Elizabeth Seton

American Saint

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Catherine O'Donnell
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , September
     2018.
     552 pages.
     $36.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781501705786.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Catherine O’Donnell’s Elizabeth Seton: American Saint is a gift to students of US history, US Catholicism, and Setonian affiliates of every kind. This first critical biography of the first US born saint in nearly seventy years is painstakingly researched and remarkably well-written. With ample historian’s aplomb, O’Donnell weaves a compelling narrative that is easy to follow—indeed, a page-turner—and historically complex.

From O’Donnell’s biography there emerges a portrait of a strong, holy leader with affectionate and demanding care in her relationships, a pioneer in religious life and education with a touch of wanderlust, a curious learner with a deep devotion to God, who navigated ecclesial realities with some frustration and a good bit of savvy. Central to her story are Seton’s many relationships, including her vocation as mother to her five biological children and Mother of the religious community she founded. It was Seton’s resourcefulness—spurred by similar experiments of the Ursulines in Canada and the Daughters of Charity in France—in working within the Council of Trent mandate that women religious be cloistered, that resulted in the beginning of Catholic education in the United States.

O’Donnell’s expertise in the early American republic allows her to situate Seton within that context, offering a fresh viewpoint on Seton’s life. Her social circle included George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Her commonplace book and letters demonstrate the early influences of John Milton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Alexander Pope, among others. While Seton moved away from some of their ideas as her life progressed, she never swayed from the position that education was important for girls as well as boys, demonstrated by the approach of the school she founded, St. Joseph’s Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland (282), as well as passing along her commonplace book, filled with quotations from seminal works, to her daughter (372).

The book nuances facile conclusions about Seton and her life by paying careful attention to the sources. For example, reading certain letters and journals in isolation has led some to conclude that the Bayley and Seton families ostracized the young, single mother after her conversion. However, O’Donnell carefully demonstrates how the relationship was more complex. Financial support never wavered, even if there were some disapproving letters from the upper-class Episcopalians (194-200, 270-74). The book also deals with the reality of slavery in and around Seton’s life. O’Donnell helpfully draws our attention to the ways in which slaves supported Mount St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s Academy, in some cases directly by their work and in others, indirectly by profits generated from their sale (e.g., 241). O’Donnell refrains from demonizing those associated with the slave trade, instead taking us deeper into their complicated lives and sketching the range of early 19th century positions on the issue (e.g., 384). 

O’Donnell is to be commended for dealing carefully and seriously with Seton’s prayer life, her writing about her conversion from Episcopalianism to Catholicism, and the theological framework that emerges from her papers. She does this critically, but sympathetically. As Robert Orsi has pointed out, in the name of objectivity, historians and other scholars of religion have bracketed the presence of God in the lives of their subjects. Not so for O’Donnell. She avoids the temptation to wrest Seton from her sainthood, instead insisting that her sanctity as founder of the Sisters of Charity is precisely what makes scholarly work on Seton possible (437). 

Therefore, a full-throated, non-hagiographical depiction of Seton’s relationship with God—insofar as such a thing is possible to reconstruct—is a real benefit of the book. For example, O’Donnell tells us that Elizabeth’s Catholicism “engaged the emotions and the senses as well as the mind. Saints’ pictures and holy relics did not diminish God’s immensity and otherness but rather acknowledged that people needed help to turn their finite minds toward infinity” (320). On a lighter note, Seton’s faith did not lack a sense of humor, but led her to cherish “moments when a child’s rudeness or an adult’s unthinking candor sliced through pious convention” (406-07). O’Donnell presents Seton’s emotional joys and struggles with God throughout her life including her bouts of spiritual dryness. She situates Seton’s life within a long line of mystics, contemplatives, and converts throughout the ages, including Augustine of Hippo, Teresa of Avila (to whom Seton had a particular devotion), Julian of Norwich, Orestes Brownson, and Kateri Tekakwitha.

Early in the book, there are several places where more care could have been taken in explaining theological matters. O’Donnell describes young Elizabeth Bayley Seton’s claim that “every one must be respected in their own [way]” as a “gentle ecumenism” (130, 134), an odd use of that later term for the movement toward Christian unity. Elizabeth’s friends, especially Episcopalian priest John Henry Hobart and Catholic Filippo Filicchi, were given to exaggerative polemics. Yet, phrases such as “the [Catholic] rite transformed bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ” (97) and “Episcopalians … understood the moment to be symbolic, not literal” (133) are not in quotation marks. “Literal” is precisely what the doctrine of transubstantiation, which Seton mentions, does not say. If these descriptions are in the sources, it would be helpful for O’Donnell to indicate so. Following O’Donnell’s quotations of Seton’s own words, it appears that Elizabeth’s position was more nuanced, yearning for the daily Eucharistic reception and enduring Eucharistic presence of the Catholic communion (137, 141), both of which were not part of her Episcopalian practice.

These minor quibbles aside, the book is a major achievement in the field. It deserves a wide readership and would be particularly appropriate for graduate courses in US Religion or US Catholicism. The accessibility of O’Donnell’s prose would also make it a suitable addition to advanced undergraduate courses.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy R. Gabrielli is Associate Professor of Theology at Seton Hill University.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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: Cultivating Forums of Citizenship.

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