Tuesday, May 27, 2014

From Riches to Poverty: St. Elizabeth Seton

Joan Barthel, with a Foreword by Maya Angelou American Saint
I was given access through NetGalley to  American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton written by Joan Barthel. Seton's story is pretty amazing, but this book is not. Barthel's style is unimpressive, and the presentation of the story is sometimes confusing. The ending is especially lackluster and distanced. The book starts narrative, jumping through time, but fizzles out to an information dump with Seton's death presented in a series of daily reports. Bathel's research is extensive and I feel I know the facts of her life, and a good amount about her social setting. But I would like to better understand Seton's inner faith life and how it sustained her through the many tragedies she endured during her brief 46 years.

Elizabeth Bayley Seton was born in New York City in 1744 to a well off  Episcopalian family. Her father Richard Bayley was an innovative physician who specialized in the treatment yellow fever and who lectured in anatomy at Columbia College. He was so well thought of that even though he was a British loyalist he was allowed to remain in New York City after the British occupation of the city ended. Her mother Catherine was from the prominent Charlton family; her father was an Episcopalian minister. Catherine died in childbirth when Elizabeth was three. After the required year of mourning her father married the 18-year-old Charlotte Barclay, a member of the Roosevelt family. Charlotte was active in charity and Elizabeth accompanied her on her visitations to the poor. It was not a happy union and after five children the marriage ended. Richard went to study in London. Elizabeth went to live with her uncle Bayley.

Having lost two mothers, and abandoned by her father, Elizabeth turned to journaling, music, nature, poetry and religious contemplation for solace.

Elizabeth Seton
Elizabeth Bayley at age 19

At age 19 she met the love of her life, William Seton. He was the son of a successful importer. Their marriage was joyful, and she loved her father-in-law. The couple had five children together. Then William's father died. He was the real genius behind the business. The War of 1812 brought an embargo on shipping and the business failed. Plus, William had tuberculosis.

The Italian partner of the importing business offered to host William and Elizabeth in hopes that the climate would improve his illness. But upon arriving in Italy the authorities sent William to a virtual prison for thirty days out of fear he had yellow fever. William died there.

Elizabeth stayed with the business partner, visiting Roman Catholic churches and learning about the Catholic faith. Upon returning to America she pursued her interest in Catholicism, to the dismay of her friends and family.

Roman Catholicism had been illegal in America until a few years before Elizabeth's return. Protestantism prided itself on allowing believers to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, whereas in Catholicism the priest instructed believers on what to believe. The belief in the host actually becoming the body and blood of Jesus Christ was seen as superstition and the veneration of the Virgin Mary was also rejected. But Elizabeth was attracted to the beauty of the churches and worship.

Elizabeth was a mother. She had been involved in starting a charity group that raised money at a time when women didn't do business. She was friends with early feminists. She was educated, sophisticated, and worldly. She was also without an income, relying on the financial help of relatives and friends. And she desperately needed the  comfort of her faith.

She did convert to Roman Catholicism. In 1808 she became a Sister of Charity, taking  yearly renewed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and was sent to start a school for girls in Maryland. The hardships the Sisters suffered, the many deaths from tuberculosis, the difficulty of accepting obedience to the priest in charge did not divert Seton from her chosen faith. Seton died of tuberculosis at age 41. She was canonized in 1975.

American Saint: The life of Elizabeth Seton
by Joan Barthel
Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 9780312571627
ISBN10: 0312571623
$26.99