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date: 02 December 2021

Elizabeth Seton, American Saintfree

Elizabeth Seton, American Saintfree

  • Catherine O'DonnellCatherine O'DonnellSchool of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies, Arizona State University


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.


  • Early National History
  • Women's History
  • Religious History

Seton’s Life before Catholicism


Seton was born in New York in 1774. Her father, Richard Bayley, was an ambitious physician who investigated the causes of the diseases plaguing Manhattan. Her mother, Catherine Charlton Bayley, was the daughter of an Anglican rector. As war loomed, Richard sailed for England to continue his medical education, leaving Catherine with their two young daughters, Elizabeth and her older sister Mary. Bayley returned as a medical officer in the British army during the occupation of New York. Catherine died in 1777, soon after giving birth to the couple’s third child, a daughter who did not survive. Seton’s earliest memories were of mourning these losses.

Seton spent her childhood in a city and family recovering from war. Bayley remarried quickly after his first wife’s death, choosing a young woman named Charlotte Barclay from a prominent Loyalist clan. Charlotte bore seven children, but she proved an awkward mother both to her stepdaughters and to her own offspring. Elizabeth and Mary were often sent to stay with an aunt and uncle in New Rochelle, north of the city. Elizabeth craved her father’s attention, and the strains in the family left her feeling like an exile even when in her father’s household.1

Early Religious and Intellectual Influences

Seton’s sainthood has both preserved and obscured the evidence of her idiosyncratic and unpredictable choices: preserved because her admirers have kept and catalogued decades of correspondence, documents from the community she founded, and fragmentary journals she wrote throughout her life; and obscured because, beginning with Seton herself, people have overlaid that evidence with stories portraying her path as one that led through thickets of persecution toward the haven of orthodox Catholic belief. Writing the story of Elizabeth Seton as a woman requires freeing her from the template Catholic sainthood has imposed on her by placing her in the context of other spiritually ambitious women of her era and by dissecting broad claims of anti-Catholicism in order to view the welter of motives, allegiances, and simple disagreements those claims contain. It requires analysis of the gendered architecture of the Manhattan society into which she was born and of the Catholic structures—of monasticism, clerical hierarchy, and lay life—into which she moved. Finally, it is also necessary to recognize the ways in which the template of sainthood actually did shape Seton’s choices, rendering authentic some congruences between models of Catholic believership and womanhood and the patterns of Seton’s life.

Evidence from Seton’s early years suggests institutional Christianity did not play a large role within it. She almost certainly attended Episcopal services in both Manhattan and New Rochelle, but her papers contain no impressions of those services, nor does she mention them in a brief memoir she later wrote. Seton’s silence on the subject accords with her purpose in writing that memoir: to draw readers to the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, it is plausible that she was unmoved by the Episcopalianism she knew in these postwar years. Trinity Church’s ministers were not celebrated for their preaching, and her beloved father displayed little interest in organized religion.

Catholicism also played no role in Seton’s early life. In the United States as in Great Britain, many Protestants considered Catholicism a faith rooted in superstition, a corrupt form of Christianity practiced by people whose first loyalty lay with a pope in Rome.2 Despite this traditional antipathy, Catholicism made a place for itself in the new American nation. Many Catholics fought with the patriots during the Revolution, and a French Catholic king allied with colonists against an English Protestant one. After his inauguration, George Washington replied to well wishes sent on behalf of American Catholics with a letter thanking them for “the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of [the Revolution].”3 During Seton’s childhood and adolescence, the Catholic Church began to build a rudimentary ecclesiastical hierarchy. John Carroll, from a wealthy Maryland clan, became the nation’s first bishop and then archbishop.

New York’s constitution, adopted during the war, required officeholders to forswear “all foreign ecclesiastical authority” and demanded immigrant Catholics renounce allegiance to the pope before attaining citizenship. But in 1784, New York’s legislature gave all Christian denominations, including Catholics, standing equal to that of the Episcopal communion. So long as parishes elected trustees to control property and manage business transactions—as Protestant congregations did—New York’s Catholics were allowed to incorporate their churches. Well-heeled Catholics did just that, as well as securing a lease from Trinity Church for land on which to build a church and hiring the architect of New York’s much-admired Federal Hall to design what became St. Peter’s.4 The young Elizabeth Bayley paid it no attention, but an American Catholic Church was being born.

Oblivious to Catholicism and apparently not much moved by Episcopalianism, Seton nonetheless did, by her later account, seek out moments in which she felt a divine presence. Later writings contain descriptions of vivid intimations of God’s love. The series of revivals known as the Second Great Awakening was just beginning in the late 1780s and early 1790s. Methodist preachers preached in the New Rochelle area in the late 1780s, and revivals often had at their centers young people weeping and trembling at the enormity of God’s power and mercy. Seton used the words “enthusiasm” and “enthusiastic” to describe her experiences, offering indirect but suggestive evidence that she was touched by evangelicalism, since those words were often applied—critically—to evangelicals. Seton’s eventual embrace of Catholicism put her at odds with most of her countrymen (John Carroll estimated the total Catholic population in the United States at 30,000 in 1790, and the Second Great Awakening drew few in the direction of the Church), but her interest in intense religious feeling was shared by many of her contemporaries.5

Seton participated in the Atlantic intellectual world, as well as the spiritual one. At first under the direction of her father, and then through her own initiative, she read ancient history as well as contemporary philosophers including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. Reading was a distraction as well as an avocation: a tendency toward self-recrimination provoked melancholy, and so did her family’s unhappiness. Her father and stepmother’s marriage unraveled during her adolescence; they would eventually live apart. Seton also mistrusted her own intense emotion. One night she imagined taking her own life, using the laudanum her physician father kept in the household. Yet she was also a lively conversationalist, fond of dancing, and well-read, her turmoil invisible to others.

Marriage, Motherhood, and Benevolent Work

In her late teens Seton was courted by William Magee Seton, a merchant six years her senior. William had worked and lived in Italy and the two shared a pleasure in music and theater. He was not a companion in her spiritual interests, but she had always pursued those alone. In January 1794, they married.

Evidence from contemporary letters suggests that Elizabeth and William Seton were happy. The couple lived within a web of intermarried friends, relatives, and Seton merchant associates, everyone’s social lives and business lives entangled. Seton also nurtured close female friendships that would last decades and afford companionship throughout the extraordinary transformations of her life.

Seton bore five children. Her first was a daughter named Anna Maria and her second a son named William, after his father and grandfather. That father and grandfather worked together in the family’s transatlantic merchant enterprise, the younger man dutifully and the older with gusto. Richard Bayley, for his part, was pursuing his medical practice and serving on the Columbia faculty. He was also appointed New York’s first health officer, in which position he gained both admirers and enemies (perhaps more of the latter) in his diligent efforts to rid the city of the conditions he believed fostered yellow fever and other illnesses.

Amid her domestic duties and pleasures, Seton continued reading contemporary philosophy. But her attention was turning toward the Bible and the sermons of Hugh Blair, a Scottish minister and belletrist who eschewed doctrinal controversies in favor of urging Christians toward virtue and benevolence. Although her spiritual path was distinctive, Seton’s interests placed her in the company of many contemporaries. The cosmopolitan inquiry and deism of the immediate post-Revolutionary era were fading and Christian worship—vibrant and multiform—was on the rise. Nonetheless, like many of her educated contemporaries, Seton continued to believe that religion’s central purpose was to produce ethical, happy members of society. “I think,” she wrote in 1796, “the first point of Religion is cheerfulness and Harmony.”6

Beneath the placidity of these years, threats lurked. William Magee Seton’s mother and aunt had died of tuberculosis, and the young merchant began showing signs of it even before his marriage. Fearful for her husband, Seton drew on both her spiritual and her secular reading as she sought serenity. The Seton family also faced financial threat as Napoleonic conflicts rendered already risky transatlantic trade more perilous.

Everyone in New York City lived amid risk—risk of disease, of accident, of broken relationships, of poverty—and women’s vulnerability was even more profound than men’s. As a young wife and mother, Seton worked with others to aid women who had succumbed to the perils all women faced. Isabella Graham, an immigrant from Scotland prominent in transatlantic Presbyterian circles, founded one of the nation’s first female-run groups devoted to charitable works, and Seton joined in its earliest days. In 1802, the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children incorporated, giving its female leadership the legal right to manage its resources. Seton served as a manager and treasurer and wrote thoughtfully of her conversations with the women whom the society served. She and other society members visited widows in their homes, carrying out an intimate charity born of a sense of authority as well as compassion: the managers evaluated applicants for aid and believed themselves to be the best judges of the women’s needs.7

Bankruptcy and Voyage to Italy

Threats to Seton’s own privilege grew in 1798, when her father-in-law slipped on ice on his front porch. After struggling for weeks, the elder Seton died. William was left to figure out the family’s distribution of money and effects, to manage the merchant house’s complex business dealings, and to provide for his seven half-siblings still living at home. To fulfill these new responsibilities, the couple—Elizabeth still in her twenties—and their children left their cozy row house and took up residence at the elder Seton’s home, which also housed his business. Seton loved William’s young half-siblings but found her new circumstances profoundly disorienting. “For me who so dearly loves quiet and a small Family to become at once the Mother of six [additional] children and the Head of so large a number is a very great change,” she wrote, adding, “Death or Bread and Water would be a happy prospect in comparison when I consider Self.”8

The next two years saw the Seton merchant house struggle while Elizabeth—who bore two more children during the period—worked informally as her husband’s clerk. In December 1800, William declared himself bankrupt. Elizabeth made the required list of the family’s possessions, choosing to see the inventorying as renunciation rather than humiliation. During the same difficult month, she informed a friend, “I have as bright a hope and a faith as strong as ever animated a mortal.”9

As William struggled to rebuild his credit and Elizabeth worried for her family’s future, she began to take greater interest in and solace from formal Christianity. She found a spiritual guide in a young assistant rector of Trinity Church named John Henry Hobart, whose emotionally rich sermons and confidence that Episcopal priests were the descendants of Christ’s apostles appealed deeply to Seton. For the first time, institutional Christianity offered the emotional satisfaction and sense of immanence she had previously found only in solitary prayer. Rather than simply one man-made system among many for producing ethical behavior, Hobart’s Episcopalianism seemed to Seton a distinctive instrument of God’s mercy. “Language cannot express the comfort the Peace the Hope,” she wrote.10

Seton began to place religious faith at the center of her life in a way distinctive from her family and her own past. Her alienation, if not her denomination, left her kindred with those who, during the revivals of the Second Great Awakening, felt a spiritual urgency that separated them from friends and family. Her growing insistence that religion was not primarily a way to promote cheerfulness, virtue, and harmony, but rather a distinctive set of beliefs and practices that promised heavenly reward and so must be honored, set her quietly at odds with her cosmopolitan circle.

In summer 1801, Richard Bayley died of typhus contracted at the quarantine station he was overseeing during the summer. Bayley had been a central intellectual companion throughout Seton’s life, including during her marriage. As she grieved, her strongest tether to the world of secular philosophy and scientific inquiry frayed. “I will tell you the plain truth,” Seton wrote a friend, “that my habits both of Soul and Body are changed—that I feel all the habits of society and connections of this life have taken a new form and are only interesting or endearing as they point the view to the next.”11

In 1802, Seton gave birth to a fifth child, a daughter she called Rebecca. That year Elizabeth and William concocted a desperate plan: a voyage to Italy, in hopes that the climate might restore William’s health and an Italian merchant clan with whom Seton had lived and worked before his marriage, the Filicchi, might help restore his business. In fall 1803, the couple left their four younger children with friends and relatives and embarked for Livorno with their oldest daughter Anna Maria. On docking in the northern Italian port, the Setons found a new calamity. Fearful that the ship carried the yellow fever that had spread that year throughout the Atlantic world, port officials warily eyed the feverish, gaunt William and refused to allow the American trio to disembark. Instead, the Setons were rowed out to an austere stone building known as a lazaretto, to be kept there in enforced quarantine for one month. The Filicchi succeeded in having the family released a few days early from quarantine. But William died soon after their release, hallucinating that he had won the lottery and left his family with no debt.


The next four months, during which Elizabeth and Anna Maria lived with the Filicchi, are only partially visible through extant letters and journals. At their beginning, she took solace in handwritten sermons she had brought with her from her Episcopal minister, John Henry Hobart. At their end, she had decided to become a Catholic. How? The Filicchi family had for years seen the United States as a potential refuge for a Catholic faith they felt was profoundly threatened in Napoleonic Europe; Seton’s arrival in their home seemed providential. Brothers Antonio and Filippo took Seton to Catholic Masses, shared Catholic readings, and introduced her to the cultural glories of Florence. At first, Seton gently laughed off their efforts, returning to the ecumenicism that had characterized her earlier life. Catholicism was fine for the Filicchi, but she would remain with the Episcopal communion. But Seton soon found herself moved by the Masses she attended, as well as by the prominence of Mary in Catholic devotion. As someone who had always craved a sense of divine presence, Seton was also drawn to the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Catholic teaching that Christ is present in the sacrament of communion. As she prepared to return to New York, Seton had decided to convert. Filippo prepared a document offering answers to the objections he anticipated Protestant friends and family would pose to her conversion. Antonio accompanied her and Anna Maria to New York in case she should need help defending her choice.

Seton told her startled family and friends of her intentions soon after she disembarked. Most hoped that her decision reflected disorienting grief and perhaps the undue influence of the Filicchi (Antonio’s presence exacerbated rather than resolved their concern). Surely, Seton would settle back into her old life and abandon this alien religion. One person took her decision seriously and was appalled: John Henry Hobart. Hobart enlisted the aid of Trinity’s rector, Bishop Benjamin Moore, to argue Seton back into the Episcopal fold. The two launched a withering assault on everything she loved about the Catholic faith. The conviction Seton felt when she left Italy abandoned her.

The ministers’ victory, though stunning, was temporary. Seton vowed to compare claims and evidence by the light of her own judgment. Months of agonized indecision followed as she read both Protestant and Catholic apologetics. Antonio Filicchi repeatedly urged Bishop John Carroll to write encouragingly to Seton. When Carroll finally did so, it was cautiously and impersonally; acutely aware of his faith’s precarious position in the young republic, he was reluctant to involve himself in a Protestant matron’s passionate and somewhat public struggle over faith. St. Peter’s priests also avoided her. Antonio, who had decamped to Boston during Elizabeth’s long conversion crisis, next appealed to a French priest in that city, John Cheverus, to write to Seton. Cheverus’s eloquent sermons had won admiration even among Boston’s Protestant elites, and his gracious, sympathetic letter offered Seton great comfort.

Finally, more because the pain of indecision had become unbearable than because she’d had an epiphany, Seton made her choice. Drawn to the Catholic understanding of communion, to the culture of the saints and Catholic religious art, and to the figure of the Virgin Mary, she was also in some sense placing a bet. Had Hobart appealed to Seton’s ecumenicism, he might have prevailed. But he had fought on the grounds the Filicchi laid forth: that denomination mattered to salvation. “If [choice of] Faith is so important to our Salvation I will seek it where true Faith first began, seek it among those who received it from GOD HIMSELF,” Seton wrote. “As the strictest Protestant allows Salvation to a good catholick, to the Catholicks I will go, and try to be a good one, may God accept my intention and pity me.”12 After making her choice, Seton attended her first Mass at St. Peter’s, and two weeks later she made her profession of faith as a Roman Catholic; two weeks after that she received Catholic communion. “At last God is mine and I am his,” she declared.13

Accounts of Seton’s life often present her own family as gripped by anti-Catholic prejudice, and Seton for a time felt herself persecuted—a feeling that heightened her sense of connection to Catholicism and absolved her of responsibility for the familial strains her passionate Catholicism caused. In reality, her New York friends and family were disinclined to confront her about her faith, and some expressed relief that she had at last come to a decision. Her family also continued to support her and her children after her conversion, an assistance made necessary by William’s bankruptcy. Rather than insist Seton change her faith, Seton’s family and friends wanted her to keep her faith private. This was practical—Elizabeth needed either to earn some money as a schoolteacher or to remarry, and both were made more difficult by her new faith—and ideological: the educated circles in which she moved tended to see faith as a private matter and respected differences (within a range of Christian options, at least) as a virtue. This view was held by New York’s elite Catholics as well; they had no wish to see their faith interfere with their social or economic relationships. Seton’s passionate single-mindedness and professed desire to proselytize was more disruptive than her choice of faith.

Life as a Catholic


For a time, an uneasy equilibrium held. Seton shared her new faith with her children and earnestly tried to find a position keeping school. She was introduced to wealthy Catholic families who attended St. Peter’s, stepping from one privileged social network into another. But Seton’s insistence on proselytizing young girls in her family circle outraged the girls’ guardians. She also wanted to live a life more fully devoted to Catholic worship than her genteel New York surroundings allowed. Seton wrote to John Cheverus asking whether it might be possible for her and her daughters to move to French Canada and live in a convent there, even if not as nuns; perhaps her sons could be placed at a Catholic boarding school. Cheverus demurred. He and another refugee French cleric, William Dubourg, had begun to imagine a different and prominent role for her.

Dubourg was a member of the order of St. Sulpice, which had been founded in France to train priests. Carroll had welcomed a group of Sulpicians to the United States, where they were safe from the French Revolution and where they founded a small seminary and school in Baltimore known as St. Mary’s. Learning of Seton—and then meeting her on a trip to New York—Dubourg proposed that she send her boys to St. Mary’s, move with her daughters to Baltimore, and begin a school for Catholic girls. Cheverus explained his and Dubourg’s hopes. “[Settling in Baltimore] would do better for your family,” he wrote, and “would be very conducive to the progress of Religion in this country.”14 Seton wrote to Antonio that clergy believed that she was “destined to forward the progress of his holy Faith” in the United States. Despite Seton’s insistence on viewing them as hostile opponents to her faith, her family helped arrange her passage to Baltimore and fondly saw her off.

Arriving with her girls in Baltimore, Seton briefly felt herself within the kind of Catholic realm of which she had dreamed. Yet she was soon discontented again: she was a schoolteacher, not a nun as she had seen in Italy. The fully devotional life she had dreamed of in New York eluded her. Baltimore’s wealthy Catholics, who often married outside the faith and who valued social polish as much as piety, seemed to have more in common with New York’s genteel Episcopalians than they had with Elizabeth herself. So she was pleased that Sulpicians in Baltimore imagined a different role for her: leader of a community of women religious (in the parlance of the Church, women who had taken vows of obedience, poverty, and celibacy).

In the 16th century, the Council of Trent had sought to impose strict cloister on all women religious, but in France, two religious communities, the Ursulines and the Daughters of Charity, developed rules and practices that enabled members to live vowed lives while working outside of cloister: in the case of the Ursulines with schoolgirls, and in the case of the Daughters of Charity with people who were impoverished, orphaned, or ill. The United States had few priests and growing numbers of “unchurched” Catholics. Baltimore’s Sulpicians believed that Seton could start a community that might combine teaching and benevolent work, in doing so serving as both benevolent and missionary labor for the nascent American Catholic Church.

Founding of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph

Months followed in which Sulpicians recruited young women who might wish to join the community. Seton wrote to the Filicchi brothers to request financial support. John Carroll, though unsure how Seton would lead a religious community before having belonged to one, warmed to the idea. Perhaps Seton could found an active religious community that would thrive in the United States, offering a spiritual path for Catholic women and education to Catholic children. Such a community would be an American entrant in the Vincentian tradition, so called because Vincent de Paul was, along with Louise de Marillac, a founder of the Daughters of Charity.

A plan emerged for a Seton-led community to be founded near a Sulpician boys’ school in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near the town of Emmitsburg, Maryland. Seton’s spirituality was more contemplative than activist, but she believed that the plan held out the promise of a life lived wholly for God. She happily wrote to Filippo Filicchi of an “institution for the advancement of catholick female children in habits of religion and giving them an education suited to that purpose.”15

In Baltimore and in the new plan for Emmitsburg, Seton and her children were supported by the Catholic Church in the United States. That church was supported by slavery. The former Jesuits owned plantations that their brethren had begun in the 17th century, and the Sulpicians had struck an agreement to draw on the profits of one of the plantations to support St. Mary’s. The Catholic planter Charles Carroll’s riches emerged from enslaved labor, and he loaned enormous sums to St. Mary’s. Sulpicians also borrowed money from William Dubourg’s brother, a Louisiana planter, and parents paid tuition with money extracted from the plantations of Maryland, Cuba, and Guadeloupe.16

Throughout Europe’s New World empires, Catholic orders drew wealth from enslaved labor while understanding themselves to offer the gift of Christian guidance and charity. Nonetheless, the circumstances of the British colonies and the United States heightened the American Church’s dependence on enslaved labor. Lacking state support and aristocratic patrons, the American Church, John Carroll wrote, was “supported … by the farms which the first missionaries acquired by purchase and transmitted to their successors.”17 In extant documents Seton expresses neither distaste for slavery nor discomfort over her dependence on expropriated labor.

In 1809, Seton left Baltimore to begin (another) new life. Her sons entered the new Sulpician school, Mount St. Mary’s, while her daughters joined her at the fledgling community in the adjoining valley dubbed St. Joseph’s. A few women made their way as well, including one from New York and another from Philadelphia. A third young woman arrived from Baltimore, and a young widow, Rose Landry White, came from the same city, bringing a son with her to the boys’ school. Elizabeth also brought two sisters-in-law. The women were given a preliminary rule of conduct based on the Daughters of Charity, though their work—creating a school for paying students and a day school with a less ambitious curriculum for locals who would attend for free or pay reduced tuition—was close to the Ursuline model. In these first regulations, Seton acquired the title she would hold for the rest of her life: “Mother.” In addition to a female and a male superior, there was to be an elected council of sisters, a structure that reflected Catholic tradition rather than American innovation.

The community faced hardships in its first year, including sickness—consumption traveled with them—and an unfinished dwelling. Seton soon mourned the death of both sisters-in-law. She suffered her first serious rebuke from clergy when she insisted on turning for spiritual counsel to a priest other than Dubourg, who had been appointed male superior. Seton, mortified to have been judged disobedient, accepted the correction. But Dubourg stepped down as superior and she found herself in conflict with his punctilious, supercilious replacement, John David. Seton also experienced a spiritual dryness that left her unable to feel God’s presence. These difficulties left her feeling as if she were playacting the role of Mother and believing that she might be—and deserved to be—replaced by Rose White.

Although Seton’s personal writings make clear her distress, surrounding documentation reveals a thriving community and a respected leader. The school attracted boarders from some of Baltimore’s leading Catholic families. (Although Seton is often credited with creating the first Catholic school or with founding the parochial school system, neither is accurate. New York was home to older Catholic schools, and the Emmitsburg institutions were funded by tuition and donations rather than by a diocese or parish.)18 Seton was involved in every aspect of the enterprise, from paying bills to designing curricula to disciplining the girls. She also served as female spiritual director to the community’s members and began the work of writing reflections, translating works from French, and offering personal counsel that would continue for the rest of her life.

Growth and Expansion of the Community

Pleased with the sisters’ work, the Sulpicians decided to knit the young community into the fabric of the European Catholic Church. They arranged for a copy of the French Daughters of Charity Rule (the Catholic term for the regulations through with a religious order or congregation is governed) to be brought to the United States. They initially hoped that French Daughters might be sent across the Atlantic to join the Emmitsburg community, but they changed their minds as it became clear that the community would adapt to American circumstances better under Seton’s guidance.

A Sulpician translated the French Rule, making only small changes. Like French Daughters, the Emmitsburg women would serve the poor rather than living in cloister, and they would take private annual vows. The women discussed the proposed regulations and voted on them—a practice which, like the existence of an elected council, was part of Catholic tradition. One woman voted no and soon left the community, but everyone else voted yes and stayed. All the women became novices in the community, expected to take their vows as Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph after one year. Seton planned to be among them, a fact that was unremarkable to those around her only because no one understood the depth of her uncertainty over her vocation and her capabilities.

Even as the community stabilized, Seton suffered another blow: Anna Maria, her oldest daughter, died of consumption. A grieving Seton found herself plagued by fear that Anna Maria had not merited salvation. Her misery led the Sulpicians to send to Emmitsburg a highly educated priest named Simon Bruté, whom they felt would serve as an effective spiritual director. Bruté reassured Seton that Catholic teaching suggested Anna Maria would not suffer damnation. Bruté also shared with Seton a Catholicism that—perhaps for the first time since her conversion struggle—fully engaged her mind. He owned hundreds if not thousands of books, and the two read and discussed centuries of Catholic writing.

Bruté possessed sacramental authority—signally, to hear her confessions and offer communions; the Catholic Church’s gendered architecture framed their relationship. Yet Seton’s charismatic authority was recognized by all, and letters make clear that this was a collaborative spiritual relationship. When he needed to instruct his English-speaking flock, the French priest turned to Seton for help. Like the hours of labor she’d performed for her ailing merchant husband, Seton’s work with Bruté went publicly unacknowledged. But Bruté’s services attracted a growing number of Catholics to take communion at a time when clergy in the area felt the competition of Protestant evangelicals. Seton knew that despite the official roles the Church allowed, her words bore some of the credit. She was ministering not only to the sisters of St. Joseph, but to lay Catholics in the area.

In July 1813, four years after Seton had first arrived at Emmitsburg and one year after adopting their regulations, eighteen women took their first annual vows as Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. They were a mix of widows and women who had never married, and of American born, Irish and (via the West Indies) French. Soon, the sisterhood began to expand beyond Emmitsburg. In 1814, the women who ran Philadelphia’s Catholic orphan asylum requested that sisters be sent from Emmitsburg to run the orphanage and care for the children, and the council quickly agreed. In the Vincentian model, highly competent women, freed of the responsibilities to husbands and children that interrupted the benevolent labors of most Protestant peers, carried out the charitable work of the Church. French Daughters of Charity had cared for poor people in Ancien Régime France, in doing so performing the Christian charity advocated by their founders and also serving the interests of the state by reducing the potential volatility of those on the margins of society. Now American Sisters of Charity would care for vulnerable children and prove Catholicism’s respectability by matching the benevolence of Protestant societies and reducing the number of poor Catholic children visible on the streets.

Seton faced a new tragedy when her youngest daughter, Rebecca, died of consumption. She also worried for her sons, who were ill-suited to the merchant life she wanted for them. Yet she increasingly felt herself the serene Mother she had long appeared to others and confidently tended to the practical and spiritual needs of sisters and students. In 1817, the sisterhood created a new outpost, this one an orphanage in New York City. As the sisters branched out, their original schools at Emmitsburg also thrived. Focused on boarders but providing education to locals at reduced cost, the institutions were important to the region and to a larger web of well-heeled Catholic families (and some Protestant ones, too).

Once uninterested in institutional Christianity, Seton was now an institution builder. There was another change, as well. The woman who shortly after her conversion had insisted on proselytizing, had decided that it was impossible to persuade others what to believe, and perhaps harmful to try. She declined to proselytize Protestant girls in her care and advised Simon Bruté that he should cease trying to convince Protestants whom he met to convert. Seton would live her faith and if that drew others to it, that was sufficient. Her new way of thinking melded a belief that spiritual safety lay within the teachings of the Catholic Church with one more familiar to Protestants: each individual must forge her own relation with God.

Final Years and Death

Seton developed and shared her thinking in hundreds of pages of reflections, translations, and meditations, as well as in the words of Bruté’s sermons that she had influenced or indeed written. Her contemplative nature had caused her to struggle with the demands of leading an active community, and her desire to lead a heroic life for God led her to chafe at the essentially domestic nature of her service—and occasionally at the gendered architecture of the Church, which, she reminded Bruté in letters, afforded men greater spiritual authority than women. But she turned to Vincentian teachings to discern meaning in her mundane labor and wrote convincingly of her contentment.

In 1818, after living with people suffering from tuberculosis for her entire adult life, Seton finally began to succumb to it. She endured her long illness in the tender care of the other sisters. By late 1820, she openly looked forward to death, no longer bound by her responsibilities to her children (though Catherine was heartbroken) or the sisterhood, both of whom she considered well launched. Seton continued to understand compassion and humility as essential obligations, and in her last months, she sought to reconcile with any whom she had offended, including even John David, the punctilious former superior who had so nettled her. She also acknowledged that her family had never abandoned her, letting go the claim of persecution that had once been central to her understanding of her choices. In her final months, Seton felt God near. “It seems as if our Lord stood continually by me in corporeal form,” she told a sister. “I never felt more sensibly the presence of our DEAREST than since I have been sick.”19 She died in January 1821. Newspapers in Baltimore and New York offered respectful notice of her “piety and philanthropy,” testament both to Seton’s achievements and to the fact that she died at a moment when fear of irreligion was more prevalent in American culture than alarm over Catholicism.

Legacy and Sainthood

The Sisters of Charity grew in the decades after Seton’s death, with communities founded throughout the United States. Sisters and Daughters of Charity (the differing names reflecting governance disputes that occurred after Seton’s death) founded the first Catholic hospital in the United States in 1828 and the first Catholic hospital for mentally ill patients in 1840. They tended patients—and died themselves—in yellow fever and cholera epidemics and cared for the wounded during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. As the 19th century progressed, Sisters and Daughters of Charity were joined by many other female religious communities: by 1900, there were nearly 150 Catholic female religious orders and congregations and approximately 50,000 nuns and sisters in the United States.20 Immigration fueled this growth but also rekindled an anti-Catholicism that threatened the acceptance of Catholic women religious in American culture. Despite hostile rumors and the threat of violence, and in the face of wildly popular novels depicting convents as dens of sexuality and oppression, the labor of Sisters of Charity wove civic ties as well as sectarian. They were essential to the transformation of the Catholic Church from an institution grounded in the slaveholding South to one that thrived throughout the nation and particularly flourished in the urban Northeast and Midwest.

Throughout the 19th century, admirers kept Seton’s memory alive. In 1882, James Cardinal Gibbons proposed to the community at Emmitsburg that an effort to bring about Mother Seton’s canonization—a cause, in the language of the Church—be begun. Gibbons’s proposal was part of a broader effort to convince Rome to canonize an American citizen, and Seton was not in fact the first result: Mother Frances Cabrini, an Italian who arrived in New York City during a transformational period of immigration, was canonized in 1946.

The cause of Elizabeth Seton, however, persisted. In 1907, an ecclesiastical court was created to investigate its merits and twelve volumes of documents from Seton’s life and works were presented to Rome. In 1931, American women traveled to the Vatican and petitioned Pope Pius XI on behalf of Elizabeth’s canonization. In the same year, the American Catholic hierarchy voted to approve her cause. The Mother Seton Guild formed to advocate for her canonization, and in the 1940s, Sisters and Daughters of Charity authorized a formal biography. American women organized petition drives, requesting that the pope offer “favorable consideration of the canonization of Mother Elizabeth Seton, pioneer educator and foundress of the American Sisters of Charity, as the first native-born woman of the United States to be raised by Holy Mother Church to the honors of the altar.”21 In 1959, the Congregation of Rites declared that Mother Seton should be honored as “venerable.” Finally, in 1974, Pope Paul VI announced that three miracles had been accepted by the Church and that that number, rather than the traditional four, would be sufficient. Elizabeth Bayley Seton was canonized the next year, with a crowd of more than 150,000 in attendance at St. Peter’s Square.22

Discussion of the Literature

In the century and a half after Seton’s death, admirers published accounts that are a mix of extracted primary sources, narration of her life, and informal hagiography.23 Annabelle Melville’s 1951 biography was prepared as part of the canonization process, but she put to use the tools of conventional historical scholarship and her work remains a useful, well-documented account of Seton’s life.24 Biographies of sisters and of clergy associated with Seton are also of use, though some do not follow modern historical convention.25 Catherine O’Donnell’s 2018 biography is the most recent scholarly treatment and places Seton in the context of recent scholarship on gender, Catholicism, and the Atlantic world.26 Luca Codignola Bo depicts the Italian context of Seton’s life and conversion.27 Other authors—often members of the Sisters of Charity federation—have admiringly explored Elizabeth’s spirituality, friendships, and the continuing inspiration she offers to women religious.28 Kathleen Sprows Cummings has explored the long process and cultural resonance of Seton’s canonization.29

Scholarship exploring American Catholicism in the era before Irish and German immigration is limited but growing. Historians have offered useful overviews as well as explored the role of Jesuits and Sulpicians in shaping the early national Church.30 Maryland’s Catholic institutions and practices have traditionally been a focus of scholarship, and recent treatments move beyond an emphasis that Maryland’s Catholics were faithful Americans, toward discussions that integrate political and social analysis with analysis of the faith community, and that carefully analyze ways in which Catholicism in the colony was and was not distinct from European forms.31 The Catholic Church’s involvement in racial slavery has received attention both in scholarship and in Catholic institutions’ reckoning with their pasts, though far more research is needed.32 The study of anti-Catholicism in the colonies and early United States has also developed, with light shed on political and cultural expressions of antipopery as well as attention to cooperation between Protestants and Catholics, especially in frontier settings.33

The history of women religious is burgeoning. Treatments of French female congregations make clear transatlantic connections as well as differences.34 Scholars of the United States have documented the dramatic expansion of female Catholic religious communities in the 19th century, a development inextricable from the immigration history of the era. Researchers increasingly attend to African American and Native American women’s participation in and founding of Catholic women’s communities, as well as exploring the contributions of women religious to education, their distinctive participation in settler colonialism and slavery, and the mixture of agency and constraint that characterized Catholic sisters’ life and work.35

Primary Sources

Seton’s importance to her followers has led to the preservation of an extraordinarily rich archive. Friends began to collect papers during her lifetime, and in the decades after her death, admirers gathered documents and published memoirs. Most of the crucial documents from Seton’s life and work—both originals and reproductions of Seton documents held elsewhere—are found at the Daughters of Charity Province of St. Louise Archives, in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Judith Metz, SC and Regina Bechtle, SC have completed the prodigious task of gathering and annotating Seton’s papers in a three-volume Collected Writings.36 Those volumes contain all known examples of Seton’s letters, journals, and original spiritual reflections, and they reproduce material from the sisterhood, such as bills, retreat notes, and council minutes, as well. The volumes are available digitally via DePaul University’s Vincentian Heritage Collection.

Those volumes have recently been joined by the Seton Writings Project, overseen by Sr. Regina Bechtle, SC, Sr. Vivien Linkhauer, SC, Sr. Betty Ann McNeil, DC, and Sr. Judith Metz, SC. This digital collection includes summaries of letters sent to Seton as well as descriptions of other materials related to family, friends, and Catholic collaborators.

Seton’s world, and occasionally Seton herself, can be glimpsed through the memoirs of contemporary Sisters of Charity and clergy.37 Bishop John Carroll’s papers are similarly useful and have been published, though with significant omissions.38 Carroll’s papers can be consulted more fully, along with papers of other clergy with whom Seton worked, in the Archdiocese of Baltimore Archive. That archive, much of which is also accessible via microfilm or digitally through the University of Notre Dame Archive (UNDA), along with the Associated Sulpicians of the United States Archive, contains papers of other clergy important in Seton’s life as well as letters and documents relating to lay people. Congregatio de Propaganda Fide Records, available via microfilm at UNDA, contain valuable documentation relating to the American Catholic Church in the colonial and early national eras (as well as other eras). The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith had authority over the Church in the colonies and United States until 1908, and the collection includes its decrees, correspondence with clergy and lay people, and reports generated and received.

Further Reading

  • Bo, Luca Codignola. Blurred Nationalities across the North Atlantic: Traders, Priests, and Their Kin Travelling between North America and the Italian Peninsula, 1763–1846. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019.
  • Boylan, Anne M. The Origins of Women’s Activism, New York and Boston, 1797–1840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Clark, Emily. Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727–1834. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2012.
  • Cummings, Kathleen Sprows. A Saint of Our Own: How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become American. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.
  • Dichtl, John R. Frontiers of Faith: Bringing Catholicism to the West in the Early Republic. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.
  • Dinan, Susan E. Women and Poor Relief in Seventeenth-Century France: The Early History of the Daughters of Charity. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006.
  • Duncan, Jason K. Citizens or Papists? The Politics of Anti-Catholicism in New York, 1685–1821. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.
  • Farrelly, Maura. Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Grasso, Christopher. Skepticism and American Faith from the Revolution to the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Mannard, Joseph C. “‘Our Dear Houses Are Here, There, + Everywhere’: The Convent Revolution in Antebellum America.” American Catholic Studies 128, no. 2 (2017): 1–27.
  • McGuinness, Margaret M. Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America. New York: New York University Press, 2013.
  • Murphy, Thomas. Jesuit Slaveholding in Maryland, 1717–1838. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • O’Donnell, Catherine. Elizabeth Seton: American Saint. Ithaca, NY: Three Hills Press, 2018.
  • Pasquier, Michael. Fathers on the Frontier: French Missionaries and the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the United States, 1789–1870. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Roberts, Kyle B. Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783–1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.