Narrating America’s First Saint

SetonWhen Elizabeth Bailey Seton arrived back home in New York in 1804, her life was akin to a maelstrom. She was returning from an extended trip to Italy, where she had hoped the temperate climate would heal her ailing husband. It didn’t work. William, her intellectual and spiritual companion, died shortly after their landing in Europe. His economic success had already died a couple years prior: he ran a successful trade with his father, but after his father’s death, William was unable to keep things afloat. So when he himself passed a couple days after Christmas, 1803, in a foreign land, he left his young wife without many prospects. She would have to find a way to scrape by with her five children, all under the age of ten. When she disembarked the ship after the long voyage, and was greeted with the four children she had left behind (only one made the trip to Italy), Elizabeth must have faced a number of difficult emotions.

Yet while her friends and family urged her to turn her attention to earthly matters, Elizabeth Seton could only focus on the heavenly. Her stay in Italy not only introduced her to widowhood, but also Catholicism. Always a religious seeker, and increasingly yearning for institutional stability, Seton was deeply tempted by the faith most Americans dismissed as “popish.” She was especially drawn to their doctrine of transubstantiation, a sacrament that fulfilled her wish for immediate access to the divine. The following months were a religious struggle as her Episcopalian priest fought to retain her soul. Reflecting the torn nature of her mind, she wrote passionate letters to a married Italian man to whom she held such a deep bond that she also felt guilty; to balance these conflicted effort, she simultaneously directed her soul-searching diary entries to his wife.

This accounts for just a small sliver of Seton’s engrossing life, all told in exhaustive detail by Catherine O’Donnell in Elizabeth Seton: American Saint (Three Hills, 2018). The first academic biography of Catholicism’s first American-born saint in many years, it is bound to be the definitive take for many more. Seton was born and raised in New York, evolved from a religious rationalist to a committed Episcopalian to a devoted Catholic, and eventually earned notoriety by founding a sisterhood and school in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Her life intersected with numerous fascinating figures, as she was a neighbor to Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr while part of an elite Manhattan family, and she carried on conversation with nearly every prominent Catholic leader after her conversion. Her rise to prominence is both intertwined with and emblematic of American culture during the early republic.

Yet Seton’s story also diverges in significant ways, and O’Donnell’s biography will provide an important counter to how historians understand early American religious history. Whereas many were devoted to pursuing happiness, Seton, and the women she mentored, were reveling in suffering. They believed their sinful natures made them dependent on God, and tragedy was a way to bring them to the divine. And where common historiographical narratives of “democratization” during this period highlight how individuals used religion to deify individualism, Seton’s communal efforts and Catholic dependence point to another cultural touchstone. Further, Seton chafed at the rising tide of diversity and inclusion, instead yearning for the cohesion that could only come through a dominant and shared Catholic faith. Incorporating Seton into the nation’s religious narrative will require a nuancing of traditional themes.

But Elizabeth Seton is more than just a biography of one person: it is a biography of several communities, networks, and contexts. While I expected a detailed reconstruction of religious life in Emmitsburg’s St. Joseph’s, I also quite enjoyed the time spent in post-revolutionary New York, where elite families intersected with those that were less fortunate. O’Donnell’s attention to slavery’s often-periphery-but-always-present role in Seton’s life is especially noteworthy. As dedicated as O’Donnell is to exploring the intricacies of Seton’s spiritual mind, she is similarly devoted to detailing her physical world.

And her post-conversion world, while explicitly Catholic, still possessed division. One surprise to many readers will be the vast diversity within America’s Catholic population, both in ideology and background. Though Seton argued for a severe Catholicism that brooked no compromise with American culture, Bishop John Carroll famously attempted to synthesize the two cultures. Nor were these American options the only ones available: Seton encountered diverse Catholic expressions that were rooted in Italian, French, and even Caribbean experience, which could often lead to confusion and competition.

Perhaps the most moving portions of the book, however, concern Seton’s relationship with her own family. Indeed, I was more drawn to Seton as mother to her children than I was as Mother to her sisterhood. From her fraught and complicated history with her father—a rationalist doctor more concerned with experiment than loving ties—to her worry for her two sons that were not as devoted to Catholic piety, and especially to her close relationship to her three daughters—two of which preceded her in death—Seton’s internal and familial struggles are in clear display. The pages that detail Anna Maria’s final days were a highlight of the book.

Which brings me to my final, and perhaps most sincere, compliment for Elizabeth Seton: the only thing that could match Seton’s earnest piety is Catherine O’Donnell’s urgent prose. The author handles the saint’s private beliefs, internal struggles, and external relations with the utmost respect and care. Indeed, the only word that kept coming to mind as I read the book was “reverence,” as O’Donnell appeared to approach her subject with tremendous grace.

A Saint deserves nothing less, after all.

(As a quick side note: Three Hills, an imprint of Cornell University Press, did a phenomenal job with the design. The physical book is gorgeous.)