Her Doing Heart: Key Relationships in Elizabeth Seton’s Life (Part 1)

by | Jan 3, 2024 | Formation

Sr. Margaret John Kelly, DC, who died in Nov. 24, 2022, in Emmitsburg, wrote the following excellent article on Mother Seton (among her many other accomplishments). In this series we present her article in six parts.


Her Doing Heart: Key Relationships in Elizabeth Seton’s Life


As one seeks to narrow this very broad topic of key relationships in Elizabeth’s life, 1809-1821, it becomes apparent that the first parameter of Key is not a strong restriction or qualifier because Elizabeth Seton had many key relationships if we define key as formative of personality or critical in the evolution of her community. Treating just the last twelve years of her life, Emmitsburg 1809-1821, does not reduce the challenge either because in addition to the sustained relations of her New York, Italy, and Baltimore days, Elizabeth established many new and many key relationships, particularly among the clergy, within her community and among her students. Those twelve years witnessed the organization of her new religious community and the extension of the ministry into Philadelphia and New York. That period included the loss of relationships as well because during those twelve years, Elizabeth herself buried two daughters, two sisters-in­law, seven of her religious sisters and mourned many others including Archbishop John Carroll and Filippo Filicchi.

The complexity of Elizabeth’s personality and the dynamism of this particular period of history from the national and international perspective make the challenge even greater. Elizabeth grew up with the emerging republic and entered a cultural world seeking to reconcile the philosophical and creative expressions of romanticism with the dominant classical culture of Europe. While we think of Elizabeth as a daughter of the United States, and truly she was, the religious and philosophical currents forming her as a religious were strongly European. Her spiritual guides, the Sulpicians, were formed in the French school of spirituality and she, herself, quite competent in French, translated the lives of many saints including Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Francis de Sales, as well as Francis Xavier, and Theresa of Avila.

The complexity of both Elizabeth’s personhood and her historical period offers many possibilities in studying her relationships. First, one could consider Elizabeth’s relations with the clergy and try to gain insights into that very contemporary issue. She had her share of successes and failures in her respectful docility to Archbishop Carroll, unflagging devotion to Pere Pierre Babade, reluctant submission to Father John Baptist David, painful adjustments to the greatly divergent Louis William Dubourg and John Dubois, and mentoring of the erratic Simon Gabriel Brute. However, to do justice to the clerical relationships, one would need to include a veritable full cast of characters and some very major figures in American church history including Dubourg, Dubois, Brute, Cheverus, Carroll, Flaget, David, Marechal of Baltimore, Connolly of New York, Samuel Cooper in both his angelic and diabolic states, Nagot, Tisserant, Duhamel, Bishop Egan, Tessier, etc., etc.

One could profit from looking at her community relationships to seek some helpful assistance in that contemporary challenge. How did Elizabeth interact with the forty-six sisters who entered the Sisters of Charity during her lifetime? She referred to herself, in a letter to Simon Brute, as a “torpedo among them for they [the sister novices] tell their superior I strike their very joints when I say a word.”[1] Of these forty-­six sisters, as far as we know, eight left the community before Mother Seton died, seven preceded Mother Seton to the grave, and two (Elizabeth Boyle and Margaret George) were foundresses in their own right (New York and the Cincinnati Charities). One is particularly drawn to study David’s effort to replace Mother Seton with Rose White as community leader and to see how, after that conflict, Elizabeth and Rose managed to work so closely in developing the community. One also is drawn to probe Mother’s relationships with Sister Susan Clossy because Elizabeth described Susan as one “who has lived in my very heart and been more than my own sister to me ever since I have been here” and advised Julia Scott that “If you have ever to find a piece of myself, it will be in this dear Susan Clossy.”[2] And, how did Elizabeth relate with her local superiors? To Margaret George in 1819, she gave very sound advice on personal stewardship. “Take care of Margaret exactly as you would of E. A. S. Mind that, my last injunction.”[3] Again to Elizabeth Boyle whom she describes as “dearest old partner of my cares and bearer of my burdens” she wrote on 20 October 1820, “Write as often as you can. One thing I beg of you when you write to me, scribble without care, say much and never mind how it is written.”[4] Elizabeth’s recruitment and formation relationships are also intriguing because she directly invited new members to the community. Even though her community was just beginning and was enduring upheavals, she assured Rose Stubbs “there will be a happy home ready for you in which you may enter without expenses or difficulty”[5] and that “the rule is so easy that it is scarcely more than any regular religious person would do even in the world.”[6] However, in a letter to Archbishop Ambrose Manchal in September 1817, Elizabeth described the challenge of forming “the little wild head of Mary Kelly” who “cannot be depended on a moment nor remain a half-hour in adoration without so much complaining and restlessness that we fear she should be seen by children or strangers.”[7]

When resource development is such a necessary function today, Elizabeth’s relationship with her donors invites attention. To Antonio Filicchi and Julia Scott, she was very blunt and direct with her requests, with no preliminary buildup. To the Harpers in a post-Christmas period, she wrote emotionally of stewardship: “Will a friendly hand assist us, become our guardian protector, plead our cause with the rich and the powerful, serve the cause of humanity, and be a father to the poor? … Tell your sweet nieces to look at the price of a shawl or vest and think of the poor family at St. Joseph’s.”[8]

In this day of the laity, it is inviting to trace Elizabeth’s relationship with her many lay associates and friends. This brings forth a similar catalog of men and women from the sophisticated Catons and Harpers to the simple farmhand Joe as well as her faithful friends, Eliza Sadler and Catherine Dupleix, who did become a Catholic as well. The fifty-seven letters Elizabeth wrote to Julia Scott from Emmitsburg, 1809 to 1821, reveal her as the playful friend as well as the tenacious preacher.

One also wants to consider the educator Elizabeth in her relationships with her students. Correspondence with her students and graduates, as well as with the families of her students, is replete with psychological insights and reveals the qualities that made Elizabeth so successful as an educator, a motivator, animator, and spiritual director. The fifteen letters to Ellen Wiseman, who as student, friend, directee, and confidant are very appealing as are the supportive letters written to parents. To Mr. Fox of New York who, incidentally, accompanied the sisters to New York on their first mission in 1817, Elizabeth frequently wrote very affirming letters about his three daughters, Eliza, Jane, and Mary. The famous Harpers of Baltimore were not as fortunate because little Mary’s “proud little heart made her insupportable to her teachers.”[9]

Elizabeth’s relationships with her five children are also attractive. Each relationship was special and unique, full of understanding and support but also firm and reprimanding when necessary, especially with William and Richard. To stay near her sons while they were away, Elizabeth kept a globe showing France and Italy or a map of Boston. Her relationship with Anne Marie was deepened by the shared experiences in Italy. At her youngest daughter Rebecca’s death in November 1816, she admitted to William that she had lost “the little friend of my heart who read every pain or joy of it and soothed by the most darling affection every daily care.”[10]

This rapid review of possible emphases demonstrates that the task of describing Elizabeth’s key relationships in this twelve-year period is indeed daunting. Yet, as one reads through her correspondence during this period, one is struck by the frequency with which the theme of “courage” appears. “Courage,” the combination of the French “Coeur” and the Latin “agere,” provides a clue and a special perspective on her relationship. Elizabeth seems most herself and relates most authentically when she is “acting with heart,” when she converts her deep sense of God into activities for others. Her awareness of God must be expressed in service; her spirituality yields, better demands, a lived share in Jesus’ mission. Elizabeth then seems to be most herself in her two critical projects of this period, fulfilling her familial responsibilities to her children, particularly the boys, and in establishing her community. Relationships and projects merge in the creative, spontaneous, energetic, passionate, and productive Elizabeth.


[1] Elizabeth Seton to Simon Brute August, 1814, Mother Seton Notes by Rev. Simon Gabriel Brute (Emmitsburg: 1884), 217. While the location of the original of the correspondence is identified in the notes here, typescript copies of all extant Elizabeth Seton’s letters from Emmitsburg, 1809-1821, are available in the archives of Saint Joseph’s Provincial House in Emmitsburg.

[2] Numerous Choirs: A Chronicle of Elizabeth Bayley Seton and Her Spiritual Daughters, 1: The Seton Years, 1774-1821, ed. Ellin Kelly (Evansville, Indiana: 1981), 175.

[3] Ibid., 217.

[4] Ibid., 231.

[5] Ibid., 125.

[6] Ibid., 138.

[7] Elizabeth Seton to Bishop Marechal, September, 1817, Baltimore Archdiocese Archives (hereinafter cited as BAA).

[8] Elizabeth Seton to Mr. Harper, 2 January 1810, BAA.

[9] Elizabeth Seton to Mr. Harper. 15 October 1814, ibid.

[10] Kelly, Numerous Choirs, 195.


Source: Kelly, Margaret J. D.C. (1993) “Her Doing Heart: Key Relationships in Elizabeth Seton’s Life: 1809–1821,” Vincentian Heritage Journal: Vol. 14: Iss. 2, Article 7.