Though I had to dip in for the last moments of her presentation, I was happy to catch the few minutes I could last Thursday of Dr. Catherine O’Donnell’s (Associate Professor of History at Arizona State) talk about her up and coming biography of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, or Elizabeth Seton for short. Here’s a quick history before I get into my topic of woman religious, especially in a historical context.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was born in 1774 in New York City, two years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. At age 18, she married William Seton. He died nine years later, leaving her with five children to raise alone.
In 1805, Elizabeth converted to Catholicism and was shunned by her family. Soon after, she moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland, and opened a boarding school for girls to support herself and her children.
In 1809 Elizabeth took religious vows and founded the Sisters of Charity, the first religious community in the United States.
She was canonized a saint–the first native-born American saint–in 1975 by Pope Paul VI.
The unabridged version can be found here. With that in mind, I come to her story with two very big obstacles when it comes to understanding why she did what she did in her time—I am not catholic so don’t regard her as a Saint, and my first exposure to her as a living person was through letters (via the chapter of Dr. O’Donnell’s work I was privileged enough to read) many years separated between myself and her.
These two facts, facts that might be shared by other readers of this biography once it hits the press to a broader audience, means that there are many challenges when it comes to constructing a history of this woman. One doesn’t want to unfairly bias her in the eyes of the reader, while also telling a truthful account that can be up for interpretation, not under the veil of dogma from the church, seeing as she is a saint.
Dr. O’Donnell touched on this when she explained that Miss Seton’s canonization process (the act of becoming a saint in the Catholic Church after death) started very much so when she was alive. She argues further that she was aware of this, which can be a very provocative statement for one who has no other context to draw from. It can make Miss Seton come off as one who put on extra airs, knowing her importance to the church, rather than one deeply devout. I confess that I found her deeply religious and at the very same time one who had a passion, an almost compulsive passion, to convert.
My title, using herstory versus history, while dated as it’s from the second wave of feminist theory, does present part of the answer I believe. Being that she is a woman (who’s stories are less written on and critiqued harder when those figures go against conventional sensibilities), is compounded by her identity as a religious figure, a historical figure and identity rarely written about in secular circles. Much like her Protestant neighbors of the past, religion is still a hot button issue in America, one in which you are expected to keep your beliefs at home, to yourself, or and by your place of worship’s doors. So then, how is the modern reader to interpret the life of a woman who seemed to dislike her traditional, narrow roles of mother/teacher/nurturer/etc., and one who wore her religion on her sleeves and went on to preach it in the streets in a “confrontational” manner?
I don’t have all the answers but, this topic, one of writing a proper biography, is something that hits home for me. Drawing from an outside situation that O’Donnell’s conundrum and many historians face when writing about historical figures but, at the same time related, is that of Spike Lee making the film Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington shortly after the titular figures death. Some in the black community, like Amiri Baraka, were shocked and appalled that any negative attention would be shown about Malcolm X’s character. Other’s complained that it didn’t fit into mainstream ideals of leadership, under the extra scrutiny of black leadership, and would offend in that way. While very different people under very different circumstances/belief systems, (his)story and (her)story are related in the ongoing struggle to draw upon not only the facts of but, also the memory of the past when creating biographical works.
No matter how carefully an author uses the source material on hand, they always will come into conflict with the already constructed and prevailing narrative of the person. History is often said to be the record book of the winners, and I can’t count the number of times it has been mediated to me through the perspective of one collective (such as the Western World), or and through the actions of a single conqueror (Christopher Columbus for example). Biographies are especially tricky as the focus on one person can sometimes muddle the larger narrative with their views alone.
An individual can tell us a lot about the larger historical moment but, must always be situated in the historical context before being judged in a modern lense. Elizabeth Seton’s story is just as much of a product of a New York that was becoming a fledgling cosmopolitan city, the Catholic roots of Baltimore, and so on, as these places are made up of people like her who shaped them. Biography writing is not an easy task, especially when one is trying to tell the story of a person in a new light.
I believe many of my fellow scholars, myself included, will face a similar challenge when we begin the hard process spring semester of writing our research papers on a related subject. Taking with us our wealth of knowledge and the lessons Dr. O’Donnell has imparted on us (be careful, detailed, and dedicated to your subject), we’ll begin to see the immigrant Catholics we’ll study of the nineteenth-century as more than charts, graphs, and separated identity groups (catholic, immigrant, poor, etc.), and as a whole person who is both complicated by their circumstances and by the intersection of their different identities (Miss Seton as a middle class woman who fell from grace, converted, and so on). Until then, we have a lot more reading and writing to do!