American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton

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In this riveting biography of Elizabeth Seton critically acclaimed and bestselling author Joan Barthel tells the mesmerizing story of a woman whose life featured wealth and poverty, passion and sorrow, love and loss. Elizabeth was born into a prominent New York City family in 1774. Her father was the chief health officer for the Port of New York and she lived down the block from Alexander Hamilton. She danced at George Washington's sixty-fifth Birthday Ball wearing cream ...

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American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton

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In this riveting biography of Elizabeth Seton critically acclaimed and bestselling author Joan Barthel tells the mesmerizing story of a woman whose life featured wealth and poverty, passion and sorrow, love and loss. Elizabeth was born into a prominent New York City family in 1774. Her father was the chief health officer for the Port of New York and she lived down the block from Alexander Hamilton. She danced at George Washington's sixty-fifth Birthday Ball wearing cream slippers, monogrammed. Catholicism was illegal in New York when she was born; Catholic priests seen in the city were arrested, sometimes hung. When Elizabeth and her wealthy husband Will sailed to Italy in a doomed attempt to cure his tuberculosis, she and her family were quarantined in a damp dungeon. And when Elizabeth later became a Catholic, she was so scorned that people talked of burning down her house. American Saint is the inspiring story of a brave woman who forged the way for the other women who followed and who made a name for herself in a world entirely ruled by men. Elizabeth resisted male clerical control of her religious order, as nuns are doing today, and the publication of her story could not be more timely. Maya Angelou has contributed the foreword.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Nuns in the United States have recently come under fire from the male Catholic hierarchy for not being orthodox enough. So this compelling biography of the first American-born saint, who was also a nun, comes at an excellent time. Bestselling writer Bartel (A Death in Canaan) has constructed an exquisite story of Seton’s inspiring life. She was born Elizabeth Bayley into a prominent New York Episcopalian family and, at age 19, married wealthy businessman William Magee Seton. After losing her husband to tuberculosis, she converted to Catholicism during a time of persecution and founded the Sisters of Charity. Seton faced trials in her 46 years of life but remained confident about God’s will. That gave her an abiding trust in and awareness of God’s constant presence in her life and the lives of others. Readers interested in Catholic history and U.S. history should not overlook this important biography. Agency: Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

"American Saint – The Life of Elizabeth Seton is a map which allows us to follow the journey of this remarkable woman.  We are able to examine each stop she made along the way and we are amazed at her courage to get up and start her journey again, against visible and tangible odds.”
—Maya Angelou, from her foreword for American Saint

“A significant book, fascinating in its portrayal of a groundbreaking woman, and a great pleasure to read." —Mary Higgins Clark

"A wonderful, terrifying book . . . Remarkable." —Nick Clooney

"Barthel is a fine and insightful observer of this larger-than-life woman who was so far ahead two hundred years ago that we’re still catching up with her." —Gloria Steinem

“A rich and moving chronicle of faith." —Tilar J. Mazzeo, New York Times bestselling author of The Widow Clicquot

"Thoughtful, sensitive, inspiring, provocative, and reliable." —James Martin, SJ, author of My Life with the Saints

Kirkus Reviews
A biography of the first American saint, who described herself as "the Mad Enthusiast." Elizabeth Seton (1774–1821) was elevated to sainthood in 1975 on the basis of her religious fervor and several posthumous miracles. Barthel (A Death in California, 1981, etc.) vividly brings to life a strong-willed, contradictory, passionate woman. Born into a notable New York family (her father was a famous physician), Seton, like many other wealthy Americans, was raised as an Episcopalian. Catholicism was illegal in New York; even after it became legal in 1790, it was associated with "dirty, filthy, red-faced" immigrants. However, at the age of 30, after her husband died of tuberculosis in Italy, Seton stepped foot into a Catholic church. Overwhelmed by the spectacle of Sunday Mass, she collapsed, sobbing. For the next few months, she lived with devout Italian friends and fell in love with the "handsome, dashing" 39-year-old brother of her host. By the time Seton returned to America, she was determined to convert. Her friends and family were scandalized, but Seton felt that "Jesus came to her in a profoundly intimate way" through the Eucharist, and she felt close to Mary as well. The Catholic Church, she was certain, was "the one, true church of Christ." Seton was not content merely to worship. Through arduous efforts and political astuteness, she founded and directed the first order of American nuns, countering church authorities who wanted to limit women's participation. Whether lured by Seton's own charisma, Catholic doctrine or several attractive young priests, other women joined her. The Sisters of Charity survived and shaped the future of American Catholicism. Barthel sets Seton's life against the roiling political context of the American Revolution and its aftermath, offering a rounded portrait of an ambitious woman who struggled mightily to fulfill the tenets of her faith: to be obedient, merciful and good.
Library Journal
Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774–1821) deserves to have her story retold by award-winning author Barthel (Reynolds Professor of American Studies, Wake Forest Univ.; A Death in Canaan). Accessibly written, historical, and descriptive, this book is based on archival research, interviews with scholars, and Seton's own writings, all resulting in a carefully woven portrait of the first American-born Catholic saint, canonized in 1975, the woman who built the foundation for the parochial school system in the United States. Born into a prosperous New York Episcopalian family that was strongly Bible and Eucharist based, Elizabeth married for love, bearing five children in seven years. Barthel uses flashbacks and flash forwards in unfolding her subject's widowhood while in Italy, her conversion encounter there with Roman Catholicism, her return to strongly anti-Catholic New York and her anti-Catholic relatives, and her move to more accepting Baltimore and Emmitsburg, MD, to begin a woman's religious community (Sisters of Charity), educating children of all social levels. Throughout, Barthel keeps an eye on women's issues pertaining at the time. VERDICT Readable and inspiring, this book, complementing Joseph Dirvin's Mrs. Seton, offers a compelling account of an American woman who deserves to be more generally known, one who was drawn to serve others throughout a life of prosperity and later poverty. With a brief foreword by Maya Angelou. [See Prepub Alert, 10/15/13.]—Anna Donnelly, St. John's. Univ., Jamaica, NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312571627
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/4/2014
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 77,353
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

JOAN BARTHEL is the author of A Death in Canaan, which spent many weeks on the bestseller list and was made into a CBS TV movie that was nominated for an Emmy Award. Following A Death in Canaan, Barthel wrote A Death in California and  collaborated with Rosemary Clooney on Girl Singer. Barthel has written profiles of celebrities for such publications as The New York Times Magazine and The Washington Post Magazine. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

MAYA ANGELOU, who contributed the foreword, is a  poet and teacher who became famous with her 1970 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Born in St. Louis, she was raised there and in Stamps, Arkansas, where she felt the sting of racial discrimination. She has lived in San Francisco, where she returned to high school and gave birth to her son, Guy, a few weeks after graduation; in Egypt, Ghana and New York. Angelou, 85, speaks seven languages; in 2000 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She now lives in North Carolina, where she is the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.

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Read an Excerpt

Elizabeth woke in darkness, to the ringing of church bells.
A wind gusted through crevices in the brick wall; the room was clenched in cold. Waves crashed on the rocks below as white foam splashed high and hard against the little barred window, blotting out the moonlight.
Will and Anna were still asleep on the cold brick floor. There was no fire, but Elizabeth’s eyes burned from fatigue, from yesterday’s stinging wind on the open boat that had brought them, an hour over pitching waves, to this despairing place.
“Prison” is the word Elizabeth used in the journal she’d begun to keep on board the Shepherdess during the seven-week crossing from New York to Italy. Because yellow fever was rampant in New York, and the ship had come without medical clearance—a Bill of Health—the Setons were not allowed on shore at Leghorn; instead, while a band on the quay played “Hail Columbia” in honor of the arriving Americans, they were rowed to quarantine in a dungeonlike building at the water’s edge. A guard pointed their way with his bayonet: up twenty twisting stone steps to Room #6, “naked walls, brick floor and a jug of water,” where for forty days Elizabeth and her husband and their daughter would be confined.
She knew that officially it was a lazaretto, named for Lazarus, the leper in the New Testament whom everyone shunned for fear of contagion. But throughout her detailed journal, she determinedly called it a prison, where they were “bolted in and barred with as much ceremony as any monster of mischief might be—a single window double grated with iron thro’ which, if I should want anything, I am to call a centinel, with a fierce cocked hat and long riffle gun, that is that he may not receive the dreadful infection we are supposed to have brought with us from New York.”
These predawn bells were announcing prayer, she knew. At home, Elizabeth began each day with a heartfelt greeting to God; in this alien place, she was stunned into silence. “The Matins Bells awakened my Soul to its most painful regrets and filled it with an agony of sorrow which could not at first find relief even in prayer.”
She had not listened—had chosen not to listen—to concerned people who had advised against this trip, even when one dear friend had pronounced it “next to madness.”
She had left four young children behind, whom she’d watched from the ship’s railing until they were out of sight. They were crying. She had left them behind, even knowing that thirteen-month-old Rebecca, newly weaned and sickly, might die.
She had come with her oldest child, even though an eight-year-old might have been better left at home with her brothers and sisters.
She had come in the hope that the warmer climate of Italy, where Will had friends, would ease his tuberculosis and he would get well.
She had come with the near-certainty that he would not get well.
Yet she had come.
*   *   *
Elizabeth Bayley Seton was twenty-nine years old—dark-haired, dark-eyed, a beautiful woman barely five feet tall, brimming with energy and confidence. While other passengers on the long voyage had been seasick, Elizabeth had kept well. “I have not the least disposition to sickness,” she wrote airily.
Until Elizabeth went to Italy, she had traveled outside New York only to see friends in Pennsylvania. In the lazaretto at Leghorn, she was setting out on an unpredictable path that would take her to a place unknown and unimagined, where who she was and what she did would reshape the American world.
But on this Sunday, November 20, 1803, she did not know that.
*   *   *
Church bells rang again. “At no loss to know the hours,” she wrote wryly. “Night and day four Bells strike every hour and ring every quarter.”
The bells rang at the Church of St. James, in the shadow of the lazaretto. Later, Elizabeth would kneel in its ancient nave, but only as a curious Protestant who had never been inside a Catholic church, who had been brought up to regard Catholics with disdain.
Elizabeth was an Episcopalian—born into, married into, and well settled into the religion of the social and political elite. Her maternal grandfather was an Anglican priest, ordained in London. The first Episcopal bishop of New York presided at her wedding.
In the Episcopal tradition, Elizabeth approached God through her Bible, which she had brought with her to Italy, along with the Book of Common Prayer, the Psalms with commentaries, and a sewn-together booklet of sermons of Rev. Henry Hobart at Trinity, her church in New York. On her first day in the lazaretto, she turned to them all.
“Retrospections bring anguish,” she decided. “In the little closet from whence there is a view of the Open Sea … I first came to my senses and reflected that I was offending my only Friend and resource in my misery and voluntarily shutting out from my Soul the only consolation it could receive—pleading for Mercy and Strength brought peace—and with a cheerful countenance I asked Wm what we should do for Breakfast.”
The officer in charge of the lazaretto—the capitano—had sent warm eggs and wine. A bottle of milk was set down at the door. Will’s friends the Filicchis sent dinner, along with one of their servants, a lively little gray-haired man named Louis who would live in a connecting room throughout the Setons’ stay.
But Will was too weak for breakfast; terribly chilled, sweating with fever, he could not even sit up. He’d improved noticeably on the ship, where he’d eaten and slept well. “My Seton is daily getting better,” Elizabeth had written in a letter carried home by a passing vessel. Now she was so stricken at his condition—“My Husband on the cold bricks without fire, shivering and groaning”—that when Louis tried to serve her, she refused to eat. “My face was covered with a handkerchief when he came in and tired of the sight of men with cocked hats, cockades and bayonets, I did not look up.”
By evening, with Will asleep and Anna jumping rope, Elizabeth was calm again. “Opening my Prayer Book and bending my knees was the Signal for my Soul to find rest … after Prayers, read my little book of dear H’s sermons—and became far more happy than I had been wretched.”
That first day in the lazaretto set the pattern for the days ahead: prayer and comfort, then tears and anguish, refuge in prayer again—alone or with Anna, with Will when he was able. “We pray and cry together, till fatigue overpowers him, and then he says he is willing to go—cheering up is useless, he seems easier after venting his sorrow and always gets quiet sleep after his struggles.”
On Monday the capitano came with his guards to set up a bed with curtains for Will and bedding for the benches that Elizabeth and Anna would sleep on. He took down their names: Signor Guillielmo, Signora Elizabeth, Signorina Anna Maria. His voice was sympathetic, so Elizabeth looked up at him. “His great cocked hat being off I found it hid grey hairs and a kind and affectionate countenance.” Shaking his head sadly, the capitano pointed upward, reminding her that all was in the hands of “le Bon Dieu.”
Will knew the Filicchi brothers, Antonio and Filippo, from having worked in their shipping firm. On Tuesday, when they brought their personal physician, Dr. Tutilli, Will was better, and so encouraged by the visit that he was able to get down the twenty steps to the gate and talk with his friends. But the next day he was too weak to make the descent. When the men came up to the grilled window, Will was so eager to talk that he stood too close, and the capitano held him back with a stick. “It reminded me of going to see the Lions.”
Friday, November 25, was their son William’s birthday. He would be seven. Will wept so inconsolably that Elizabeth’s anguish at their situation turned into anger. “Consider—my Husband who left his all to seek a milder climate confined to this place of high and damp walls exposed to cold and wind which penetrates to the very bones, without fire except the kitchen charcoal which oppresses his Breast so much as to nearly convulse him—no little syrup nor softener of the cough … milk, bitter tea, and opium pills which he takes quietly as a duty without seeming even to hope is all I can offer him from day to day—when Nature fails, and I can no longer look up with cheerfulness, I hide my head on the chair by his bedside and he thinks I am praying—and pray I do, for prayer is all my comfort, without which I should be of little service to him … if we did not now know and love God—if we did not feel the consolations and embrace the cheering Hope he has set before us, and find our delight in the study of his blessed word and truth, what would become of us?”
*   *   *
What would become of us?
That question had been a plaintive echo in Elizabeth’s mind and heart for most of her life. Before she could walk and talk, she was moving from place to place in a precarious pattern of living that would influence her shifting moods, from laughter and peaceful contemplation to thoughts of suicide.
Even before she was born, the pattern of uncertainty, of absence and longing, had been set. Her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, was a restless, impatient man, resolute in his determination to become a skilled, respected doctor at a time when butchers and barbers dominated the medical field. Of the more than 3,500 practicing physicians in the colonies before the Revolutionary War, only about 400 had degrees from a medical school. “Quacks abound like locusts in Egypt,” one observer noted. “No candidates are either examined or licensed, or even sworn to a fair practice.” Blistering was used as a remedy for almost any ailment. An irritating agent, such as a mustard plaster, was applied to the skin, so that blisters formed. When the blister was drained, it presumably drew out the infection or inflammation. Tuberculosis was commonly attributed to drinking too much hot tea or sleeping in feather ticks, and medical treatment often boiled down to “Keep the head cool, the feet warm, and the bowels open.”
The first medical school in New York City—King’s College, later Columbia—had just opened in 1767 when Richard Bayley managed to get a meeting there with Dr. John Charlton, who had been a surgeon at the court of George III. When Dr. Charlton accepted Richard Bayley as student and assistant, he introduced him to the world of medical royalty, and to his sister Catherine.
Catherine was the daughter of Mary Bayeux, a descendant of French Huguenot settlers in New Rochelle, New York, and Rev. Richard Charlton. A devout Irish Protestant, her father had graduated from Trinity College in Dublin and been ordained an Anglican priest in London before being assigned to New York as a missionary. As rector of St. Andrew’s Church on Staten Island, he included “Negroes” in his catechism classes, an eyebrow-raising step in the 1770s and a very early example for a very young Elizabeth of the command of conscience.
When Catherine and Richard were married on January 9, 1769, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, Dr. Thomas B. Chandler presiding, they entered a world of privilege. Doctors belonged to the first class of society, along with lawyers, rich merchants, and government officials, and Dr. Bayley was especially well connected. His mentor, Dr. Charlton, was a stout, florid man who liked to display his wealth, “quite ready to parade himself and his horse for the benefit of inquisitive folk.” Charlton and his wife, Mary, heiress to the de Peyster family fortune, lived at 100 Broadway, the widest and grandest street, with so many prominent residents that its lower end, at the Bowling Green, was known as the “court” section of town. The Bayleys were entertained at dinner parties, card parties, and balls in rooms bright with crystal, the floors covered with “Turkey worked” carpets. Josiah Wedgwood sold “creamware,” a rich glazed pottery, and advertised black pottery that made ladies’ hands look whiter. Shops at Hanover Square catered to first-class tastes, with dry goods and laces, pictures and pipes, coffee and cutlery, and furniture from the London cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale. Women retailers, the “She-Merchants,” handled olive oil, Canary wine, and imported glassware. At her cosmetics shop, Mrs. Edwards sold “An Admirable Beautifying Wash for Hands Face and Neck, it makes the Skin soft, smooth and plump, it likewise takes away Redness, Freckles, Sun-Burnings or Pimples.”
But with some twenty thousand people crowded into an area less than one mile square, only the rich had elbow room. The “inferior orders of people” lived on narrow, twisting lanes often deep with mud, where feral hogs rooted through garbage, where women washed clothes in a pond “foul with excrement, frog-spawn and reptiles … dead dogs, cats.” During one bleak winter, when the East River became a block of solid ice, more than four hundred men, women, and children crammed into the municipal poorhouse. To ease the overcrowding, the Common Council found funds to move poor vagrants someplace else—anyplace else—outside the city. Whale-oil lamps flickered at some street corners, but since they were smoky, not much brighter than lightning bugs, the new lamps were small deterrent to thieves, called “footpads.” Women turned to crime—two were hanged as pickpockets in 1771—and prostitution. A visiting Scotsman counted “above 500 ladies of pleasure” lodged so close to St. Paul’s Chapel that their red-light district was called the “Holy Ground.” Working men who wore trousers and caps, not knee breeches and tall hats, whose houses lacked multiple fireplaces and multiple servants to fetch firewood, began to deride the upper class as “silk stocking” and “big wig.”
When Richard and Catherine married, rumblings of revolution were being heard throughout the city. The Sons of Liberty had organized to protest regulations from London, particularly burdensome taxes, but Richard was unconcerned. Taxes had been a fact of colonial life since Willem Kieft, an early director-general of New Amsterdam, had tried to tax the Indians. Like other Loyalists, Richard Bayley relied on George III to maintain the colonies as his peaceable kingdom. Six months after his marriage, he sailed for London to study with the renowned Dr. William Hunter, leaving behind a pregnant wife.
While he was away, redcoats opened fire on a crowd in Boston, killing five people in what was called “the Boston Massacre.” The first serious clash of the Revolution in New York, the Battle of Golden Hill, was fought on a wheat field at the crest of John Street, the street where Elizabeth would, at an especially melancholy time in her life, find shelter.
And Richard’s first child, Mary Magdalen, was born. She was a quiet girl who grew up to be a woman as deliberately quiet as her sister, Elizabeth, would be volatile. Mary once described herself as a woman who had “an irresistible impulse to steer clear of people and things, as much as I can, so as to avoid interfering with their interests or plans, be they what they may.” In contrast, Elizabeth would refer to herself as “the Mad Enthusiast” and had such a boundless imagination that she once thought of “running away, over the seas … in disguise, working for a living.”
Mary Bayley was more than a year old when her father came home. He stayed home for nearly three years, the happiest time—and the longest time—that he and his young wife would be together.
It was an opulent time for educated doctors, who dressed like nobility and were treated royally. Dr. John Bard, the oldest doctor in the city, was known for the snuff-colored suit he wore on weekdays and the scarlet one on Sundays. Lace ruffles on shirts, silk stockings, and silver shoe buckles were part of an eminent physician’s uniform, and his fees were equally impressive: $25 for a tonsillectomy, $50 to $100 for the amputation of a limb, $125 for cataract removal by pressing the eyeball with the thumb. Dr. Bayley and Dr. Charlton were the first physicians in the city to make house calls by carriage, charging a hefty $5 for a visit with a single dose of medicine plus “verbal advice.” The fees doubled in stormy weather.
It was a threatening time. By springtime of 1774, revolution was no longer a possibility to be talked about in coffeehouses and taverns but a looming reality to be faced. Following the lead of patriots in Boston, some Sons of Liberty boarded a British vessel, the London, anchored in New York Harbor. Dressed as Mohawk Indians, they climbed down into the hold of the ship, brought up eighteen crates of tea, slashed them open, and threw the tea over the side. In early September, the First Continental Congress, stepping-stone to war, convened in Philadelphia.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born on August 28, 1774, as the delegates from Massachusetts were passing through New York City on their way to Philadelphia. Samuel Adams, resplendent in a new red coat and cocked hat, led the group, which included his cousin John. The men admired the city’s grand houses and its many well-laid-out streets, and enjoyed a lavish breakfast at the country estate of the patriot John Morin Scott, whose son Lewis would one day marry Elizabeth’s best friend. But John Adams was less impressed with New Yorkers. “They talk very loud, very fast and altogether,” he complained. “If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer, they will break out upon you again—and talk away.” He was as glad to leave the city as Elizabeth, even when she had become a scorned and hated woman, would be saddened.
By early 1775, revolution seemed inevitable. The king’s reaction to the unrest had blared across the ocean: “The colonists must be reduced to absolute obedience, if need be, by the ruthless use of force.” Richard Bayley had a wife and two young daughters, but a few months after Elizabeth was born, he sailed to London again, to study at Dr. Hunter’s new school of anatomy on Great Windmill Street.
Elizabeth was a nursing infant on the April day in 1775 when a rider galloped down the Post Road to tell of bloodshed at Lexington, Massachusetts. The Sons of Liberty paraded down Broadway with fireworks, bells, and cheers. General George Washington—erect, grave, at six feet three inches the very portrait of a commander—arrived in the city in June; more bells, more cheers.
By Elizabeth’s first birthday in August, when the cheering stopped, Loyalists were fleeing to safe havens: Nova Scotia, the Bahamas, the West Indies, England itself. Patriots were sending their families to the country, then joining the rebel army. The city began to shut down. Coffeehouses and taverns boarded up. With shipping trade suspended, food was scarce. At the end of the year, with winter taking hold and firewood hard to come by, even at black market prices, the city’s population dropped from twenty thousand to five thousand. Streets were torn up to make trenches, cannon hauled to positions at waterside.
Catherine Bayley and her two little girls began moving from place to place—to her father’s house on Staten Island, to other relatives there, to her brother’s country house on Long Island—wherever safe shelter could be found in a world of gunfire and threat.
What would become of us?
*   *   *
The tavern on the Post Road in New Rochelle, New York, with decent food and soft-enough beds for travelers between New York and Boston, was so respectable that for years it served as meeting place for the town’s elders, various city functions, even as City Hall. Unlike some rowdy saloons in the city—the Dish of Fry’d Oysters, the Dog’s Head in the Porridge—this spare, unpretentious stone building was simply LeConte’s, established in the late 1600s, later managed by Guillaume LeConte, Richard Bayley’s grandfather. When Richard and his brother William were boys in New Rochelle, they regularly headed for the tavern after school, where they squatted outside until their grandfather appeared to take them to his house, to tell them stories they could not hear often enough about the LeConte history and the splendid sword—jeweled hilt, gold braid on the scabbard—that had belonged to a noble ancestor and now hung against a length of rich red velvet in a place of honor over the fireplace.
The LeContes of New Rochelle were descendants of the early Protestants—the Huguenots—who had fled persecution in Catholic France and named their New World haven after their beloved La Rochelle in Normandy. Mary Bayeux, Elizabeth’s grandmother, had been a Huguenot descendant, too; the thread of oppression, rebellion, flight, and exile was woven early into Elizabeth’s life narrative.
The Bayleys came from Hoddesdon, a village in Hertfordshire, England, where the church displayed a monument in honor of the respected Bayley family. William Bayley Sr. emigrated to the colony of Fairfield, Connecticut, so like the grassy shires of his rural homeland that it had become the destination of choice for many English immigrants, with thriving farms and an energetic social life. He became close friends with Thomas Pell, another Englishman from Hertfordshire, who’d married an Indian princess. At a ball on their spacious estate, Pelham Manor, William met Suzanne LeConte; she was seventeen and he twice her age when they married.
After Richard was born in 1744, the little family moved to New Rochelle, where William Jr. was born a year later. The boys grew up on a farm at the edge of tangled woods, where they learned to track a bear, to trap a muskrat, to handle a shotgun. From their Huguenot mother they learned Norman French. They had their formal education at the Trinity Church School in town, where their classmates included John Jay, destined to be the first chief justice of the United States. It was a carefree childhood. Their great-aunt Hester, who made what people claimed were the best spice cakes in the county, teased them: “Bayleys they might be, but they had the LeConte trick of always turning up when something good was on hand.”
When Grandfather LeConte died, their aunt Ann, Suzanne’s sister, summoned them to the parlor, where she read from his will: “I leave to my two grandsons, William and Richard Bayley, 20 pounds … and my gun, sword and watch…” Richard intended to be a doctor, so he took the big gold watch, wound with a key; William took the short musket with a flaring muzzle and the prized sword.
Four years later, when their father had died and their mother remarried, both Bayleys set out from New Rochelle to seek their fortunes in New York City. While Richard was absorbed in medicine, William opened a hardware store on one of the handsome Hanover Square streets, so successfully that he soon opened another at the Fly Market on the riverfront, where New Yorkers bought beef and mutton, fruit and vegetables from country farms, blackfish and flounder and salted cod. With this expansion, he became prosperous enough to advertise:
William Bayley has imported … a New and general assortment of hard ware, toys and trinkets; plated, japan’d and brown tea urns and coffee pots of the newest fashion; a large assortment of paper hangings of the newest patterns; a great variety of portable printing presses, from 10s each to 51s each; gentleman’s tool chests of various prices, with a number of other articles too tedious to mention … Ready money for bees-wax and old brass.
William was twenty when he left New Rochelle. Ten years later, he would return to marry Sarah Pell, Thomas Pell’s granddaughter, and to serve for years as Elizabeth’s substitute father.
Richard was twenty-one and would never go back.
*   *   *
Elizabeth was almost surely baptized at Trinity Church, although church records were lost in the blaze of 1776, when the church burned and its steeple crashed to the ground. For most of her life, she was listed as a communicant at Trinity, open only to the baptized. She was always exacting that her children be baptized there. Her wealthy godmother, Sarah Startin, was a member of Trinity.
Sixteen religious houses were open in the city when Elizabeth was born. The Congregationalists and the Lutherans each had a church; the Presbyterians had three. The Methodists worshipped in a simple church, forty by sixty feet, with a whitewashed interior, white sand on the floor, and backless benches, but without bells, steeple, or organ, which were considered “unnecessary adornment.” Quakers had a meetinghouse. The synagogue on Mill Street could be traced back to 1654, when a Rosh Hashanah service had been held there, genesis of Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest in North America. There were churches for Baptists, Anabaptists, Moravians, and Reformed Dutch.
The Anglican Church reigned, the enclave of the elite, as it had been since early in the century when Edward Lord Cornbury, the cross-dressing English governor—lip color, hoop skirts—had given a sizable chunk of Manhattan real estate to Trinity Church, then persuaded the Assembly to raise taxes in order to give its rector a higher salary. In midcentury, King’s College had opened in a vestry room at Trinity, with a student body of eight young men and a faculty of one Anglican priest. After the Revolution, the Anglican Church in the new republic became “the Protestant Episcopal Church, an American corporation, a unit, not of the English church but of the church in America, in communion with the Church of England.” Still, religion and politics remained entwined: President George Washington had his own named pews at Trinity and its chapel, St. Paul’s.
There was no Catholic church. When Elizabeth was born, Catholic worship was illegal in most of the colonies, an enforcement of the penal laws laid down in England two centuries earlier, which excluded Catholics from all public activities, including voting, serving on juries, and holding hands. Catholic priests who ventured into the city were liable to arrest and life in prison; attempted escape meant the gallows. Anyone who knowingly harbored a Catholic priest was fined two hundred pounds—half to be paid to the government, half to the informer who’d turned in the priest’s host—and further punished with three days in the pillory.
Persecution in the name of the Lord had always proved the ecumenical nature of religious intolerance. In this country, faith had been recognized as a handy weapon since Puritans in Massachusetts banished nonconformists and hanged some Quakers who dared to return. Peter Stuyvesant had vigorously harassed Jews settling in New Amsterdam. Catholics in England had been beheaded, while in Catholic France one of Elizabeth’s Huguenot ancestors had been dragged by her hair to a bloody death in the streets of Paris.
In New York City, though, discrimination against Catholics was based not only on historical precedent but also on contemporary social reality. Except for a handful of the affluent, mostly French aristocrats and representatives of the Spanish crown, Catholics in Elizabeth’s city were the persistently poor: immigrants who poured from the reeking holds of ships, exchanging poverty and hunger in the Old World for disease-plagued squalor in the New. Mostly Irish, mostly uneducated and unskilled, they settled in slums along the East River, where privies overflowed, where polluted alleys were deep with garbage and an occasional animal carcass, where after ten o’clock at night tubs of human waste were dumped into the river, with stinking overflow onto the wharf. The immigrants were considered “a public nuisance” and “the off-scourings of the people” as they crammed into small, fetid spaces with no access to clean water. Catholics smelled bad.
Elizabeth would dance at the exclusive City Assemblies, open to “none but the first class of society.” For someone of that class to consider becoming a Catholic was unthinkable, and for most of her life Elizabeth didn’t think about it. Although as a girl she liked Methodist hymns and daydreamed about becoming a Quaker “because they wear such pretty plain hats,” she was an unquestioning Episcopalian who cherished the Bible and quoted the Psalms and attended Trinity and St. Paul’s with a religious attitude that was blithe, untroubled, and, considering how organized religion would splinter her life, heartbreaking. In a letter to a friend, Elizabeth wrote, “The first point of religion is cheerfulness and harmony.”

Copyright © 2014 by Joan Barthel
Foreword copyright © 2014 by Maya Angelou

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2014

    Would not recommend

    I feel the author should be more of a historian than a writer about a saint. To much history for me. Other than that a good book when she talks about St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

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  • Posted April 7, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Very Good

    interesting story of Ameruica's first saint and her hardships.

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  • Posted April 4, 2014

    A great history of this saint

    I have not finished reading this book yet, but I am thoroughly enjoying. I purchased the book because my parish is St Elizabeth Ann Seton. Over many years, I have read about this saint but never read any in depth family history. I am learning so much about this saint. Mostly we hear about her coming to the US, her husband who died and then she started a school. This book is very in depth, informing you about her childhood, marriage and then into what she accomplished. She had many challenges in her childhood that I had never known. Anyone interested in really being informed about the background of this saint will enjoy this book.

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