If you would like to visit Elizabeth Seton’s New York, start with a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. It’s free, and it offers a view of New York City that takes you back in time to its beginning
In New York harbor you can picture the city as the earliest European explorers did, it’s a gem at its center. On its left the Hudson River flows to the north, on its right the East River flows out to the coast.
In 1524 Giovanni Verranzano came upon New York harbor–he thought it was a lake– searching for a passage to the Pacific. The Verranzano Bridge stands to the south at the entrance to the harbor today.
In 1609 Henry Hudson, exploring for the Dutch, sailed into the harbor and then up as far as Albany on the river that now bears his name. The Dutch realized how valuable this place was and made a small settlement on the island. They called their trading post New Amsterdam and traded with the many Indian tribes here and along the Hudson River. Before any Europeans came, numerous Indian tribes fished, hunted and traded here.
The English had their eyes on the place too and in 1642 took it over. New Amsterdam became New York, and it was under English control till the American Revolution in 1776.
Millions of immigrants have come through New York harbor since then. In the harbor you are looking at their gateway to the new world. The Statue of Liberty stands on the harbor’s western side along with Ellis Island, a major center for processing immigrants.
New York harbor also was the place where early New York City traded with the rest of the world. Elizabeth Seton and her family were closely connected to the harbor. Her husband, William Seton, invested in the ships that made New York one of the richest ports in the world. But ships were a risky investment; they brought handsome profits but they could also bring bankruptcy if they didn’t come in. The Setons experienced both the riches and the risk.
I suppose you could call William Seton one of Wall Street’s first venture capitalists. In 1801 the Seton’s went bankrupt after the loss of a ship at sea and the family moved to the rented house on State Street, our first stop off the ferry.
Elizabeth Seton’s father, Doctor Richard Bayley, was the first Health Officer for the Port of New York (1796); he dealt with many of the first immigrants and travellers arriving here.
His job was to keep New York City safe from disease, and one of his tasks was to keep travellers who were dangerous health threats isolated. So, quarantine stations were set up in the harbor for immigrants with yellow fever, cholera and small pox.
Within the harbor are some of the city’s early quarantine stations. Bedloe’s Island (1758-1796), Governor’s Island (1796-1799), Thomkinsville in Staten Island (1799-1858), just south of the St. George ferry station.
In the summer of 1801, Elizabeth was staying with her father at the Thomkinsville quarantine station when a boatload of sick Irish immigrants were brought in. She describes the dreadful conditions in a letter:
“I cannot sleep–the dying and the dead possess my mind. Babies perishing at the empty breast of the expiring mother…Father says such was never known before: twelve children must die for want of sustenance…parents deprived of it as they have lain for many days ill in a ship without food or air or changing…There are tents pitched over the yard of the convalescent house and a large one at the death house.” (Letter July 28, 1801)
That same year, Richard Bayley died from yellow fever contacted while caring for a boatload of Irish immigrants off Thomkinsville. He’s buried in the family plot next to the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew in Richmond, Staten Island.
Arriving back in the city you can see the Seton house and a shrine near the ferry terminal at the end of Manhattan Island where Elizabeth Seton and her family lived for a short time. Stop in for a visit; many mementoes of her are found there. Most of Elizabeth Seton’s New York years were lived in this early section of the city.
From Mother Seton’s shrine and house on State Street walk up Broadway to Trinity Church and then St. Paul’s Chapel, the Anglican parish she belonged to until her conversion to Catholicism in 1805. She lived her early years as a happily married woman with five children on Wall Street and Stone Street, close by these colonial churches.
As a devout Anglican, Elizabeth devoted herself to her family and to the poor. In 1797 she and other public-spirited church women began an aid society for destitute women and their children. “The poor increase fast: immigrants from all quarters come to us. And when they come to us they must not be allowed to die.” (Description of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows and Small Children.)
Looking eastward down Wall Street from Trinity Church on Broadway , you can see many of the founding institutions of America: the docks and slave market (no longer visible) on the East River the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal building, a short walk from Broadway, and finally Trinity Church and King’s College on the western side of Manhattan. King’s College built on lands belonging to Trinity Church became Columbia University after the Revolutionary War, and later relocated in northern Manhattan.
Our final stop visiting Elizabeth Seton’s New York is St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Barclay Street, near to World Trade Center. Here she was received into the Catholic Church. Notice the beautiful painting of the crucifixion above the altar. Elizabeth Seton mentioned how moved she was as she prayed before that painting after becoming a Catholic.
In June 1808, she left New York City with her family for Baltimore, where she founded a school on Paca Street, the beginning of the Catholic parochial schools system in the United States. Shortly after, Mother Seton moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland, where other women gathered around her and took vows as the Sisters of Charity. Her religious followers continued her work through schools, orphanages and hospitals found throughout the United States.
Mother Seton died at the age of 46 in 1821. She was canonized on September 14,1975. There’s a good biography of Mother Seton written by Catherine O’Donnell, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint, Blackstone, 2018