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The term saint conjures up legend-laden biographies and sanitized persons from the dim past. But Mother Seton did not live out her life in a cloister. Born in New York in 1774, she was Betty Bayley Seton, a socialite who read Voltaire, prayed in French and danced at George Washington's 65th-birthday ball. She was also a devoted wife, mother of five children and volunteer charity worker. But then her husband's fortunes and health failed. Two years after he died of tuberculosis in 1803, she scandalized her family and friends by converting from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism. After moving to Maryland, she entered the service of the church, forming the first native American order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity. By opening a Catholic free school and developing its curriculum, she also laid the foundations of the U.S. parochial school system.
"I'm emotionally caught up in this," said one visitor to Rome, Mrs. Dow King Jr., of Austin, Texas. "Mother Seton has helped my family in serious illnesses. We feel that as the first American saint, she is the answer to peace." Some Catholics are less enthusiastic. To Joel Wells, acerbic editor of The Critic, the event is an ill-fated attempt by the Vatican to "lift the sagging morale in the U.S. church." To some Sisters of Charity, the canonization is a nod to women's lib, for Mother Seton was a spirited and independent woman. "If I were a man, all the world should not stop me," she wrote three years before she died. "I would go straight in Xavier's footsteps, the waters of the abyss and the expanded sky should be well explored." Says Sister Patricia Noone of The Bronx, N.Y., a member of Mother Seton's order: "With a spirit like that, she might even survive canonization."
<footnote>*Some recognized saints were foreign missionaries to what is now the U.S., and one. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini. canonized in 1946. was a naturalized citizen. </footnote>