts” as part of the canonization. Sister Betty Ann McNeil, who was present at St. Peter’s Basilica, vividly recalls them on this 45th anniversary year of Mother Seton’s canonization.

To set the scene, she described how as a young sister in the same Daughters of Charity congregation founded by Mother Seton, she got to go to Rome for this great religious occasion.

By the way, since that time she became an expert on Mother Seton, writing and speaking extensively on the saint, took part in the publication of her writings, and teaches courses on her at DePaul University.

She well remembers every part of that canonization from the start. “The day dawned with a beautiful blue sky, bright sun and no clouds — a result of prayers for good weather,” Sister Betty Ann began.

“Folding chairs filled St. Peter’s Square where the canonization was held. This was the first time seats had been provided for the crowds attending a canonization,” she says.

Next, “Sister Hildegardis Mahoney, General Superior of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth and Chair of the Sisters of Charity Federation, was chosen to proclaim the first reading at the Canonization Mass. This was the first time in history that a woman was lector at a papal liturgy.”

Then, what was surely a “first,” Sister Betty Ann recalled that “the gifts presented at the Offertory Procession were offered by representatives of the various roles Elizabeth Seton had in life: (1) Young Girl, (2) Unmarried Young Woman, (3) Wife, (4) Mother, (5) Widow and (6) Religious (consecrated life).

Finally, although maybe not quite a “first,” at that time it was customary to present the Holy Father with a gift at the canonization. But instead of a gift of something tangible such as vestments or a monstrance, Sister Betty Ann says, “The Sisters of Charity Federation chose to give Pope Paul VI a monetary offering to fight global hunger. Each congregation contributed according to their means. The sum was presented via a check from the Bank of New York, where William F. Seton, Sr. [St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s father-in-law], had been Cashier at its establishment by Alexander Hamilton in 1784.” Certainly that check — a $200,000 gift to a World Hunger Fund, specifically drawn on the bank not only her father-in-law but her husband, also named William, were associated with —was certainly another “first.”

If we really want to get super technical, words heard from the Pope were another “first” at that canonization. Sister Betty Ann has never forgotten them. She says, “The words of St. Paul VI still reverberate in my mind: ‘Elizabeth Ann Seton is a Saint! Elizabeth Ann Seton is a Saint!’”

And well before that day, the decree introducing Mother Seton’s cause for canonization that Venerable Pope Pius XII signed on Feb. 28, 1940, was the first time the Holy See issued an official document in English.

Personal Connection

How did Sister Betty Ann get to go to the canonization is a story in itself that harkens back to her own childhood. Divine providence surely was at work since then.

She reminds that Elizabeth Ann Seton was only a little girl when she lost her mother.

“I lost my father when I was very little,” Sister Betty Ann says. The saint’s father called her “Betty” and the family lived by the beach. Same for Sister Betty Ann. Before converting, Elizabeth Ann Seton was an Episcopalian. So was Sister Betty Ann’s mother. After her father died, Sister said her mother then went back to teaching and “found a school I could walk to, run by the Daughters of Charity.”

“I had heard stories about Mother Seton from the Daughters of Charity who taught me in Norfolk, Virginia,” she says, “Once we elementary students were asked to sign a petition being taken to Rome promoting her cause for canonization.” Remembering that St. John XXIII declared Elizabeth Seton’s heroic virtues and titled her, “Venerable Mother Seton” on Dec. 18, 1959, Sister Betty Ann says, “Surely the Pope was impressed by the signatures on the petition of the children taught by Sisters of Charity!”

Once older, she felt in answer to prayer God was calling her to a community. At the time Rome declared Mother Seton was to be beatified — it was March 17, 1963 — Sister Betty Ann was visiting Emmitsburg, Maryland, with a youth group.  She vividly remembers, “When the telegram arrived [in Emmitsburg], the bells of St. Joseph’s Valley and the Town of Emmitsburg peeled for about 15 minutes or more. When the bells began to ring, I was standing by the gravesite of Mother Seton, her daughters, and the first Sisters of Charity. That was a graced moment of awe and joy.”

Then Divine Providence and surely a helping hand from Mother Seton for the trip to the canonization.

Sister Betty Ann tells the story. “I had only been a sister about 10 years. The Daughters of Charity, Province of Emmitsburg, decided to send representatives from all age groups of sisters. Those interested in going to the canonization were asked to send their names to the provincial secretary who grouped them according to rank in vocation (length of time in community): 5-9 years; 10-14 years; etc. The senior sisters drew two names from each age group.”

“I won the lottery!” she exclaimed. “The idea was to share firsthand accounts of the canonization for generations to come.” Surely St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had a hand in this Sister Betty Ann namesake being picked to see her canonized. One result? Sister Betty Ann says, “I’ve been retelling stories of the life and legacy of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton ever since.”