A biography of the first American saint, who described herself as “the Mad Enthusiast.”
Elizabeth Seton (1774–1821) was elevated to sainthood in 1975 on the basis of her religious fervor and several posthumous miracles. Barthel (A Death in California, 1981, etc.) vividly brings to life a strong-willed, contradictory, passionate woman. Born into a notable New York family (her father was a famous physician), Seton, like many other wealthy Americans, was raised as an Episcopalian. Catholicism was illegal in New York; even after it became legal in 1790, it was associated with “dirty, filthy, red-faced” immigrants. However, at the age of 30, after her husband died of tuberculosis in Italy, Seton stepped foot into a Catholic church. Overwhelmed by the spectacle of Sunday Mass, she collapsed, sobbing. For the next few months, she lived with devout Italian friends and fell in love with the “handsome, dashing” 39-year-old brother of her host. By the time Seton returned to America, she was determined to convert. Her friends and family were scandalized, but Seton felt that “Jesus came to her in a profoundly intimate way” through the Eucharist, and she felt close to Mary as well. The Catholic Church, she was certain, was “the one, true church of Christ.” Seton was not content merely to worship. Through arduous efforts and political astuteness, she founded and directed the first order of American nuns, countering church authorities who wanted to limit women’s participation. Whether lured by Seton’s own charisma, Catholic doctrine or several attractive young priests, other women joined her. The Sisters of Charity survived and shaped the future of American Catholicism.
Barthel sets Seton’s life against the roiling political context of the American Revolution and its aftermath, offering a rounded portrait of an ambitious woman who struggled mightily to fulfill the tenets of her faith: to be obedient, merciful and good.