Studying Seton: A seminar with Catherine O’Donnell

Author: Maggie Elmore

The Seminar in American Religion convened Saturday, March 30, 2019, to discuss Catherine O’Donnell’s award-winning book, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint (Cornell University Press, 2018). O’Donnell is associate professor of history at Arizona State University and the author of Men of Letters in the Early Republic: Cultivating Forums of Citizenship. She was joined at Cushwa’s spring seminar by commentators Jake Lundberg, assistant professor of the practice and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame, and Margaret McGuinness, professor of religion at La Salle University.

O'Donnell's book details the remarkable life of Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton. Born into a prominent Protestant family in 1774, Seton would go on to found the American Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph (later the Daughters of Charity of St. Joseph). Throughout her difficult childhood and early years as a wife and mother, Seton sought greater spiritual fulfillment. In early adulthood, her quest led her to join a vibrant prayer circle led by John Henry Hobart. From there, Seton would embark on a difficult path toward conversion, and eventually become mother superior of a new community of women religious. At the seminar, O’Donnell described Seton as an “evangelical Protestant on a Catholic spiritual journey.” 

Lundberg and McGuinness brought two distinct focuses to O’Donnell’s work. Lundberg’s comments considered the craft of writing historical biography. He noted the particular difficulties historians encounter when they become biographers. A central question any author must ask in writing a biography is “What right does the biographer have to make a private life public?” Elizabeth Seton is a living presence—as a historical figure, as an American Catholic saint, and through the communities of women religious that carry on her work. “To tell her story is to see her through the inevitable refractions produced by such present and living legacies,” Lundberg said. Seton’s life, personal reflections, and conversion to Catholicism, Lundberg noted, also reflect the church’s struggle to establish itself in the United States in the post-Revolutionary period. 

McGuinness took up this last reflection in her analysis of O’Donnell’s work. Seton’s life, McGuinness remarked, was extraordinarily complicated. But her unusual upbringing made Seton open to exploring new paths to Christian life. Seton was not raised in a virulently anti-Catholic home. She spent much of her early adulthood seeking Christian fellowship—whether through Episcopalian prayer circles in New York, or with her hosts in Florence, Italy. Later on, Seton would have to grapple with the ways traditional roles shaped the relationship between Archbishop John Carroll (the United States’ first archbishop) and the Sulpicians in determining the final rules of the American Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph. Seton was not included in these discussions. Issues of gender and power, McGuinness observed, resist simple discussion. Outwardly, Seton presented herself as a genteel matron who was an acceptable—indeed, ideal—public face of Catholicism, even if underneath she was, in O’Donnell’s words, “prickly, full of questions, and roiling from her contact with authority.” 

Audience members brought a variety of questions and insights to the conversation. Several participants were struck by the importance of mortality in the book and the elaborate death scenes that Seton encountered throughout her life. Peter Williams (Miami University) asked how the emphasis on sin and the importance of dying a good death might have been connected to Catholic piety. Seton, O’Donnell shared, likely felt pressure to die an exemplary death, as did her daughter Anna Marie. Moreover, death was an aspect of daily life, a constant possibility. 

Other seminar members marveled at Seton’s decision that both Catholic and Protestant girls be admitted to the nation’s first Catholic girls’ school. Betty Ann McNeil, D.C. (DePaul University) shared that Seton differed with her superior, Father DuBois, over whether or not to admit Protestant children to St. Joseph’s Academy. Seton decided she would, despite DuBois’ insistence that only Catholic children be admitted.

Kyle Roberts (Loyola University Chicago) asked about the experience of women who sought to establish authority in spiritual writing as well as communal leadership. Women like Seton who emerged as spiritual leaders struggled with self-doubt and melancholy. O’Donnell described these women as “spiritual athletes.” Seton’s conversion to Catholicism provided her with institutional resources and allowed her to immerse herself in a world of faith. Indeed, Seton would go on not only to found the Sisters of Charity and the first Catholic girls’ school in the United States, but more than a century and a half after her death, in 1975, she would become the first native-born citizen of the United States to be canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. 


Maggie Elmore is a postdoctoral research associate with the Cushwa Center. She will join Sam Houston State University in August 2019 as assistant professor of Latino history.