Elizabeth married at the age of twenty and became an active philanthropist. In 1797 she was one of the founders of a society designed to help poor widows with small children. Her own husband died in 1803, leaving her with five children.
Two years later Elizabeth horrified her Protestant relatives by becoming a Catholic. But the rector of St. Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore, asked her to start a school there. This marked the beginning of the Catholic system of parochial schools in America.
In 1809 Elizabeth invited four friends to found a new religious community, the Sisters of St. Joseph. They opened a school for the poor close by Emmitsburg in Maryland. By 1812 the small community had grown to nineteen and was accepted as an official order, with Elizabeth Seton as its first superior. She took her vows as a nun in 1813. Her inspiration spread and when she died nearly two dozen sister communities had been founded.