Elizabeth Bayley Seton is the first native-born US citizen to be made a Roman Catholic saint. Canonized in 1975, Seton founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, the first vowed community of Catholic women religious created in the United States. Seton’s sainthood marked the culmination of a role she first served during her life: a respectable, benevolent face for a church whose local leaders were eager to demonstrate its compatibility with American culture. Seton’s founding of the American Sisters of Charity was a more practical achievement and one that shaped the Catholic Church in the United States in tangible ways. Starting in 1809, when Seton began a school and vowed community in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the Sisters of Charity expanded throughout the United States, eventually running hundreds of schools and orphanages and offering both a spiritual home and a career path for women who chose it. Seton’s life is expressive for what it reveals about her era as well as for her distinctive achievements. Her prominence led to the preservation of decades of correspondence and spiritual writings. Through them it is possible to see with unusual clarity the ways in which the Age of Revolutions and the rise of Napoleon variously disrupted, reinvigorated, and transformed Catholic traditions; to observe the possibilities and constraints Catholicism offered a spiritually ambitious woman; and to witness changes in the relationship between Protestants and Catholics in the United States. Finally, Seton’s rich archive also renders visible one woman’s experience of intellectual inquiry, marriage, widowhood, motherhood, spiritual ambition, and female friendship.
Jews began to arrive in the present-day South during the late 17th century and established community institutions in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, in the colonial era. These communities, along with Richmond, Virginia, accounted for a sizable minority of American Jews during the early 19th century. As Jewish migration to the United States increased, northern urban centers surpassed southern cities as national centers of Jewish life, although a minority of American Jews continued to make their way to southern market hubs in the mid-19th century. From Reconstruction through the “New South” era, Jews played a visible role in the development of the region’s commercial economy, and they organized Jewish institutions wherever they settled in sufficient numbers. In many respects, Jewish experiences in the South mirrored national trends. Jewish life developed similarly in small towns, whether in Georgia, Wisconsin, or California. Likewise, relationships between acculturated Jews and east European newcomers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries played out according to similar dynamics regardless of region. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Jewish life in the South resulted from Jewish encounters with the region’s particular history of race and racism. The “classical” era of the Civil Rights movement highlights this fact, as southern Jews faced both heightened scrutiny from southern segregationists and frustration from northern coreligionists who supported the movement. Since the 1970s, overall trends in southern history have once again led to changes in the landscape of southern Jewry. Among other factors, the continued migration from rural to urban areas undermined the customer base for once-ubiquitous small-town Jewish retail businesses, and growing urban centers have attracted younger generations of Jewish professionals from both inside and outside the region. Consequently, the 21st-century Jewish South features fewer of the small-town communities that once typified the region, and its larger Jewish centers are not as identifiably “southern” as they once were.