Cover of 'Elizabeth Seton: American Saint.

America’s first saint a compelling story

By  KRISTINA GLICKSMAN, Catholic Register Special
  • March 7, 2019

Elizabeth Seton: American Saint by Catherine O’Donnell (Cornell University Press, 552 pages, hardcover, $37.44 on Amazon.ca)

seton book smallHere is a masterful work of scholarship that is also a joy to read. Elizabeth Seton: American Saint is a must-read for anyone interested in the saint herself, in the birth of the Catholic Church in America, or what it was like to be a woman in the early years of the country calling itself the United States of America.

Between Catherine O’Donnell’s expressive and well-balanced writing, the voices of the various characters and the drama of Mother Seton’s own life, Elizabeth Seton reads almost like a novel.

At the beginning of her life, no one would have guessed that Elizabeth Ann Bayley (later Seton) would become an emblem of American Catholicism and America’s first native-born saint. She was born in New York City in 1774, just eight months before the first shots of the American Revolution were fired. 

O’Donnell’s book charts the events and degrees by which this beautiful, intelligent young woman moved from being a young wife and mother caught up in the intricacies of upper class, Protestant New York society to becoming a figure at the heart of Catholic America, an indispensable spiritual influence and founder of the first religious order based in the U.S.

What makes this biography especially engaging is the survival of so much primary source material. This not only provides detail for the story, but is also quoted extensively, giving each of the many players in the story a unique, human voice.

 A large collection of letters both from Seton herself and from her broad network of family, friends and associates in an age of letter-writing adds a fascinating depth of colour to our understanding of this modern saint and also to the world in which she lived — as a woman in early American New York and an intelligent, active person with strong connections in both Protestant and Catholic society.

Elizabeth Ann Seton lived 200 years ago in a world without any of our modern technologies, from household electricity to central heating to vaccines. 

Despite this, many readers will find plenty to identify with in her lifelong pursuit of God and her place in His plans. There are also echoes of current challenges of the Church to find its place in modern Western society. 

Her experience as a devout Catholic living in a time and a place where Catholics were a small minority, viewed by the majority with a mixture of suspicion and disdain, is far from strange to Catholics today. Elizabeth grappled with the challenge of how to spread the truth of the Gospel without disturbing the harmony of a society that valued plurality of confessions and freedom of choice.

O’Donnell deftly situates St. Elizabeth within her historical and cultural context so that the reader comes away with an understanding not only of an American saint but also of the circumstances in which her life was immersed — the social, cultural and historical conditions that made up America of the late 1700s and early 1800s, and the developments, controversies and personalities which were an integral part of the early American Catholic Church. 

At the same time, while this is primarily a historical account, she skillfully navigates the saint’s spiritual life, refraining from judgment and never attempting to whitewash or apologize for aspects that might embarrass either a more worldly audience or one looking for a more traditionally pious portrayal of a saint. 

We see all the details of St. Elizabeth’s struggles and foibles, and identify the path by which she came to the holiness for which she is now venerated. But it was not a short or an easy path, and her personality and very human failings are abundantly clear.

Therein lies perhaps the book’s greatest contribution to the immense literature of saints’ biographies. Seen through the life of this one ordinary and yet extraordinary woman, sainthood has never seemed so attainable.

(Glicksman is a writer and editor living in Toronto.)


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