Her Doing Heart: Key Relationships in Elizabeth Seton’s Life (Part 4)

by | Jan 24, 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

Elizabeth’s Relationship With John Carroll (continued)

One also finds in Elizabeth’s correspondence with Bishop Carroll the tracing of the stormy clerical history of the early years of the community. While every community must experience growing pains, the Sisters of Charity seemed to have had an undue share of suffering imposed by the clergy who, while motivated by good purposes, seemed to be divisive forces in their fervor to be involved with or in control of. the community. There is no question that the value of the new community was recognized by the clergy. In fact, Elizabeth wrote of this on several occasions. However, that very interest among priests created some painful times for Elizabeth who confided very freely to Bishop Carroll. Again, the dictate that prevented Babade from confessing the sisters caused great pain. “But accustomed as I am almost habitually to sacrifice everything I most value in this life, I should have acquiesced quietly though my heart was torn to pieces but the others could not bear it in the same way and the idea so difficult to conceal that our Superior was acting like a tyrant.” Later in this same letter, after she acknowledged that the superior had given the sisters a copy of the rule which did permit free correspondence for direction, she noted defensively, “There have been some very busy persons making exaggerations to our Superior about my writing large packages to Father Babade which packages sent only twice I truly explained to contain letters from Cecilia, Harriet, my Anna, Maria Burke… The packages he twice sent us contained the life of Clotilde of France and the manner of regular meditation and mental prayer.”[1]

In a letter of 2 November 1809, Elizabeth expressed her desire that Father Dubourg become superior again and reminded Carroll that, if David traveled to Kentucky with Flaget, “we shall have three changes in one year.” She had written to Dubourg herself, saying “you have given your children to our Father-in-law while their real father still lives-and why? The mother is worthless.” She also requested that the temporal and spiritual management be placed in one person and noted that she regretted greatly having offended “our first superior.” But “the truth is that I have been made Mother before being initiated.”[2] In another letter, Elizabeth referred to the great many very hard trials and her healthy determination to accept them by laughing at herself before the Lord. “Dry and hard as my daily bread is, to take it with as good a grace as possible, when I carry it before our Lord sometimes he makes me laugh at myself and asks me what other kind I would choose in the Valley of tears than that which himself and all his followers make use of.”[3]

A letter of 25 January 1810 is, perhaps, the most revealing of the great personal pain Elizabeth was suffering in community but also of her total freedom with and trust in Carroll. She was deeply disturbed and full of self doubts and even of symptoms which might well signal a serious depression. This long quotation, including her emphases, provides many insights:

St. Joseph’s House is almost ready, in a very short time we expect to be settled in it-you know our rules have hitherto been very imperfectly observed but now the moment approaches when order must be the foundation of all the good we can hope to do, and as so much depends on the Mother of the Community, I beg you to take her first in hand for I must candidly tell you she is all in the wrong-not from discontent with the place I am in since every corner of the world is the same to me if I may but serve our Lord, nor with the intention of our institution for I long to be in the fullest exercise of it-but circumstances have all so combined as to create in my mind a confusion & want of confidence in my Superiors which is indescribable. If my own happiness was only in question, I should say how good is the cross for me this is my opportunity to ground myself in patience & perseverance, and my reluctance to speak on a subject which I know will give you uneasiness is so great that I would certainly be silent; but as the good our Almighty God may intend to do by means of this community may be very much impeded by the present state of things, it is absolutely necessary you, as the head of it and to whom, of course, the Spirit of discernment for its good is given, should be made acquainted with it before the evil is irreparable. Sincerely I promised you & really I have endeavored to do everything in my power to bend myself to meet the last appointed Superior in every way but after continual reflection on the necessity of absolute conformity with him, and constant prayer to our Lord to help me, yet the heart is closed, & when the pen should freely give him the necessary detail & information he requires it stops, & he remains now as uninformed in the essential points as if he had nothing to do with us, an unconquerable reluctance & diffidence takes place of those dispositions which ought to influence every action and with every desire to serve God & these excellent beings who surround me I remain motionless and inactive You still think things must remain as they are, whatever you dictate, I will abide by through every difficulty, continuing at all times and in every situation your most affectionate Daughter in Xst. M., Mary, E. A. Seton.[4]

In an undated letter which must have been written in mid-1810, Elizabeth again raised up all her concerns about the effect of David’s conducting a retreat for the sisters when the constitutions were not settled and he would be leaving. She expressed herself very directly.

And a new set of examinations in those dear hearts now quiet and tranquil will be the consequence of a retreat whenever it takes place and why should it be agitated before the regulations are made which are hereafter to bind them and why should they be made by a Superior on the point of leaving us to be revised and probably new molded by his successor and thereby subjecting us to a new change the great disappointment it will cause when they will find there are no more regulations after the retreat than before-and certainly, if there are any proposed to us without going through the necessary discussion and approbation, I can never give the example of accepting them. The messenger who takes this letter will also take one to Mr. David suggesting the inconvenience attending this plan.[5]

However, in the end, despite her straightforwardness and her plea for dialogue and subsidiarity, Elizabeth, as always, ends the letter: “If afterwards, it [the retreat] takes place, I must refer it to the Almighty ruler.”

In May 1811 Elizabeth again unburdened herself to Carroll: “And now after two years’ trial, experience has too well proved how ill I am qualified to meet the views of the Reverend gentlemen who have the government of this house–who require a pliancy of character I would for some reasons wish to possess and may eventually be the fruit of divine grace, but as yet is far from being attained.” She then subtly pointed out that it is better to be ruled by someone who is nearby than by someone at a distance. She also observed that Dubois, economical, detailed, and prudent, contrasts greatly with Dubourg “all liberality and schemes from a long custom of expending.” She noted as well that the two were very different in spiritual issues and conceded to the bishop that it is “a delicate point for you to decide,” but “I open my heart on the subject only because I believe Our Lord requires me to be explicit on it.” She then very directly expressed her preference for Dubois saying that “he always and invariably has recommended me to refer constantly to you.” She did not make any counter reference in regard to Dubourg.[6]

In August 1811 Elizabeth wrote that “poor Mr. Dubois is truly discouraged, he will do all he can without displeasing you to quit all, even the direction .… Mr. Brute in the purity of his heart is doing his very best, and much more than it could possibly be supposed so young a man would venture. Sometimes I am tempted to tell him all; but it seems to me Our Lord says every moment, trust all to me; to him and to my venerated Father, I trust all indeed.”[7] Not only did she trust all, but she was willing to give up all for her children. “Surely, an individual is not to be considered where a public good is in question-and you know I would gladly make every sacrifice you think consistent with my first and inseparable obligations as a Mother.”[8]

In addition to all these weighty matters of community organization and clerical conflicts, Elizabeth at a different level shared with Bishop Carroll many ordinary issues: the reasons for accepting and rejecting students, responding to a complaining parent whom she “must answer in justice to them but my heart sickens at every word of it.” She also requested Carroll to check out an insurance policy on Anne Marie which she thought she could use to pay for William’s trip to Italy.[9] She also delegated to the bishop the unpleasant task of seeking payment from the delinquent guardian of student, Fanny Wheeler, because Elizabeth was certain he would prefer to settle “in peace” with the help of the bishop rather than have the debt given to one of the creditors.[10]

As one probes the relationship of Elizabeth with Carroll, one recalls that he was a man in his seventies when she first met him and their friendship extended over nine years. One suspects that he took on a paternal role on two levels, on the human level of an older, mature friend and on the Church level as the bishop who confirmed her community as he had confirmed her in 1806. They were kindred souls; Brute noted that they shared a gentility, kindness, and amiability, “a delicate politeness and deep kindness.”[11] Their correspondence also reveals that the political realities of this clerical world of the early nineteenth century prove the birth and growth of the community was truly an act of divine inspiration as well as human perseverance.

There is no doubt that Archbishop Carroll was grateful for the work of Elizabeth Seton in advancing the Church through her community. Carroll frequently expressed his gratitude for the sisters, but his letter of 29 March 1814 is typical and prophetic as well. “How many reasons have I to thank divine providence for affording such a protection and shield for my diocese against the inroads of irreligion and impiety as the prayers and example your blessed Society offers.”[12]


[1] Elizabeth Seton to Archbishop Carroll, 6 August 1809, ibid.

[2] Elizabeth Seton to Archbishop Carroll, 2 November 1809, ibid.

[3] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Archbishop Carroll, 14 December 1809, ibid.

[4] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Archbishop Carroll, 25 January 1810, ibid.

[5] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Archbishop Carroll, undated, ibid.

[6] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Archbishop Carroll, 13 May 1811, ibid.

[7] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Archbishop Carroll, 9 August 1811, ibid. Emphasis in original.

[8] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Archbishop Carroll, 5 September 1811, ibid.

[9] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Archbishop Carroll, 28 December 1814, ibid.

[10] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Archbishop Carroll, 7 September 1815, ibid.

[11] Simon Brute to Antonio Filicchi, 5 May 1821 from Emmitsburg, Leghorn Archives, Italy.

[12] Archbishop Carroll to Elizabeth Ann Seton, 29 March 1814 from Baltimore, ibid.


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.


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