"Elizabeth Seton: American Saint"

Craving a Presence

We publish an interview with historian Catherine O'Donnell, author of "Elizabeth Seton: American Saint." Her book was recommended as one of the summer readings in the United States communities.
Annemarie Bacich

Catherine O’Donnell is an historian of early America and heads the history faculty at Arizona State University in Tempe. In April, Dr. O’Donnell spoke about St. Elizabeth Seton at the annual Communion and Liberation priest retreat that took place at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, AZ. Her book, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint, published in September 2018, is a fascinating and comprehensive biography of this uniquely American saint and one of the recommended summer reads this year. During her research, she had the help of Sisters and Daughters of Charity who maintained Mother Seton’s archives. We publish here some excerpts of the discussion with Dr. O’Donnell.

Can you speak about the significance Elizabeth Ann Seton as the first American saint to be canonized, both in terms of her heritage and her mentality?

She lived through so many changes and tended to immerse herself in whatever set of ideas was around her at the time. She was born in New York when it was little more than a town, being born almost into the American revolution. She was brought up in a genteelly Episcopalian society. She always had a craving for Presence, a craving for an experience of Divinity. But that was not happening within the Anglican or Episcopalian Church. She loved to read and craved her father’s attention, and he was a sort of cranky medical crusader who was not interested in going to church. Her mother had died, and Elizabeth was being raised by an unintentionally cold and awkward step mother. So, for her own interest and to get her father’s attention, she read as much as she could; Roman histories, scientific journals, and more. She loved Rousseau, which later drove her spiritual directors crazy. She had letters in which she referred to “Dear JJ,” which is dear Jean Jacques. She was interested in Emile which is about a sort of abstract divinity. Rousseau presents an image of God that appealed to her.

She did marry, and she had a very happy marriage, but when her husband was in his thirties, it was clear that he had consumption and he was going bankrupt. And it was at this point that she did become interested in Episcopalianism. She became really invested in a particular kind of liturgical, but highly emotional Episcopalianism. She read her Bible, directed scripture reading, but she also had a whole range of influences. Some of that openness which she had as a New Yorker was actually why she was willing to go to mass when she ended up in Italy just after her husband’s death. Her openness to experiences was what brought her into contact with the Catholic Church.

Elizabeth Seton’s conversion didn’t happen in a flash of enlightenment. It was a journey. Can you tell us about that journey?

Well, her husband had gone bankrupt. She desperately loved him and they both knew he was going to die, but she held out some hope that they could go to Italy and reconnect with a merchant family, the Filicchi, and William’s business would be saved by the Filicchi and his health would be saved by the soft Italian air. They were quarantined upon arrival and he died within a month.

The Filicchi had a desire of spreading Catholicism to the United States, which they actually felt could be a safer home for it than post French Revolution Europe. When they had Elizabeth in their house after William’s death, Filippo Felicchi thought, “I can work with this...” He wrote to Bishop John Carroll, the first bishop or the United States, and said two things that aren’t really true: “I am being very subtle, and she is quite docile.” Then we have excerpts from her journals at the time where she said, “These charitable Romans! They are determined to win me over.” She thought, “I’ll be polite. I’ll go and look at their pretty churches,” and she found herself moved. She was moved when learning about Mary, which was not something that had been alive to her in her life as a Protestant woman. She was deeply moved by art. She had a simultaneous aesthetic and spiritual reaction to art. But she began to realize what was happening to her when she was attending mass and an English man, a tourist, whispered to her, “This is the part when these people believe this happens.” And she was horrified because this was not a spectacle for her. She felt, “I am inside this now.” So, the figure of Mary, the promise of transubstantiation, the culture of the saints--all of these things were deeply moving to her.

She decided she’d convert, but when she’d go back to New York. Her minister, John Henry Hobart, with whom she had a real collaboration--she almost turned him into a spiritual director before she had any idea of the Catholic idea of spiritual director--was horrified. For months and months, Hobart and the Felicchi from Italy really started battling for her soul. They both wrote 80-page treatises explaining why she should be Episcopalian in one case and why she should be Catholic in another. She read Augustine, apologetics, and spiritual writings. But Hobart made a critical mistake. Hobart immediately entered the ground of, “You must choose between Episcopalians and Catholicism,” which was not the ground he was going to win on. Apologetics convinced her she had to choose, but it could not convince her what to choose. She ended up not going to Episcopalian services, not going to mass, and depriving herself of any community. But she was convinced that she absolutely wanted a language of faith and a fellowship of faith.

This was a woman of the Enlightenment who was trying to reason her way to the correct answer about how she should worship and how her children should worship, and she got to the end of that sidewalk and said, “It has to be faith. I’m not going to reason my way to this answer.” In some sense she gave in to her emotional, spiritual response to the promise of the Catholic Church. She wrote at one point something like, “If the Catholic God cheats by giving people gesture and feasts and beauty, that's the One I want.” She wanted the God who shows an understanding of human beings rather than a sort of abstractly demanding God.

Bacich (L) and O'Donnell

She converted at 31 with five small children, but she had a dream of dedicating herself totally to God. She ended up following a Vincentian charism, but also kept a level of independence from European schemas regarding the religious life. Can you speak about that?

In some sense, she literally did not know what she was getting into. She had seen nuns in Italy, and she wanted to completely immerse herself in worship and make her life purposeful for God, so much so that at times it was difficult for her to mother. She loved mothering, and she exuded affection for her children. At the same time, she loved to be alone and to pray. And part of the struggle for everyone, the clergy advising her and for Elizabeth herself, was to figure out how to be Mother and a mother. Which is also something that others have faced in Europe. Yet this is not a story of a mother leaving her clinging children behind as she enters the convent.

The French Sulpician priests who were advising her were eager to create a world in which her daughters could live, and in which she could also found a community. It was a little utopian in her mind in the beginning. As an American historian, I think of the idea of Brook Farm, where good people will live together and everything will just be good. She chafed at the rule in various ways, but she became deeply grateful for the effects of the rule and understood that good communities make good people rather than good people make good communities. It’s not an either-or, but she moved towards the second position. She wanted to teach children practical skills, she wanted to teach girls in a fairly modern way, she wanted her children with her, and she wanted to have specific relationships with the women around her.

There was no fear of particular relationships, there was an embrace of particular relationships. One of her unofficial directors, Fr. Dubois, was trying to move her to a more conventional way of living in community. But she insisted on maintaining these particular relationships. She was deeply grateful when the vagaries of the age of revolutions interfered and the French nuns couldn’t make it over to the US. The same clergy who had wanted the Daughters of Charity to come from France, thinking “We will wrap this community into a universal Catholicism; We don’t want to be this weird offshoot,” when the Daughters could not make it to the US had a sense of general relief. It became clear to Elizabeth, and eventually the clergy around her, that adaptations were going to make this community thrive in the United States. They were not a threat to Catholicism in the United States, but rather they were the way Catholicism in the US was going to take root.

In the beginning, she had no desire to be a teacher, yet she has come to be known as the mother of American Catholic education. Can you speak about her approach to education?

Right after her conversion there was the idea that she would be a teacher. At the time, it was one of the only ways a woman of her stature could work outside of the home. When she first moved to Baltimore, she was running a school and she was grateful to be in Baltimore. It was a more Catholic society, but you could feel her disappointment in that this was not the heroic life of her imagination, the “noble life, all for God.” She was teaching rich girls in Baltimore. She was grateful that the Sisters of Charity community was created, but she was more of a natural contemplative forced into a life of active benevolence who then utterly immersed herself in that life. And she used this language, that this was in some sense “her cross to bear,” to live a life of bustle rather than a life of contemplation. The fact that it didn’t entirely come naturally to her enriched her sense of other people’s struggles, and actually this awareness became part of her benevolence.

She was great with girls. There are letters from girls who clearly adored her. They were in their twenties and thirties and they still wrote to her remembering Mother Seton. Elizabeth cultivated their minds; she reached out into the minds of her students. And she gave specific loving attention to each person. Who are you? What are your concerns? How can I make you into a better person? She was a woman of sharp judgement and she was also funny! Early in her life you see this observational humor where she saw people’s foibles, and that softened and gentled over time, but she had this healthy sense that we are all absurd. She could also convey a kind of demand; she was demanding but she saw you. She saw people and was working to improve them. Her father disapproved of corporal punishment coming out of an enlightenment tradition, as she did, and also the priests she worked with did. But you get this sense that these girls would do anything not to upset Mother. She had a charismatic authority as a teacher. It was structured, intellectually ambitious for the day, and also deeply humane, and the word that comes to mind is specific. There was nothing abstract about her benevolence. It was specific to each person.

What can the Church of today learn from St. Elizabeth Seton?

She had so many roles in her life. She was a stepchild in her own home, she was a happily married wife and mother, she was a widow, a single mother, a convert who deeply valued Protestantism, and deeply valued intellectual currents. She believed in science and she also found such solace and sustenance in the Church, in its material culture, the beauty of the Church, the way the Church brought heaven to earth, connecting them. I think people respond to her, even when the institutional Church is not responding to them at that moment. People from a range of positions, or traditions, or uncertainties find in her someone who, like when she was alive, sees them. You just feel seen. There is a kindredness there.

The last thing I would say is that as a modern person in the world, I was moved by her struggle to proselytize. When she converted, you understand why she wanted to tell people about her faith and try to convert them. She felt this was the only safe path, and she was not a relativist. She felt there was a safer path, a richer tradition, and it was Catholicism. But thinking in part of her own conversion and becoming deeply aware of everyone’s frailty, including her own, she really decided, “I will live my faith. I will not try to persuade, other than by living my faith.” I find that helpful. Even when today you are not supposed to say anything at all or be grounded in any tradition--she was absolutely grounded, and yet, she would not try to argue people into sharing her views, but would try to inspire them or to act through love, so that they would want to know more and participate in that. She wrote at a certain point (I’m paraphrasing), “I remember my own experience. Nobody talked me into the faith, I didn’t figure it out. Only God can roll away the heaviest stone.” She had certainty, but it was in absolute humility. And she did attract people to the faith, but not through argumentation.