American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton
Born to a prominent New York family two years before the American Revolution, Elizabeth Seton’s life took a sharp turn away from its predestined path of ease and prestige. A series of harsh events and her own leaning toward spirituality caused her to forsake her class and status, leave one religion and become canonized in another. In this dramatic account, Joan Barthel (A DEATH IN CANAAN, A DEATH IN CALIFORNIA) brings alive not just the verve and stubbornness of America’s first Catholic nun, but also the tenor of the times, with the country in flux and sectarian prejudices abounding.
Barthel opens the book when Seton and her husband Will, having left their five children in the care of relatives back home, were quarantined in Italy, where they had come in hopes of effecting a cure for his tuberculosis. Confined to quarters little better than a prison, sorely missing her children and watching her husband languishing in pain, Seton turned to God for solace: “…pray I do, for prayer is all my comfort.” In Italy, after her husband’s death, she may have fallen in love with Antonio Filicchi, a business associate of her in-laws. But more significantly, Seton, an Episcopalian, fell in love with Catholicism. The mystery of the Mass overwhelmed her, and the love of Mary for Jesus struck her mother's heart: "If anyone is in heaven, His mother must be there."
"Joan Barthel... brings alive not just the verve and stubbornness of America’s first Catholic nun, but also the tenor of the times, with the country in flux and sectarian prejudices abounding."
Returning to America, Seton soon encountered the wall of resistance to the "Romish" church among her Protestant set. But she was inexorably drawn to Catholicism by pure irresistible love. Once her mind and heart were made up, she gave herself totally to the church, started several Catholic schools, and wrote of her spiritual profession, "A cave or a desert would better satisfy my Natural desire, but God has given me a great deal to do." Obeying her male mentors in the church hierarchy, willingly living in poverty, she could still call on admirers like Filicchi to support her charitable projects.
Her humility had a stubborn side: when she asked for favors, she believed God wanted her to receive them. She was a skilled tactician who rarely gave up on a goal. Eventually she was the "mother" of a small group of dedicated, hardworking women who dressed in black, cared for orphans, and became the Sisters of Charity, the first order of nuns in the United States.
Barthel gives a reporter’s objective account of Seton’s remarkable life, painting her as a physically small woman beset by health problems (she died of tuberculosis at age 46), but also paradoxically a determined, intelligent dynamo who consciously chose to bend her will to God’s (and oftentimes, it seemed, bent His to her own). The book elucidates the beatification and canonization that have given Elizabeth Seton her status as our first saint, for whom many schools and charitable institutions are named. Amidst all of the complexities of the process, Barthel states, "One thing stood out: Elizabeth's spirituality."
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on April 4, 2014