Guest Post: Elizabeth Seton and Me: Or, How I Almost Wrote a Book about a Saint Without Mentioning God

Today’s guest post is authored by Catherine O’Donnell. Her book, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint was published this month by Cornell University Press. She is also the author of Men of Letters in the Early Republic (UNC Press, 2008) and is an associate professor of history at Arizona State University.

When I arrived at the archive in Emmitsburg, Maryland, my heart sank. My subject was Elizabeth Seton, woman of the early American republic and saint in the Roman Catholic Church, and the archives to which I’d traveled are held on the grounds of her shrine. In order to be at the archives first thing Monday, I’d arrived on a Sunday and decided to see what was happening nearby. The building adjacent to the archives is a minor basilica, so what was happening was Mass. When a guide asked whether I’d visited the Altar of Relics, I winced. I felt oddly guilty about bring my historian’s purposes and questions into this reverent world. I also knew that biographers pride themselves on not writing hagiographies, and that many academic historians pride themselves on not being biographers at all. I felt I was blaspheming both a faith and a profession.

Fortunately, I’m cheap. I’d used precious annual travel money on that trip, so the next day I presented myself at the archives. It was then open for limited hours each day and not yet overseen by a professional archivist, as it is now. But an archive it was, its holdings meticulously organized and overseen by knowledgeable and benevolent people. There were thousands of sources. As I looked through letters and journals, I got a sense of Seton’s intellectual curiosity, glimpsed the way the era of revolutions affected her choices, and realized that slavery would be a part of this story, as it is a part of all stories of early America. By the end of the week, I’d solved the problem of writing about a saint: I wasn’t. I was writing about a woman.

That was both comforting and wrong-headed. To start with, Seton’s sainthood was the only reason she was visible as a woman. For generations, Sisters and Daughters of Charity had collected documents. These women, who understand themselves to be Seton’s spiritual daughters, offered me the tools of my trade—sources. But the sisters’ gentle presence also reminded me that people seek wisdom in Seton’s writings and inspiration in her life. I thought longingly of what seemed in retrospect to be my wonderfully restful first project, a book about Federalist literati. Whatever I’d gotten wrong or right, no hearts were wounded. Now, the stakes felt high and the feeling of trespass I’d felt on arrival at the shrine returned. Only after spending more time in the company of Sisters and Daughters did I grasp the obvious: their relationships with Seton were entirely separate from any flaws or virtues my book might have. I wasn’t trespassing; I was traveling a different path.

I still wasn’t in the clear. Drafting the book, I put off writing about one part of Seton’s life. Not her disorienting youth in revolutionary and early national New York. Not the sexual misconduct of clergy in the parish where she first became a Catholic. Not even the way her religious communities’ charitable work indirectly depended on exploitation of those enslaved by Catholic clergy and laity.  No, I shied away from writing about Seton’s relationship with God. (Even now, writing that sentence, my fingers itch to add scare quotes or a “what she understood to be” to the last clause.) In fledgling chapter drafts, I recounted the events of Seton’s life, placed her in the context of national and international events, and analyzed the consequences of the gendered division of labor at work in the early republic and the Catholic Church. Then, somewhere in them, I’d add a note: “Discuss Seton’s prayer life here.” “Deal with her desire for God’s presence soon.”

Two things were at work. One was something I imagine any biographer feels when writing about a virtuoso: Seton’s experience of faith was as extraordinary as Mozart’s experience of music. How to write of something that is—even more than the inner life of another person always is—unimaginable? The second factor was more distinctive: Each time I began to describe Seton’s passionate and life-altering craving for God, I feared colleagues would judge me to be evangelizing, not analyzing. I knew that I was far from the first historian to try to write about the experience of faith. I knew it was absurd to shy away from the wellspring of my subject’s work. Yet for many months, those bracketed procrastinations remained. “Write a little bit about God here.”

Eventually, I approached the problem from its edges. Drawing on historians such as Christopher Grasso, Eric Schlereth, Lincoln Mullen, and Amanda Porterfield, I wrote about how Seton’s changing views of institutional religion and her ambivalence toward religious choice placed her in the company of evangelical Protestant contemporaries with whom she might seem to have little in common. The work of scholars including Catherine Brekus and George Marsden taught me that faith looks away from the world, but must be lived within it—and that I must try to write about faith in both dimensions. But Seton’s raw need for a sense of God’s presence? Her belief that loving God taught her the skill of loving others? Only after more than a year of drafting did I begin to write about those things. One reason I finally did so was that Sisters’ and Daughters’ generations of social labor were clearly animated by Seton’s spirituality; unless I wrote about Seton’s experience of faith, I could not write meaningfully about the institutions she created. There was a starker reason I at last wrote what a friend of mine calls “the God-y bits”: they were in the sources. Reading letters and journals, holding delicate, two-hundred-year-old sketches up to the light, going through financial receipts from the sisterhood at Emmitsburg, I saw a life and a world that was incomprehensible if I refused to explore Seton’s complicated and passionate relationship with God. As an historian I feared writing about the experience and texture of faith. As an historian, I had to.

The book is finished, the “God-y bits” no longer left for later. When asked to discuss Seton as an historical figure, I still alight first on subjects I embraced that first week in the archive, when I was trying not to think about the minor basilica yards away: her intellectual daring, her social contributions, her participation in the economy and culture of her day. Then I take a deep breath and inquire, “Shall we also talk about faith?”



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