The Life of Elizabeth Seton: An Interview With Catherine O'Donnell

Today on the blog, editor Katie Uva sits down with Catherine O'Donnell, author of Elizabeth Seton: American Saint, to discuss how New York City shaped Seton's life and faith.

What drew you to Elizabeth Seton as a topic?

Years ago, I was teaching a course on early America and a student wanted to write about “Mother Seton,” because she’d grown up attending a parish named after her. I had a vague sense of Seton's role in creating the first Catholic sisterhood in the United States, so I was startled to realize there was not much scholarly work that I could recommend. Seton’s sainthood must have made her feel off limits to scholars. I was intrigued and decided to do some research of my own. I worried about whether it would be possible to write about Seton as a woman, rather than only as a saint, but once I got a sense of the extraordinary archive that Seton’s spiritual daughters have preserved — decades of correspondence, journals, and reflections, as well as documentation of her family and associates — there was no turning back. The trove of sources reveals Seton’s distinctive achievements as an institution builder and spiritual leader. It also reveals aspects of her life that were anything but distinctive: struggles over health and money, the delights and challenges of marriage, the ups and downs of long friendships, and on it went. She also was a sharp observer of people and customs, and I loved seeing New York and the early republic through her eyes.

What was the religious landscape like in New York City during Seton's life? What groups had the most power?

Manhattan was home to both a day-to-day tolerance among people of different faiths and to bursts of vitriol. For the most part, New Yorkers opted for a fractious comity rather than striving to enforce any particular orthodoxy. At the time of Seton's birth, the Dutch Reformed Church maintained some of the privileges it had known under Dutch rule, but England’s official church had been the established faith for many decades, and Elizabeth’s family (like the family she’d marry into) were Anglicans. Trinity Church controlled huge tracts of land, one of which it donated to start the city’s first college, King’s, on condition that its presidents all be Anglicans and that the Book of Common Prayer be used in daily services. But New York was also home to many other forms of Protestantism, and members of those sects increasingly resisted Anglicanism’s cultural and political sway. Members of the powerful Livingston clan were Presbyterian. The charismatic Methodist preacher George Whitfield visited Manhattan twice, and there was a Methodists chapel on John Street and a Baptist congregation not far away, by the time of the Revolution. There were Jewish New Yorkers and congregations, as there had been since the colonial period. During Seton’s life, the number and variety of Protestant congregations grew exponentially, with evangelicals convening prayer meetings in improvised spaces and purpose built buildings across the city. The Catholic Church grew as well. Right after the Revolution, well-placed Catholics legally incorporated themselves, secured a land lease from Trinity Church, and proudly hired the architect of Federal Hall to design what became the first St. Peter’s.

As a young woman, Seton herself was not particularly interested in institutional religion, and she was in fact fascinated by some of the contemporary philosophy, such as Rousseau's Emile, that was circulating in the city. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, she faced two terrifying threats: her husband's merchant business teetered on the brink of ruin, and her husband himself fell ill from consumption. She began to take solace in a liturgically rich, rather elegant and impassioned form of Episcopalianism offered by Trinity Church's young minister, John Henry Hobart. (Trinity Church still celebrates its connection to Seton and she is honored on the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints, as well in the Roman Catholic communion.) She also recalled being moved by Methodist hymns she'd overheard as a girl and she admired the way Quaker women’s plain dress declared their distinctive spiritual choices. Seton’s whole life was shaped by her youth in a diverse city and her fascination with the many choices the city offered.

What motivated Seton's conversion to Catholicism? Did she suffer social ostracism for converting?

Seton first decided to convert to Catholicism during a desperate voyage she, her husband William, and her oldest daughter Anna Maria made to Italy. The trip was meant to save William's life by bringing him to a more healthful climate, but he died within weeks of their arrival. Her hosts, a Catholic merchant clan called the Filicchi, seized the opportunity to try to win her over to their faith. At first, she gently laughed them off. Then, to her surprise, she found herself profoundly moved by the way Catholicism seemed to enable divinity to penetrate life. She loved the beauty of Florence's churches (the Filicchi made a brilliant decision taking her there!) and she was fascinated by the thought of saints' intercession. “All the Catholic Religion is full of those meanings which interest me so,” she wrote. Even making the sign of the cross seemed momentous. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which holds that Christ is present in the Eucharist taken at communion services, particularly thrilled her.

Seton's life in New York, where she’d freely explored a range of ideas and lived amidst a number of competing religious possibilities, gave her the confidence to attend Catholic Mass, read Catholic writings, and ask questions about Catholic teachings. Her interest in Catholicism was at first another example of her willingness to sample new possibilities. But after the years of dread over her husband's business and health, she was weary of experimentation and even of making choices. The Catholicism she saw in Italy seemed like the gorgeously simple opposite of her home. Manhattan’s landscape was spiked with churches of all kinds and loud with arguing inhabitants. Florence seemed — to her traveler's eye — a place with a single purpose and a unified people. She wanted that wholeness as much as she wanted the Catholic faith. She decided to convert, then sailed home to New York.

Seton’s minister, John Henry Hobart, was horrified at her decision to convert to what he considered a barbaric faith (transubstantiation was both impossible and disgusting to him. Her family at first was more perplexed than outraged. They accepted her conversion but wanted her to keep it to herself. As a genteel merchant family, they believed that one did not let one's faith interfere with the need to get along (or the desire to get ahead). In the period right after her conversion, Seton did not want to get along with others: she wanted to persuade them to believe as she did. She secretly shared her new faith with young female relatives and it was really that proselytizing that enraged her family. The family's anger and pain show the intimate conflicts that the exercise of freedom or religion provoked in this era. Evangelicals sometimes faced a similar kind of rupture, so this is not just a story about Catholics and antipopery, although a mistrust of Catholicism intensified the distaste some of Seton's relatives felt.

Do we have a record of what Seton thought about major controversies that occurred in New York during her lifetime? For example, the Revolutionary War, slavery, Irish immigration.

She was a child during the Revolution, but her own family and the family she later married into were Loyalist, and she knew of her father and father-in-law's struggle to regain standing after the war ended. I think that experience contributed to her own most notable political belief, which was her rejection of national chauvinism. When her teenage son was setting sail for Europe, she wrote to him, "I beg you so much not to give way to National prejudices, but to allow for many customs and manners you will see." She died before the mass Irish immigration of the 1840's, but she generally rejected the kind of ethnic prejudice that some of her relatives showed. When it comes to slavery, the story is grimmer. Her birth family enslaved a small number of people, and although there's no evidence she and William owned slaves, William's business profited from slave-grown goods. She never expressed unease about the institution or sympathy for the enslaved people she would have seen throughout the city. When she moved to Maryland and founded the sisterhood, many of the families who sent children to her school owned slaves, and in some cases even paid tuition in enslaved labor. Seton's life is marked by her deep and expanding compassion for others, and it is unsettling and tragic that her compassion did not provoke her to see clearly the horrors of the institution. True, it was Catholic laity and clergy, rather than Seton and the Sisters, who actually owned slaves and directed their labor, and Seton wrote affectionately about individual enslaved people. But there's no getting around the fact that her sisterhood indirectly benefited from slavery, a painful irony given that it understood itself to aid the poor. Seton's blindness to the institution, and the Catholic Church's conviction that owing slaves was an acceptable means to the end of supporting the Church and its works, is unfortunately one more way in which Seton's story is part of the story of early America and the Atlantic World.

What impact did she have on American Catholicism, and on building a Catholic institutional infrastructure in the New York region?

During the early years of the republic, when priests were scarce and often suspected of scandalous behavior (both fairly and unfairly), Seton and the Sisters of Charity offered a benevolent public face for a mistrusted and unfamiliar faith. In New York City itself, The Sisters established a mission in 1817, designed to take in Catholic orphans; Pierre Toussaint, a former slave who became a successful businessperson, was a crucial benefactor. The Sisters of Charity also had missions in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities by the 1830's, and they proved essential to the Catholic Church’s ability to transform itself from an institution grounded in the rural South to one that flourished in the urbanizing north as immigrant Catholics arrived. As those waves of immigrants were met with a resurgent antipopery, Sisters became the focus of mockery and even violence. But they were a familiar presence and their benevolent labor was valued, so they were able to continue weaving personal and civic ties even during the years of greatest conflict.

Sisters and Daughters of Charity eventually staffed missions not just throughout the United States but throughout the world. In 2018, the communities are far smaller than at their height, but still significant and deeply engaged in social labor. They now make a point of analyzing systems of oppression and injustice in addition to cultivating personal compassion and charity. Internationally, there are over 15,000 Daughters of Charity, and within North America, the Sisters of Charity Federation as about 4,00 members. Sisters work on behalf of vulnerable people including refugees, the poor, and girls at risk of being “left behind,” as the Federation puts it.

One last New York note: Seton’s daughter Catherine entered a religious community in New York when she was in her forties. She chose the Sisters of Mercy rather than the order associated with her mother, perhaps because she did not want special treatment. Catherine Seton lived another forty years and worked with one of the most vulnerable populations of all: New York’s prisoners. Spending countless hours at prisons such as Sing Sing and the Tombs, she shared religious materials and counsel, and she learned new languages in order to communicate with as many men as possible. Understanding that the prisoners’ needs were not only spiritual, she collected and distributed writing paper and tobacco; grateful prisoners wrote letters and sent gifts after their release, not least a set of burglar tools that the owner suggested be sold to raise funds for the Sisters’ work.

Why was Seton canonized?

Even during her lifetime, Seton was admired as distinctively holy — a fact that she sometimes laughed over and sometimes cringed at. Followers kept her memory alive, archived her papers, and sometimes prayed that she intercede with God on their behalf. As the twentieth century began, some thought that not only was Seton worthy of sainthood, but that as a genteel widow and mother, she might be a figure who could inspire American Catholics without repelling American Protestants. (This was something clergy in her own day had hoped, as well.) In 1907, an ecclesiastical court was created to investigate the merits of her cause. Twelve volumes of documents from Elizabeth’s life and legacy were sent to Rome. In 1931, a delegation of American women traveled to the Vatican and petitioned Pope Pius XI on behalf of Elizabeth’s canonization. In the same year, the American Catholic hierarchy voted to approve her cause. The Mother Seton Guild soon formed to advocate for her canonization.

Years went by, and American women organized petition drives, signing their name to a polite but assertive request that the Pope offer “favorable consideration of the canonization of Mother Elizabeth Seton, pioneer educator and founder of the American Sisters of Charity, as the first native-born woman of the United States to be raised by Holy Mother Church to the honors of the altar.” Elizabeth’s nationality had never been of particular interest to her, but the hope of an “American saint” inspired many of her followers; by mid-century, due to changes in immigration laws and patterns, the American Church was much less significantly peopled by immigrants than it had been fifty years earlier, further enhancing the appeal of a “native-born woman.” In 1959, the Congregation of Rites declared that Mother Seton should be honored as “venerable.”

Attention turned to authenticating miracles. In 1961, two miracles were approved, one the healing of a young Baltimore girl afflicted with leukemia and the second the cure of a Daughter of Charity stricken by pancreatic cancer. Elizabeth Seton was beatified on St. Patrick’s Day, 1963. Two more miracles were required for Elizabeth’s canonization, and the first was not long in coming: a man named Carl Kalin was cured of a rare illness at St. Joseph’s Hospital, in New York. In 1974, Pope Paul VI announced that three miracles, rather than the traditional four, would be sufficient. Elizabeth Bayley Seton was canonized the next year. The little girl cured of leukemia, by then a young woman, attended the ceremony.

What most surprised or intrigued you as you researched this book?

I was intrigued by Seton’s lifelong efforts to reconcile her deep sense of right and wrong with her equally deep and passionate desire for harmony. This comes out in small moments, such as when she humorously sketches others’ foibles but then laments her own wit. It comes out more dramatically in her contemplation of what became the central question of her life: given that she believed her faith was the safest path to God, was she obligated to coax others toward it, even if they did not want to be coaxed? She at first believed she was (this was when she so upset her genteel New York friends and family) and then, slowly, came to believe that individuals would find their own paths. Her obligation was simply to treat everyone with respect and compassion. That may sound straightforward but it was then and is now enormously difficult to put into practice. Seton's life demonstrates not perfection but a relentless effort to become less selfish, more devoted to the good. The ethos she developed — "fear nothing so much as not to love enough" — feels entirely relevant to our own day.