By Joan Barthel
Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was an American original. Born into New York’s upper crust in 1774, she was the daughter of a prominent doctor, raised a devout Episcopalian, married a well-to-do businessman, William Seton, had five children and worked with others from her parish, Trinity Church, to assist needy widows and children. When the Napoleonic Wars took several of his ships, William Seton suffered bankruptcy, and Elizabeth learned to make do and do without.
When Seton’s longtime tuberculosis worsened, they went to Italy, where he died; when introduced to Roman Catholicism, Elizabeth was instantly attracted. She converted formally in 1805 and was ostracized; she was persuaded to start a religious school in Maryland, took vows and founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, the first American order of nuns, as its mother superior. She died in 1821, at the age of 46, was beatified in 1963 and canonized in 1975.
St. Louis author Joan Barthel’s “American Saint” is drawn primarily from Elizabeth Seton’s own writings. Although this is, strictly speaking, a hagiography ― the biography of a saint ― it focuses on the woman, her faults as well as strengths clearly delineated. Despite her piety, Elizabeth Seton was never a plaster saint: she could be volatile, she contemplated suicide, she was attractive and attracted to men, she was generally strict, she could be cold and unsympathetic. She was at least indirectly responsible for the deaths of two of her children when she took them with her to the wilderness convent.
Seton was also responsible for the long tradition of nuns serving as housekeepers to priests; she more often stood up to the male clerics who had authority over the sisters when they overstepped what she regarded as appropriate. That horrified some foreign-born clerics who were unaccustomed to women religious who knew and spoke their own minds.
As with many nonfiction books, there are some novelistic imaginings: “Elizabeth woke in darkness, to the ringing of church bells. A wind gusted through crevices in the brick wall; the room was clenched in cold. Waves crashed on the rocks below as white foam splashed high and hard against the little barred window, blotting out the moonlight.”
Barthel’s material is fascinating, but she hasn’t organized it well. The first half of the book is the strongest; curiously, it loses momentum when she gets to the most interesting part, Seton’s conversion and journey to Maryland. More exploration of the effects (and wisdom) of taking her daughters with her to a religious community devoid of material comforts would have been helpful, as would more about her daughter Catherine, the only daughter who survived her, and who became a nun herself.
The book has numerous factual errors, and Barthel gives short shrift to the Anglicanism that nurtured Seton’s religious faith. Known as the “Via Media” (Middle Way) for its combination of Catholicism and Protestantism, the Anglican Communion has retained the Apostolic Succession, the three orders of clergy, the primacy of the sacraments and the traditional liturgy. Seton would have been unlikely to move so easily to the Roman Catholic Church without her solid Episcopalian background.
Still, using Seton’s own words, Barthel has created an intriguing portrait of a strong woman with a strong faith who made a lasting difference for good. Before tuberculosis claimed her, Seton wrote, “I am sick, but not dying; troubled on every side, but not distressed; perplexed, but not despairing; afflicted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; knowing the affliction of this life is but for a moment, while the glory in the life to come will be eternal.”
Those are saintly words indeed. (MCT)