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Reviewed by:
  • American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton by Joan Barthel
  • Judith Metz S.C.
American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton. By Joan Barthel, with a foreword by Maya Angelou. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014. 304 pp. $26.99.

Joan Barthel has written a fresh, insightful, and interesting new biography of the United States’ first native-born saint. Not only does she trace Elizabeth Seton’s (1774-1821) path from socialite to outcast, from wealth to poverty, from Episcopalian to Catholic, and from wife to religious sister, but Barthel also shows how each step of the way led Seton to a deeper and more mature relationship with God.

The author introduces Seton during one of the most dramatic and heart-wrenching episodes in her life – her incarceration, with her dying husband and young daughter, at the quarantine in the port of Livorno, Italy. “Elizabeth awoke in darkness to the ringing of church bells,” the author begins, and goes on to describe the gusting winds, the room clenched in cold, waves crashing, and barred windows. The [End Page 74] narrative continues with vivid descriptions of Seton’s physical space, her relationships, and the situations with which she was confronted throughout her life.

Every phase of Elizabeth Seton’s life is vividly explored as the author intertwines it with the political, social, and intellectual milieu of the period. Raised a member of the first class of society, she married William Magee Seton, heir of a prominent merchant family. During the ten years of her married life, she delighted in her five children, while supporting her husband in his declining health and financial distress. A dependent widow at twenty-nine, Seton made the courageous decision to join the then-derided Catholic Church. Seeking a friendly environment and a means of supporting herself and her family, she moved to Baltimore, started a school, and found herself at the center of forming a religious community of Sisters of Charity, the first in the United States.

In compelling style, the author explores the transitions and challenges Seton encountered throughout her life. Using Seton’s own writings plus numerous other sources, Barthel offers colorful detail and deep insights into Seton’s life and her rich and enduring relationships. Focusing on her faith, her courage and her integrity the author provides a comprehensive portrait of this remarkable woman.

Barthel evokes a feeling of intimacy with her subject that draws the reader into the saint’s story. The characters, such as Seton’s dedicated father, her life-long women friends, her lovable children, her spiritual mentors, and those who opposed her come alive in the text.

This biography offers an engaging picture of Seton’s life. Recently I was involved with a group, all of whom read this book. Each person was enthusiastic in his/her response and felt they had established a deep connection with Seton’s life.

Well researched and readable, this biography is written in a very engaging style. While earlier biographies are chronological and more systematic in their approach, this work has the feel of a story unfolding. It is suitable for both undergraduate and graduate courses, [End Page 75] and also accessible to the general reader. It is a welcome addition to the body of literature available on Elizabeth Seton.

Judith Metz S.C.
Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati


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pp. 74-76
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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