Elizabeth Seton: American Saint

Elizabeth Seton: American Saint

by Catherine O'Donnell


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In 1975, two centuries after her birth, Pope Paul VI canonized Elizabeth Ann Seton, making her the first saint to be a native-born citizen of the United States in the Roman Catholic Church. Seton came of age in Manhattan as the city and her family struggled to rebuild themselves after the Revolution, explored both contemporary philosophy and Christianity, converted to Catholicism from her native Episcopalian faith, and built the St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Hers was an exemplary early American life of struggle, ambition, questioning, and faith, and in this flowing biography, Catherine O’Donnell has given Seton her due.

O’Donnell places Seton squarely in the context of the dynamic and risky years of the American and French Revolutions and their aftermath. Just as Seton’s dramatic life was studded with hardship, achievement, and grief so were the social, economic, political, and religious scenes of the Early American Republic in which she lived. O’Donnell provides the reader with a strong sense of this remarkable woman’s intelligence and compassion as she withstood her husband’s financial failures and untimely death, undertook a slow conversion to Catholicism, and struggled to reconcile her single-minded faith with her respect for others’ different choices. The fruit of her labors were the creation of a spirituality that embraced human connections as well as divine love and the American Sisters of Charity, part of an enduring global community with a specific apostolate for teaching.

The trove of correspondence, journals, reflections, and community records that O’Donnell weaves together throughout Elizabeth Seton provides deep insight into her life and her world. Each source enriches our understanding of women’s friendships and choices, illuminates the relationships within the often-opaque world of early religious communities, and upends conventional wisdom about the ways Americans of different faiths competed and collaborated during the nation’s earliest years. Through her close and sympathetic reading of Seton’s letters and journals, O’Donnell reveals Seton the person and shows us how, with both pride and humility, she came to understand her own importance as Mother Seton in the years before her death in 1821.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501705786
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 09/15/2018
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 369,135
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Catherine O'Donnell is Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University and she writes about religion, culture, and politics in early America and the Atlantic World. She is the author of Men of Letters in the Early Republic.

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Two Families

AT THE TIME of Elizabeth Seton's birth, New York was a city made by empire and defined by water. Its deep harbor had drawn goods and people for generations, and the Hudson, the great river on Manhattan's western edge, was the finest road into the interior of the northeastern colonies. The city's merchants traded in patterns established by Britain's power: wealthy New Yorkers drank fortified wine shipped from Madeira, kept time on clocks imported from England, and sipped tea from cups made in China. Merchants also proved cheerfully willing to smuggle when the opportunity arose, which it often did. So fast did cargoes pile up that the men who unloaded them accidentally tipped containers into the harbor, leaving shoes and ceramics to be found by the archaeologists of later centuries.

Water flowed over as well as among the islands that rose up through the waters of New York's harbors and bays. On Manhattan's western side, streams tumbled into the Hudson; on the east, farmers cut channels to drain surface water into what they called the East River, really just a splinter of the Hudson that Manhattan's landmass forced to find its own way to the bay. Convinced that the "stagnation and rottenness" of marshes caused the fevers that plagued them, New Yorkers drained swamps in lower Manhattan as a radical solution to the problem. They also pushed the city slowly out into the harbor, building wharves on land made from discarded bottles, ship parts, and animal bones. Despite the transformations wrought by its inhabitants, Manhattan Island was still as much a landscape as a city during Elizabeth's childhood, a place not only of merchants, laborers, and buildings but of hills, creeks, and trees. Most of its residents, including the Bayley and Seton families, lived within a mile of Fort George at the island's southern tip.


At Elizabeth's birth, her father, Richard Bayley, was twenty-nine years old. William Seton, the man who would become her father-in-law, was twenty-eight. Like Manhattan itself, both men were made by empire and water. Bayley was a surgeon who crossed the ocean for training in London, then returned and devoted himself to combating the fevers that thrived near the city's swamps and docks. Seton, born in England, made his money selling New Yorkers the goods they coveted from across the sea. The characters and careers of these two men shaped the circumstances of Elizabeth's life well into her young womanhood, so we will take time to know them now.

William Seton came from a Scottish clan who, like other merchant families, knit themselves into skeins of cousins and commerce: a Seton by both birth and marriage, his mother possessed the stutteringly dignified name of Elizabeth Seton Seton. Like tens of thousands of Scots during the eighteenth century, Seton sailed to the North American mainland hoping to find opportunities his home failed to provide. He arrived in New York at seventeen, bearing high hopes and letters of introduction to Richard Curson, another English-born merchant who had found his way to the thriving colonial port. Curson's advertisements capture the mix of transatlantic hub and early modern village in which Seton sought his fortune. "Wines Wholesale and Retail, to be sold by Richard Curson, on Potsbakers Hill, near the new Dutch Church," reads a notice from 1757. "Also, Old Jamaica and Barbados Rum, Brandy, Geneva, and Velvet Corks. ... Said Curson is remov'd lower down, in the House of Capt. Burchill, fronting the Street that leads to the Widow Rutgers's Brewhouse, opposite to the Sign of the Three Pidgeons." In this world, personal ties were as essential to merchant life as goods and credit; amiable William Seton knew how to weave them. By 1765, still not twenty years old, he was an officer of the city's St. Andrew's Society, founded to provide charity and promote social intercourse among Scottish immigrants and their descendants.

Elizabeth's father found his way to Manhattan a few years after William Seton. Richard Bayley had spent his childhood in New Rochelle, an area of tiny towns and fertile farms some twenty-five miles north of Ft. George, just across the sluice of water separating Manhattan from the mainland. New Rochelle had been settled by French Protestants fleeing the endless rounds of sectarian violence following the Reformation. The descendants of those Huguenot settlers maintained their piety, their French language, and their loathing for the religion they called popery.

Bayley possessed neither the intense Protestant piety that permeated his hometown nor any other kind. Nor was he content, as his brother was, to stay and make his way amid the region's farms. Instead, he set off for Manhattan, determined to become a "scientific" physician who used observation and experimentation to understand the causes of disease. Bayley was as ambitious as Seton. But Seton sought profits and never made an enemy when he could form an alliance; Bayley sought truth and relished a good fight.

Manhattan was a realm of opportunity for Seton and Bayley but a place of captivity for others: everywhere the two men looked, they were likely to see an enslaved person. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch East India Company had bought and sold slaves and used them for labor in the colony. After the English acquired the area, its labor demands exceeded its attractions for free immigrants, so those who promoted New York's settlement encouraged and forced the migration of a polyglot mix of Europeans and Africans. In 1741, less than twenty-five years before Seton and Bayley arrived in the city, a series of unexplained fires led to rumors that New York's enslaved population was plotting insurrection in the company of Papists. (It was Catholics' perceived animosity toward the English, not toward the institution of slavery, that made them suspect.) White New Yorkers burned and hanged those they blamed for the rebellion, leaving rotting corpses as warnings to others. The brutal events did not slow the rise of slavery on the island. On the contrary, the institution continued to produce the capital fueling the growth of city and empire. William Seton and Richard Curson bought and sold the fruits of slaves' labor: hogsheads of tobacco from the Chesapeake, rum from Jamaica, and white and muscavado sugar from the West Indies. Colonial religion was nearly as entangled with the institution as was the colonial economy. Although some Quakers in the colonies and England aggressively opposed slavery, many Christian churches accepted and benefited from it. Maryland's Jesuit priests supported themselves from the labor of slaves, and Anglican pews and pulpits were filled with slaveholders too; Elizabeth Seton's maternal grandfather, the Anglican rector on Staten Island, owned several people.

The Bayleys had a different connection to the plantation economy; Richard Bayley's mother had descended from a Huguenot settler who married a young woman from the island of Martinique and for a time sold sugar cultivated by slaves. (Both that settler, who was Bayley's great-grandfather, and his wife died of yellow fever, a plague that would in years to come send its tendrils through Richard Bayley's and Elizabeth Seton's lives.) Family legend has it that Richard's grandfather became betrothed to a young woman during a sojourn with his mother's family in Martinique; after returning to the island to marry her, he heard that she had married someone else. The young man sailed back to New York vowing to marry the first young woman who would have him. He did exactly that, only to learn that his fiancée in Martinique had not really jilted him. Whatever its kernel of truth, that is an awkward family story, and one wonders how Richard's grandmother, the bride chosen out of mistaken pique, reacted to its telling. The grandmother's unknowability is the rule, not the exception, among women on both sides of Elizabeth Seton's family. Their lives were structured by the ambitions, choices, and migrations of fathers and husbands, and their thoughts must be left to the imagining.


William Seton had been in America for two years when the implementation of the Stamp Act roiled the colonies. Unhappy to feel the British bureaucracy reaching into their affairs and purses, more than two hundred of New York City's merchants signed a nonimportation agreement at the tavern known as Burns' City Arms. Seton and Curson cautiously joined in. They hoped to repair the bonds of empire, not unravel them, but others were more radical: a group called the Liberty Boys, boasting among its founders members of the Scottish St. Andrew's Society, heckled soldiers and erected Liberty poles, encasing one in iron after British regulars splintered several others. Most New Yorkers, however, were not ready to risk their comfort and profits in resistance to the empire. Families such as the Setons and Bayleys were Britons: they imported English fashions, read English books, and watched English plays, and as they continuously remade the island of Manhattan, they named their streets and squares King, Duke, Prince, and Queen. When in 1766 Parliament repealed the hated Stamp Act, many hoped (despite the stark declaration of Parliament's political authority that accompanied repeal) that colonies and mother country would settle back into their familiar ways.

As the bonds of empire held for the moment, nineteen-year-old William Seton augmented the ties of business with those of family, marrying Rebecca Curson, a daughter of his business associate. The young couple sailed to England to meet William's family. In 1768, with trade returned to its old patterns and Rebecca far along in her first pregnancy, the Setons were eager to return to New York. So it happened that William Magee Seton, Elizabeth's future husband, was born at sea, crossing the Atlantic as his father's merchandise so often did.

Once back in the city, the elder William steadily ascended. No longer did he piece together cargoes to sell on others' premises; he was now "William Seton, Importer of Dry Goods, European and India Goods. Store on Cruger's Dock." In 1771, Curson formally took him on as a partner, and the newly formed house of Curson & Seton began to advertise wares ranging from "Florence oyl" (olive oil) to Madeira to flax, arriving on ships from London, Bristol, and Liverpool. By 1773, after a decade in the colony, Seton was the father of three sons — James and Jack had joined William Magee — and sufficiently well placed to be included by the artist Henry Pelham Copley in a handful of "valuable friends" who treated him with "great civilities." Around Seton, New York had settled into a disputatious but not radically disaffected relationship with England. The harbor was filled with ships, and a lead statue of George III, complete with gilding, rose on the Bowling Green.

While William Seton ascended as a merchant, Richard Bayley advanced as a doctor. By 1766, he was a student of the prominent physician John Charlton, described in a nineteenth-century account of the city as "short of stature, with a florid face, of somewhat pompous manners," and possessed of a practice consisting of "fashionable clients, whom he leisurely attended." Married to a daughter of two great New York families, Dr. Charlton ministered to the wealthy and was pleased to find himself grow wealthy in return. Working with Charlton placed Bayley in the company of genteel New Yorkers such as John Jay, a rising young lawyer who, like Bayley, hailed from the Huguenot community of New Rochelle. It also placed him in the company of Charlton's sister Catherine. He married Catherine in 1767, the same year that Seton married his business associate's daughter. Within a year, Richard and Catherine had a daughter, whom they named Mary Magdalen. But Bayley was not content. While Mary was still an infant, he sailed for London to continue his medical education.

Bayley thrived in London, staying for two years. At last, he returned to New York; his second daughter, the child who would grow up to become Elizabeth Seton, was born in August of 1774. Bayley rejoined John Charlton's practice, but rather than simply tending genteel patients he investigated two diseases that plagued the city's youth: croup and "putrid sore throat." Bayley peered into the throats of sick, gasping children around the city and recorded what he saw. When permitted, he dissected the corpses of children who had succumbed. It was a controversial practice in an era when many believed dissection was desecration, but Bayley had no interest in keeping to the expected path when his real quarry, truth, led him elsewhere.


When she wrote about New York after her conversion, Elizabeth Seton portrayed the city as profoundly anti-Catholic; those who've written about her have tended to follow suit. The truth is more complicated. Manhattan was home to both daily tolerance and bursts of vitriol. In the colonies as in Europe, men and women disagreed over how to worship God and over whether they should regulate each other's faiths at all. New Yorkers opted for a fractious comity more often than they strove to enforce orthodoxy of any kind. At the time of Elizabeth's birth, the Dutch Reformed Church, whose black-clothed ministers known as dominies once held sway, 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 both the Bayleys and the Setons were Anglicans. The faith's largest New York church was Trinity, which then — when the southern end of Manhattan Island was more slender than it is now — stood a few blocks from the Hudson River. Through its trustees, Trinity parish 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.

New York was also home to many other forms of Protestantism, and followers of those denominations increasingly resisted Anglicanism's cultural and political sway. Members of the powerful Livingston clan were Presbyterian; in 1754, Peter Livingston, along with John Morin Scott and a third lawyer, William Smith, founded the New York Society Library as an ecumenical institution intended to counter the Anglican influence of King's College. Evangelical Protestantism also found a voice; the charismatic Methodist preacher George Whitfield visited Manhattan twice, and Methodists built a chapel on John Street. A Baptist congregation met not far away on Gold Street, and other evangelicals convened prayer meetings in improvised spaces across the city. Amid religious change and new imperial regulations, simmering disagreements over England's power became entangled with resentment of the Anglican Church's claims of authority. In spring of 1766, trustees of the First Presbyterian Church petitioned the crown for a charter of incorporation. The petition was denied, as were similar ones from Lutherans and Huguenots, but skirmishes broke out again and again. The formal establishment of the Anglican Church remained, but the faith's cultural power ebbed by the year.

If Anglicanism seemed, to some colonists, too closely tied to mother England, Catholicism offended in the opposite way. Elizabeth's depictions of antipopery were exaggerated but not invented. At the time of her birth, Catholicism was for many colonists the religion of priest-ridden wretches in the service of a Roman conspiracy to destroy liberty and the British empire; they believed that Catholicism must be suppressed if liberty were to thrive. New York's small number of Catholics tended to live at the margins, whether they were poor Irish immigrants or wealthy slaveholders from the French sugar colonies. But it was the idea of Catholicism, more than the presence or power of actual Catholics, that chafed; anti-Catholicism united Manhattanites when little else did. "Perfect freedome of conscience for all," explained a Dutch Reformed dominie in 1741, "except Papists." Well-heeled New Yorkers such as New Rochelle's John Jay argued that Catholics lacked independent judgment and were loyal only to the pope. A more festive antipopery thrived too: each year on Guy Fawkes Day, Manhattanites created effigies of the pope and the devil, paraded them through the streets, and burned them.

Nonetheless, burning effigies is quite different from burning people, and throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century, the rhetoric and pageantry of New York's antipopery outstripped true persecution. Neither William Seton nor Richard Bayley resented Catholics. For Seton, profits mattered more than theology: trading with Catholics in the West Indies and Europe was an unremarkable fact of his life. Bayley, for his part, was as immune to the religious animosities of his Huguenot family as he was to their religious allegiances. Both men saw more value in cooperation than in orthodoxy, and many of their fellow Manhattanites agreed.


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Table of Contents

Cast of Characters, vii,
Prologue: Today, 1,
Part 1: A New York Life, 9,
1 Two Families, 11,
2 Betsy Bayley, 27,
3 A Home of One's Own, 56,
4 Courage Flies, 73,
5 Knot of Oak, 93,
Part 2: A Crisis of Faith, 109,
6 The Other Side of the Fence, 111,
7 These Dear People, 125,
8 The Battle Joined, 145,
9 This Storm, 161,
Part 3: Transitions, 175,
10 A Convert in New York, 177,
11 Duty or Obedience, 195,
12 A New Being, 215,
13 Some Charitable Persons, 230,
Part 4: A Sisterhood at Emmitsburg, 251,
14 Half in the Sky, 253,
15 Endeavor, 275,
16 Trials of the Passage, 289,
Part 5: Becoming Mother Seton, 311,
17 Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven, 313,
18 War and Bustle, 326,
19 Our Meaning, 339,
20 Swift Rolling Earth, 353,
21 Written by Herself, 362,
22 I See My God, 391,
23 Eternity, 405,
Epilogue: Time, 420,
Acknowledgments, 437,
Notes, 441,
Bibliography, 481,
Index, 495,

What People are Saying About This

Betty Ann McNeil

"The manifest appeal of Elizabeth Seton stems not only from Catherine O’Donnell’s beautifully crafted narrative with its poetic diction, but also the display of the exuberance of Elizabeth’s temperament, talents, holiness, and the intensity of her love of God."

John T. McGreevy

"Elizabeth Seton is a thrilling achievement. Beginning in late eighteenth-century New York, O'Donnell makes superb use of an extraordinary archive to trace Seton's journey as a young woman in an affluent merchant family, a mother, a widow, a convert, a founder of a religious order, an institution builder and, eventually, a saint. The result is a compelling portrait of an American coming-of-age in the first decades after independence and a major contribution to our understanding of Catholicism during an enlightened age."

John Loughery

"In this thoroughly researched and elegantly written biography, Catherine O’Donnell enlarges our consideration of Elizabeth Seton from the worthy niche of religious history and locates her in the span of the history of the Early Republic.  An American original, Seton takes her place alongside leaders like Abigail Adams, Margaret Fuller, the Grimké sisters, and Lucretia Mott. For once, a biographer does this complex and compelling figure full justice."

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