American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton

American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton

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by Joan Barthel

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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

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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

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
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.)
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.

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American Saint

The Life of Elizabeth Seton

By Joan Barthel

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2014 Joan Barthel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-03715-2


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.


Excerpted from American Saint by Joan Barthel. Copyright © 2014 Joan Barthel. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
efm More than 1 year ago
interesting story of Ameruica's first saint and her hardships.
alphonsus30 More than 1 year ago
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.