Although I have always admired Mother Elizabeth Seton, I knew very little about her. She was a widow with five children, founded the Daughters of Charity, became the first American-born canonized saint, and has numerous schools and colleges named after her. We have featured her as a “Witness for Our Time” in our church bulletin. So, I was eager to read Catherine O’Donnell’s new biography, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint (Cornell University Press, 2018, 436 pages).
Wow! I knew even less than I thought about this American woman! O’Donnell’s book is very detailed, very historical, and very scholarly. It required a commitment on my part to complete the book. It is at times difficult to read in that O’Donnell integrates Elizabeth Seton’s letters and writings into the narrative throughout the book. In the end, I find that my admiration for Elizabeth Seton has grown, as has my insight into American history during the early 19th century. I will recommend the book to our parish book club, advising our members to be persistent, especially through the first 100 pages.
It is tempting to “read back” into history what we think about the way a woman leader in the Church today might take a stand on the issues of Elizabeth’s day. Yet, Elizabeth Seton was very much a woman, wife, mother, and Mother (to her religious sisters) of her own day. In O’Donnell’s biography, we see the story of the Seton children, as much as the development of the fledgling community of sisters.
I learned a great deal from this book, and am eager to discuss many of the issues that stand out for me:
- The conflicts among Protestants and Catholics in early 19th-century America
- The founding and governance of the first U. S. Catholic diocese in Baltimore with Archbishop John Carroll
- Elizabeth’s family connections with prominent people of influence
- The fact that the Catholic Church and its religious congregations, including the institutions at Emmitsburg, not only accepted slavery, but also owned slaves
- The role of the clergy in governing and directing women religious groups
- Elizabeth’s long struggle with her conversion to the Catholic faith
- Elizabeth’s lifelong commitment to her children and to members of her extended family
- Elizabeth’s descriptions of her faith and her acceptance of suffering
I was uncomfortable at times with Elizabeth Seton’s perspectives on God’s will, suffering, and death. I wanted her to take a stand against slavery. I would have liked to see her become less dependent on her spiritual directors (all male). Yet, I can acknowledge how important she was to the Church in 1820, and how she can still be a witness to us in our time.