- Elizabeth Seton: American Saint by Catherine O'Donnell
At the tip of lower Manhattan—just blocks from Wall Street and overlooking Battery Park—stand two three-story red-brick buildings. Dwarfed by a trio of glass and metal skyscrapers, the Church of Our [End Page 569] Lady of the Rosary serves as a spiritual home to the neighborhood faithful and an unlikely landmark to female piety amid the hustle and bustle of the city's financial district.
The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary is home to the New York shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the subject of historian Catherine O'Donnell's marvelous new biography, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint. Born in 1774, just days before the First Continental Congress, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was a New Yorker and a woman of the early republic. Growing up in a family whose professional and commercial prospects were tied to those of the new nation, and married into another, the young Betsy Bayley experienced early and profound losses—first her mother, then her husband—while seeking spiritual direction to make sense of a changing world. With Seton's life story, read alongside Kyle Roberts's Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City (Chicago, 2016) and Anne M. Boylan's The Origins of Women's Activism: New York and Boston, 1797–1840 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2004), O'Donnell has rewritten the history and geography of early nineteenth-century Manhattan as a religious one.
By paying attention not only to the details of Seton's life story but also to its transatlantic context, O'Donnell reassesses the impact of North American anti-Catholicism that has been the focus of so many nineteenth-century narratives. To study the life of an elite convert like Seton, O'Donnell argues, means we can see "unmistakable evidence that anti-Catholic sentiment was less pervasive and monolithic in the early American republic than is commonly portrayed, and we witness Catholics confidently competing in the American marketplace of religion" (6–7). Still, Seton worried about the effects of her conversion on her children's already disrupted lives; she understood that her New York circle of friends and family would be aghast at her attraction to Roman Catholicism.
Elizabeth Seton is also a story of that circle. The book follows Seton's travels and, in particular, the network of men that made her transit possible, building on ideas that O'Donnell developed in her first monograph, Men of Letters in the Early Republic: Cultivating Forums of Citizenship (Chapel Hill, NC, 2008). The author interrogates Seton's reliance on the spiritual counsel of charismatic, learned men by examining the most important personal and working relationships in Seton's life: Trinity Church minister John Henry Hobart, the Italians Filippo and Antonio Filicchi who encouraged Seton's interest in Roman Catholicism, and the [End Page 570] U.S. priests and bishops who eased her way into the American Church and later provided support for a nascent sisterhood.
O'Donnell smartly juxtaposes Seton's dependence on men with her parallel search for independence—specifically, time to read and write and think. This Elizabeth Seton is a woman happiest in contemplation; an unlikely leader, grappling with both literal and spiritual motherhood. In an important, though brief, note on Seton's early participation in Isabella Graham's Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, for example, O'Donnell revises an often-told story that this benevolent work should be understood as foreshadowing the creation of the Sisters of Charity. O'Donnell suggests, instead, that "left to herself, [Seton] was more inclined to read and contemplate than to organize a reform movement" (68). Elizabeth Seton craved solitude, a near-impossible goal for a woman of her time, and one that puts her story at odds with standard biographies of female builders and leaders of religious communities. "The best ingredients of happiness," Seton once wrote, were "order, peace, and solitude" (266).
The biography's most compelling aspect is its pursuit of the tension between Seton's...