Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: "American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton" by Joan Barthel

I received this e-book in exchange for an honest review.


After having read this book I am shocked that I've never heard of this woman, Elizabeth Seton, before. Elizabeth Seton was the the fist American born saint in the Catholic church, and the ripple effect of her work is still felt today. Uppity women are my favorite, and this woman was uppity, in all the right ways. Before we really talk about the book, basically the story of her life I think it would helps to set the scene a bit.

We're in America, at around 1770 in the beginning. This is a time of big changes in America, obviously some big things happen in 1776. Another thing that is happening in America at this time is waves and waves of immigrants, especially in the larger cities. (Most of the story is set in New England, primarily New York City and Baltimore, though we do deviate over to Europe for a bit.)

One thing that I did not realize (and was surprised to learn) is that in many parts of America Catholicism was illegal. Catholics were barred from several things including "all public activities, including voting, serving on juries and holding hands". An American minister described Catholicism as "the ally of tyranny, the opponent of material prosperity, the foe of thrift and the enemy of the railroad!". (I included that because of the bit about the railroad, because what is that about?) One of the reasons (perchance the main reason) that Catholics were treated with such disdain was because the people in America who were Catholic were almost exclusively immigrants. By restricting Catholics and therefore immigrants people were trying to limit the influence that they had in their new country.

Also this might be a good time to also mention that this isn't a great time to be a woman either. Education was not encourage for them. Also "a wife had no legal identity separate from her husband...she is owned as a person, along with the dresses and shoes and hats she wore".

Long story short, it's not good to be Catholic, and it's not something that you would choose to become, generally. Which leads us to our story....

Elizabeth Seton was born in 1774. Her parents were prominent citizens, her dad an important doctor, her mom the daughter on an important Episcopalian minister. It didn't take long for sadness to strike her life, her mother died when she was 3. His father remarried later, and there were 5 more children. However they eventually seperated. (Her dad is a really interesting part of this book. Something is kind of amiss about him I think. In the language of the time I bet they'd say that he was prone to fits of melancholy and dark moods.)

Elizabeth grew up to be a charming young lady. She was pretty contemplative, thinking deep thoughts about nature, faith, God and she kept a journal. She was also fluent in French and very musically gifted on the piano. At 19 she married Will Seton. He worked in his families shipping business, but after the death of his father the business began to decline, shifting their fortunes to the slightly more poor scale. They had 5 children, though not all would grow to adulthood (this would not be the sum of their problems).

The 1800s did not start well for the Seton family. New York City was awash with yellow fever. Will's business declared bankruptcy, and Will himself was battling a bad case of tuberculosis.
Elizabeth set up a charitable organization to help with widows whose husbands had been victims of yellow fever. She was 22 and "helped set up the first charitable organization in the country managed by women".

Will's sickness worsened.The doctors said that maybe a change in climate would help, and so Will, Elizabeth and their daughter Anne went to Italy to stay with some business associates of Will's who offered to keep them while Will convalesced. Unfortunately, Will died shortly after arriving, after enduring a long quarantine period.

Elizabeth was understandably destroyed.The Filicchi family, with whom they were staying, were a source of comfort and support. They were Catholics, and they introduced her to their faith. This was the first time that Elizabeth had contact with Catholics who were articulate, educated, and rather well off. (Remember the poor immigrant Catholics that she was used to seeing.) Somewhere between her time with them,and the insanely long boat ride back to America, she converted to Catholicism.

In 1809 Elizabeth moved herself and her children to Emmitsburg Maryland where she established St Joseph's Academy and Free School, dedicated to educating girls.This was the first free Catholic school in the United States and the beginning of what would become a very far reaching system.She also helped to establish a branch of the Sisters of Charity, a religious community and was called "Mother Seton".
Also have you heard of Seton Hall, yeah, guess who that's named after.

Elizabeth's life was not an easy one. 2 of her daughters died, money problems plagued the school, interpersonal problems between members of Sisters of Charity and the Catholic church, and more were her constant companions before her death of tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of 46.

I gave this book a 3.5 out of 5 stars rating. It was so interesting to hear the life of this woman, who I previously didn't know existed. It doesn't sugar coat the bad things of her personality either, it seemed quite even handed. (They even include a story about when her nonreligious father was dying and she tried to deal with the Lord to take her brand new baby from her in exchange for saving her father's eternal soul.) Anyway, extraordinary life, easy read, pick it up.

As a closing thought, this little rhyme was prevalent at this time,basically about why teaching girls anything was a waste:

"Why should girls be learn'd and wise?
Books only serve to spoil their eyes.
The studious eye but faintly twinkles
And reading paves the path for wrinkles."

Yeah.So I guess my eyes should be twinkling more if I read less...


  1. This is an excellent review. I like how you explained some of the history at the time before talking about the book. I find it interesting that she started a free Catholic school. I went to Catholic school and can't imagine the cost now-a-days. Nice that she helped provide that education for free.

    1. I couldn't believe the harsh treatment that Catholics received! And then to be a Catholic and a woman at this time was even harder. She did some amazing work!


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