Elizabeth Seton: American Saint
By Catherine O’Donnell
Three Hills, an Imprint of Cornell University Press, 2018
552 pages, $36.95
To order: amazon.com
Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, the first native-born American citizen to be canonized, was born in 1774 in New York City, two years before the outbreak of the American Revolution.
The arc of her life went from her being a privileged member of New York’s exclusive Episcopalian establishment to creating the country’s first Catholic faith community, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, and helping to launch Catholic education in America. Her decision to become a Catholic was considered an act of daring and treachery against family and the Protestant society that was her milieu.
Her journey, told in an extensive new biography by Catherine O’Donnell, an associate professor of American history at Arizona State University, is a sparkling example of how saints can arise from the vicissitudes of their time. Elizabeth Seton: American Saint will be welcomed by those who are devoted to this American saint and by a new generation of Americans who may have overlooked her story.
When Elizabeth was born, there was no Catholic church in New York City. Catholic worship was illegal in many of the U.S. colonies because of a two-century-old prejudice handed down from England.
Anti-Catholicism at times broke out into violence. But the real nemesis of the faith was more prevalent in the attitudes of New Yorkers at the time. Catholic immigrants, so New York society believed, had bad hygiene, were superstitious and were generally a bad fit for the country because of their loyalty to the pope. “Dirty, filthy, red-faced” was how Seton’s own sister described Catholics.
Then, in 1806, the state repealed an odious law that prevented Catholics from holding public office unless they renounced their loyalty to the pope. This repeal set the stage for Seton’s conversion, but her journey to Catholicism was not obvious. She was a respectable Protestant but not particularly pious. She was charitable, though, working with a group to alleviate the suffering of the city’s poor widows and orphans, an activity that would help her in later years.
But her husband, Willam Seton, who had early success as a shipping merchant, was religiously indifferent. Likewise, Elizabeth’s father, Dr. Richard Bayley, was a man devoted to science. (Although, as the city’s first medical officer, he created New York’s first quarantine system.)
Then she met Rev. John Henry Hobart, a charismatic Episcopalian minister who lit the fire of faith inside her heart.
“Throughout her life, Elizabeth’s desire to feel God’s presence and her experience of institutional religion had existed,” writes O’Donnell. “Listening to Hobart, she felt for the first time that these two elements of religious life could and should be united.”
She became devoted to the sacrament of communion, which Hobart claimed allowed “Episcopalians priests to intercede with God on behalf of their flocks.” But Hobart rejected the idea of the literal transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ as “a barbarous superstition of the Catholics.”
All the same, Seton believed at this time that the Episcopalian faith was the true church, proclaiming the one Christ, the same church that Christ had established at the end of his earthly ministry.
Intellectually set in her ways, nonetheless, Seton began her journey into Catholicism after experiencing a personal tragedy. Like many at the time, her husband was being racked by tuberculosis, which was fatal in those days. The fact that his business had gone under and the family was nearly destitute likely did not help his health. In seeking to alleviate her husband’s suffering, Seton was advised to bring him to Italy, in the belief the climate would cure him. She and Will took one daughter, Anna, with them, leaving their other four children with family and friends.
To Seton’s shock, Italian authorities quarantined the family in a damp stone prison called a lazaretto. Will’s health deteriorated. Shortly after being freed, Will died in the Italian town of Leghorn.
Now 30, widowed with five young children and essentially broke, Elizabeth found God in a new way. From this low point, the seed of her Catholic faith began.
She and her daughter were taken care by the family of Antonio Filicchi, a former business associate of William’s. It may have seemed ironic to Elizabeth that she had fallen from the cream of New York’s Episcopalian society, which had nothing by scorn for Italian Catholics, to now being a widow in a foreign land with no financial means but in the tender care of those scorned Italian Catholics. (Author Joan Barthel, in an earlier biography of Seton called American Saint, noted the irony of the future saint’s situation in Italy. “In New York, Catholics were the despised immigrants, people who smelled bad; now Elizabeth found they could be her social equals, and then some.”) While waiting for weeks for the next ship heading home, Elizabeth encountered Catholicism in action for the first time — through the example of the pious Filicchi family who took care of her and her daughter. With this family, Seton and her daughter visited the ornate churches of Italy, witnessed the Latin Mass and, perhaps most importantly, developed a growing belief in the Real Presence.
Capturing the paradox of Seton’s conversion, O’Donnell writes of the future saint, “A lover of clarity felt the stir of mystery.”
Seton initially could not accept the idea of the Real Presence, but she found herself moved in a way that shook her Protestant sensibilities while attending Mass. For, O’Donnell writes, “as she kneeled in church … she could not shake off the thought she had witnessed a miracle.”
Back in New York a few friends supported her and her family financially, and she taught students under greatly reduced material circumstances in her home. She hoped her infatuation with Catholicism would fade once back home.
It did not.
Hobart, who was so important to Seton, waged a battle to keep her from leaving the Episcopalian nest. But the call of the Catholic Church was too strong. Many months after returning to New York, on March 14, 1805, she entered the Catholic faith at St. Peter’s Church, then the only Catholic church in the city.
She was eventually lured to Baltimore by members of the city’s deep-rooted Catholic establishment. It was in Baltimore that the first Catholic cathedral was built and the country’s first bishop, John Carroll, was named. Appreciating the unique gifts of this new convert, the faithful of this dynamic Catholic city had recognized that Seton’s presence would be a boon to the faith.
Soon a benefactor would give Elizabeth land and a home, in what was then the backcountry of Maryland, to create a Catholic community and school. Other women came to work with Elizabeth, and it was not long before Emmitsburg became the home of the Sisters of Charity, and Seton, in turn, became Mother Seton.
Many of the women, like Mother Seton, came from a life of comfort. Now they hauled water from a creek in the dead of winter. They went without even simple things that were once considered part of everyday life.
Soon Seton was calling herself a nun; and in a short time, the women began taking vows and a rule was developed to guide the new community.
For Seton, life in her community was an emotional juggling act: She had to make sure that her love of her own five children did not get in the way of her work guiding the women religious of the new congregation and maintaining a school for the children who came to the Sisters of Charity for a Catholic education. She also had to deal with more personal grief, as her two young daughters died in Emmitsburg.
Through it all, the Church and Mother Seton’s community grew in the soil of America. She was a key part of the beginning of the faith’s vibrant growth on new shores. Pope Paul VI proclaimed her a saint in 1975, canonizing her 154 years after her death.
In many ways, too, she represents the conversion experience of many who have been drawn over the centuries not to dogma but to mystery and a strong sense that the Catholic Church is the true faith.
When those tears flowed at her first Mass, in Italy, it was a sign that the lure of truth would never let go of her heart and soul.
“I will go peaceably and firmly to the Catholic Church,” she wrote when her decision to convert was made. “If [choice of] Faith is so important to our Salvation, I will seek it where the true Faith first began, seek it among those who received it from God Himself.”
Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.