The Bishop of Newark decided to name the university after his very holy aunt.
When secular universities are founded, they are often named after someone of local significance. Harvard University, for example, is named after John Harvard, an early benefactor of the school. For Catholic universities, they are usually named after a Catholic saint. Notre Dame is an example of a university named (in French) after the Blessed Mother.
In 1856 the recently established Diocese of Newark was looking to found its own university. Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley, the first bishop of Newark (relative of President Theodore Roosevelt), was behind the project and needed to come up with a name.
Instead of naming it after the Virgin Mary or a well known saint, Bayley decided to name the school after his deceased aunt. Her name was Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton and she had died 35 years earlier on January 4, 1821.
Mother Seton was well known at the time, as she founded the first congregation of religious sisters in the United States and is regarded as the founder of the Catholic parochial school system in the United States.
Her family was also an influential one in America. Her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, “was the first professor of anatomy at Columbia College and eminent for his work as health officer of the Port of New York.”
Bishop Bayley named the university after Mother Seton more than 20 years before her cause for canonization was even considered. It wasn’t until 1880 that the initial steps were taken and Mother Seton was eventually beatified in 1963 and canonized in 1975.
Bayley recognized the holiness of his beloved aunt and wanted to ensure her memory was preserved in some way. Seton Hall is now known as a premier college in the US and attracts students from around the world … all the while bearing the name of someone’s aunt, who only recently was recognized a saint.