Her Doing Heart: Key Relationships in Elizabeth Seton’s Life (Part 5)

by | Jan 31, 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

Mother Seton’s Relationship with Simon Gabriel Brute

Simon Gabriel Brute and Elizabeth were, indeed, kindred spirits, despite their distinctive personality types. His determination to leave the medical profession where he was eminently successful and to resist his mother’s ambitions for him is not unlike Elizabeth’s struggle in moving into the Catholic Faith and establishing the community. Suffering purified both of them; Simon, in maintaining his Catholic faith despite oppression and then seeking ordination, and she, maintaining hers despite contradiction and opposition. Both were creative, expressive personalities and both were extremely intellectual and spiritual. The pen was important to both as Simon sketched his experiences and Elizabeth poured hers out in words. Elizabeth’s fluency in French must have created an immediate bond with the priest struggling to gain proficiency in English so that he could preach and teach. We are fortunate in that the two exchanged so many notes and enriched books by their marginal notes. Although Brute was wrong when he concluded that Elizabeth might have been a saint if she had been placed in circumstances like a Saint Theresa or Jane Frances de Chantal, he did recognize that Elizabeth was “a true pattern to her sisters” and the one who made him understand his priesthood. “In the first place I will say as the result of my long and intimate acquaintance with her, that I believe her to have been one of those truly chosen souls (âmes d’ elite) who, if placed in circumstances similar to those of St. Theresa, or St. Frances de Chantal, would be equally remarkable in the scale of sanctity. For it seems to me impossible that there could be a greater elevation, purity, and love for God, for heaven, and for super­natural and eternal things.”[1]6

Brute claimed his intimacy, “I have known her from 1811 to 1821. I have seen her habitually, during my sojourn at Mount Saint Mary’s from 1812-1815, besides the continual correspondence which the Superior of St. Joseph’s, believing that good resulted from it, permitted us. This correspondence continued after my return from France and whilst I was President of the College in Baltimore from 1815 to 1818. From August 1818 to 1821, January 4, the day of her death, I was confessor at St. Joseph’s and her own.”[2]

Elizabeth, who described herself as “your little, silly woman in the fields,”[3] was the teacher and adviser to the young Brute who had difficulty with the English language and American customs. She was not hesitant to point out to him areas for improvement. “Indeed, the preacher was very, very warm, too deep at first for his homespun people, but the abundant heart poured itself admirably as with all authority, love, etc., very, very few faults of English.You take such a hard countenance when preaching of late; not only when a Son of Thunder, as today, but as the Angel of peace last week, what is the reason? I wanted you to call the past year more to account, and the threatenings of the present if abused.”[4]

When Brute was named president of Saint Mary’s in Baltimore in 1815, Elizabeth observed: “I see a zealous, driving man without experience put in a Seminary where he will save none because he cannot wait to gain a heart, or unfold a temper, and his zeal, instead of bedding the plant in the thirsty ground crushes it underfoot…Alas well, if he does not root it out forever.”[5]

In the same dialogue format which Brute often adopted in his correspondence, Elizabeth continued to warn him of the challenges and difficulties facing him. She warned that the devil would seduce him to thinking that he could improve on those who had preceded him, that he would have many opinions, and “plunged in the labyrinth of science,” would “grow fat as a Doctor.” At that point, the devil would have him cut short prayer and thanksgiving. But the good angel taking up the opposite approach warned that there would be suffering and ultimately Brute would return to “more simple and heavenly delights.” Then in her own voice, Elizabeth expressed her edification at his quick response to the new duty. She ended by giving advice about American parents’ inability to accept the faults of their children.[6] This admonition to Brute cast in a dramatic format still serves as a good warning to curb the excesses of self-importance and activism.

Elizabeth also spoke very directly about Brute’s erratic temperament and the weaknesses revealed in his actions. “All is a true mystery to me in your disposition … I seldom see you but in such wild enthusiasm of your own particular impression of the moment that you can see nothing, hear nothing but that one object; or else quite reserved, hurt and anxious because you have not been consulted in things which spoke for themselves, or others which we would not dare take your advice about, without knowing the Superior’s will.”[7] Elizabeth knew this trait well because impetuosity and spirit were part of her own nature.

Elizabeth also tried to help Father Brute in his relationships with Dubois, superior of the sisters as well as of Brute. In these words, she shows her own wisdom in leadership, particularly in the value of holy delay. “You ought to know our Rev. Superior by this time and see that he is not to be pushed anywhere, and your urging him cannot but keep him away. When anything essential happens, I always inform him of it, and if the thing is not essential, his absence often hinders a fuss about nothing, and suffers pets and little passions to drop in silence.”[8]

Again Elizabeth challenged Brute to be his own physician and to live in the present moment. “Again, your restless thoughts strike me to the soul. You made the lesson of the grace of the moment so very plain to me I owe you perhaps my very salvation by the faults and sins it has saved me from, yet, Physician, you will not heal yourself.”[9]

Elizabeth had written earlier, “Going as you know to meet everybody in the grace of the moment, which we can never know till we find the humor and temper of the one we are to meet with.”[10] Advice was reciprocal as Gabriel wrote frequently encouraging Elizabeth “to support and cherish each sister” and make your service in “a resolute, peaceful manner … with that blessed simplicity so much at heart to your holy father, St. Vincent. God is all.” Brute was truly an insider with the community and Elizabeth could write to him with humor about Father Jamison’s anxiety with the manner in which Sister Betsy decorated the altar. “He is so droll; everything must be done by the book; We call him the Rubric.”[11]

Indeed, each monitored the health of the other, physical as well as spiritual. Elizabeth frequently assured Simon Gabriel that he need not worry about her physical health because her spiritual health was constant. “Mind not my health, Death grins broader in the pot every morning and I grin at him and show him his master.”[12] A genuine mysticism appears in the mature Elizabeth. “I see nothing in this world but the blue sky and altars; all the rest is so plainly not to be looked at, but all left to Him with tears only for sin.” Earlier, she had written of the harmony that comes when the spirit of the law is internalized. “I am so in love now with rules that I see the bit of the bridle all gold, and the reins all of silk.”[13] One sees in both Elizabeth and Gabriel a Scotist tendency to become absorbed in the essential, the present reality which is simultaneously of eternity. Brute described it as “how grand and overwhelming the least glance at the immense display each object presents continually to the mind.”[14] It is that “dearest freshness deep down things” the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins spoke of or in terms of spirituality, it is awareness of the presence of God.

This peaceful conformity to God’s will contrasts with the younger Elizabeth who had shared with Brute her anguished experience at the grave of Annina. The scene evoked the British graveyard poets whom Mother Seton admired as she described “the soul quieted even by the desolation of the falling leaves around” and the “rattling sound” of a snake “so large and ugly” on the grave and the “gate tied.” The imagery is vivid and the passion deep, a letter which could only be written to one who was indeed a soul-friend.[15] The tone here is far less restrained than in her revelations to the archbishop.

Throughout Elizabeth’s correspondence, there is almost a photographic quality which mimics the scientific, artistic bent of Brute, physician-priest, and captures Elizabeth’s penetrating sensitivity and keen powers of observation. Both were very visual, Brute to the point where he illustrated the rules for the sisters and added visuals to many of his letters. Their holistic vision, simultaneously concrete and abstract, focuses on eternity and allows God to peek through even the most prosaic observation.

Elizabeth in almost a Dutch genre painting style describes to Brute this humble scene of April, 1818: “What life indeed. A grey-headed carpenter whittling over the plank he measures for Ellen’s coffin, just beyond the ground ploughing to plant potatoes-just beyond again good Joe, I believe, making the pit to plant Ellen for her glorious resurrection, beautiful life-the whole delight in God, 0 what relish in that word.”[16]

Indeed, Elizabeth and Gabriel were kindred souls who punctuated their conversations and their correspondence with thoughts or sketches of eternity, a concept and word precious to both of them. While Brute lamented that Elizabeth did not share with him fully her pre-Emmitsburg life, it appears that he was privy to her most intimate thoughts in later years. She takes on almost a childlike simplicity and openness in this relationship; there is no artifice, just utter simplicity. Theirs is the kind of friendship which allows the giving and receiving of compliments and admonitions with equal grace and gratitude. They were mutually developed through their friendship. The notes written by Brute on 5 January 1821, the day after Mother Seton’s death, reveal the concreteness and the simplicity of the relationship.

Brute begins in a style that is reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s funereal poetry as he creates a dialogue for Elizabeth. The interplay begins with Elizabeth asking, “What is the long plank painted black that stands along the wall against our dear father Saint Vincent’s picture and it has holes and screws all around, pray what is it” and carries us through the funeral preparations, the mass and the interment.[17] It is appropriate that the imaginative, creative Frenchman could draw therapy from engaging in such dramatic dialogue across the death barrier into eternity. On successive days, he wrote other dialogues engaging Mother Seton’s children, the students, and himself. These emotional, sentimental pieces which involve the entire Emmitsburg community end with the word “eternity” which animated her doing heart in their relationship.


[1] Brute, Mother Seton Notes, 81.

[2] Ibid., 82.

[3] lbid., 234.

[4] lbid., 218.

[5] Ibid., 237.

[6] Ibid., 238-41.

[7] Ibid., 262.

[8] Ibid., 263.

[9] Ibid., 261.

[10] Ibid., 235.

[11] lbid., 298.

[12] Ibid., 264.

[13] Ibid., 221.

[14] [Anonymous] Rev. Simon Gabriel Brute, In His Connection with the Community, 1812-1839 (Emmitsburg, Maryland: 186), 40.

[15] Brute, Mother Seton Notes, 210-12.

[16] Ibid., 259.

[17] Ibid., 147-62.


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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