Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born American citizen to be canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Seton Hall University bears her name, having been founded by a nephew of hers, Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley of the Archdiocese of Newark.
Despite some structural problems, I found this a fascinating biography of this passionate, able, assertive, and devoted woman who within four years of her conversion to Roman Catholicism founded and served as the first leader of a women’s religious community.
First the structural problems. The first part of the book moves back and forth between the Setons last ditch attempt to save Will’s life through a trip to Italy, and the early years of Elizabeth Seton’s life leading up to this death. While illustrating her religious devotion and growing appreciation of Catholicism as explained by her Italian hosts (a business partner of Will’s). It ends up to me being a protracted death narrative. I would have favored covering this chronologically rather than the back and forth approach taken. The remainder of the book is chronological.
Aside from this, the biography gives us a good narrative of the formation of this saint–born into a well-to-do New York family, bereft of her mother at age three, daughter of a father who was a distinguished physician who died caring for patients in a yellow fever epidemic, married into a wealthy import-export merchant’s family whose fortunes decline after Will’s father dies. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s devotion continues to grow under the Episcopal rector John Henry Hobart’s direction. It is Hobart’s sermons that Elizabeth reads for solace as she desperately tries to care for Will in Italy as he is dying of tuberculosis.
Following Will’s death, she returns to the US and is received into St Peters Roman Catholic Church in New York in March of 1805 and confirmed by the first American Bishop, John Carroll in 1806. As an impoverished widow she struggles to survive and feed her children until invited to open a Catholic school for girls in Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1809. In July of that year, she forms the first American community of women religious dedicated to caring for the poor and the education of Catholic girls.
In the forming of this religious community what stands out is both what an able leader Seton is and her struggle with men in the Catholic hierarchy. I do think the author is making a point about the tensions between the male hierarchy and women religious in the US Catholic church, that these go back to the beginnings of the church in this country. The author also traces the deep relationships between Seton and other women and the spiritual friendships that she developed.
Barthel portrays the deep spirituality of this woman as she faces the loss of husband and later, two daughters (two of the three to tuberculosis, from which she also ultimately dies). Her devotion is not a highly theological one but rather one centered around the Eucharist and the scriptures and a life of prayer. In this she perhaps serves as a model for most Christians who do not have advanced theological training but can live devoted and significant lives, nonetheless.
Last of all, I’ve been struck with what a scourge tuberculosis was until the advent of antibiotics. “Consumption” turns up in so many stories of this period, whether it is a Tolstoy novel or a saints biography or in operas like La Boheme. It is a blessing that this is treatable, while a concern that recent recurrences have resulted in drug-resistant forms of the disease.
The book concludes with an epilogue discussing Elizabeth Ann Seton’s canonization and the process involved including the “vetting” of miracles and the use of a “devil’s advocate”. She became a saint in 1975 and her feast day is January 4.
[This review is based on a complimentary e-galley version of this book provided by the publisher through Netgalley. I have not been in any other way compensated for the review of this book.]