Her Doing Heart: Key Relationships in Elizabeth Seton’s Life (Part 6)

by | Feb 7, 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 Antonio Filicchi

Perhaps the most celebrated relationship of Elizabeth is that with Antonio Filicchi which began with her husband’s business contacts and spanned over two decades. While Antonio is associated with Elizabeth’s conversion to the Catholic faith, their correspondence reveals that Antonio continued to be the trusted adviser, the financial backer, the surrogate father to Elizabeth’s sons and, most importantly, a soul-friend until her death. The friendship was not free of comment, and its nature was frequently challenged. Even as late as April 1816, Elizabeth wrote to Antonio that people still think “that you have bought me, a reproach which can only make you smile at their thinking you so zealous.”[1]

Despite some long gaps between letters, their correspondence provides a wonderful history of the Seton family, the community beginnings, Church developments in the United States, European political events, commercial enterprises on both sides of the Atlantic as well as a treatise on lived friendship. Elizabeth had often assured Antonio that time and distance are not barriers to genuine friendship based on shared faith. Expressions of such gratitude as well as straightforward progress reports and requests for material and spiritual support are woven into almost all of Elizabeth’s letters to Antonio. Simplicity and trust allowed Elizabeth to share her accomplishments and her hopes with this man who had helped to shepherd her into the Church. “Our blessed bishop is so fond of our establishment that it seems to be the darling part of his charge and this consoles me for every difficulty and embarrassment. All the clergy in America support it by their prayers and there is every hope that it is the seed of an immensity of future good.” In this same letter, spanning six months and several pages, Elizabeth speaks gratefully of the progress of the fledgling community in Emmitsburg, even as she requests more financial support and reveals her own state of affairs.

Now then you will laugh when I tell you that your wicked little sister is placed at the head of a Community of Saints, ten of the most pious Souls you could wish, considering that some of them are young and all under thirty. Six more postulants are daily waiting till we move in a larger place to receive them, and we might be a very large family if I received half who desire to come, but your Reverend Mother is obliged to be very cautious for fear we should not have the means of earning our living during the winter. Yet, as Sisters of Charity we should fear nothing.[2]

In May she continued:

Since the above was written, my Brother, I have never been able to hear of a good occasion to write; and have besides been so beset with difficulties that having but a few moments and nothing but trouble to tell you of, was not very anxious to write. Yet do I speak of trouble before the boundless joy of having received another most dear Sister in our holy Church. Perhaps you may remember Harriet Seton who was engaged to marry my Brother, the Doctor Bayley…We are now twelve,

and as many again are waiting for admission. I have a very, very large school to superintend every day, and the entire charge of the religious instruction of all the country round. All happy to the Sisters of Charity who are night and day devoted to the sick and ignorant. Our blessed Bishop intends removing a detachment of us to Baltimore to perform the same duties there.[3]

Later in this long letter started in November 1809 and completed with three installments in May 1810, Elizabeth seems to have become conscious that her letter was too much in the first person so she delicately and warmly moves into the second person and underlines the pronouns. “How are you, Tonino, what are you doing. Do you ever think of the poverina of America. Yes you do, and she thinks of you as of her daily bread.”[4]

Elizabeth’s letters to Antonio abound in terms of endearment as well as in self-deprecating images which show that their relationship was deep, comfortable, mutual and, in a sense, therapeutic. “O my dear Antonio, this world is nothing, but if I had it all, I could give it to see you and Filippo and your precious family and to lay my whole heart before you, and yet it would be to say what is unutterable-my love, gratitude and thousands of desires of your best happiness.[5] A year later in July 1815, she wrote expressing concern for William:

Antonio, my brother-friend of my soul, and instrument so dear of its salvation, and mine of so many more than you even can guess, be in this point so extremely tender to my most weak mind, broken down by so many hard trials as you know, and by so many more you never can know while this great Ocean divides us. Be my true brother and tell me all your heart, scold me if you are angry (but gently) and tell me all if anything can be done in any way to alter what I could so little foresee for bad as it is to have him [William] struggling with the hundred disadvantages and dangers our country so miserable for young men.[6]

Much of the Elizabeth-Antonio correspondence deals with the boys who “do not seem to have either talents or applications which is a great cross to me but they are innocent in their conduct and do not show any bad dispositions in other respects and I must be patient.” That same concern was expressed in July 1814 when she wrote, “boys, being less solid in piety than girls can be more easily led astray.” Elizabeth also had to consider ways to keep the boys out of the army. Her comments in this July 1814 letter echo earlier concerns about William and Richard. “They are so far children of exemplary conduct as it relates to common behavior, and the simple discharge of pious duties, but they have no striking talents, no remarkable qualifications, nor are their dispositions even unfolded, in many points they can never be brought to express any decided wish, but the only desire to please Mother and do what she thinks best-how much I wished they might have the high calling to the sanctuary if such a favor could have been bestowed.”[7]

Indeed, Elizabeth had reason to be concerned and was fortunate in having Antonio to whom she could unburden herself but also who could take the boys in turn, but unsuccessfully, as apprentices in Leghorn.

But Elizabeth had to accept the fact that Antonio could not help either son earn success while in Leghorn just as Louise de Marillac under Vincent’s guidance had to give up her hope for her son Michel to be a priest. This is one of many parallels in the lives of the two foundresses and saints. In February 1817, Elizabeth wrote desperately about Richard, “Who on earth can I ask, but yourself, what to do with him.” In her letter of 16 September to Antonio, Elizabeth introduced her Richard: “Here is my Richard, you said a good will and good handwriting, would be enough. I hope he will soon show you he has both and also a heart burning with desire to represent the love and gratitude of us all for you.”[8] Later in the same letter, Elizabeth gave tentative endorsement of Richard and praises William faintly because he now seemed settled in the navy:

Richard’s disposition is quite different from William’s if he does not fall into bad company, I am sure he will do well, for all the turn of his mind is for business and activity, but with his quick temper and want of experience, he is in continual dangers which his Brother escapes-Oh with what a deep heart of sorrow & hope I commit them to God who so far has so well protected us,- We find William so improved, and with such excellent dispositions that we can have no uneasiness for him, he has set his heart on the sea life, and I can now put no more obstacle but trust it all to God, if He is not offended I will be satisfied, but there is the point the Navy is so dangerous for soul and body-the president of the Navy Department has promised him an appointment before Xst mass-Alas.[9]

In letters written almost two years apart and long after Elizabeth and Antonio had become fast friends, she described the event which initially drew her to Antonio and which really captures their relationship and Antonio’s protective role. That event and Antonio’s words seem to have been indelibly traced in Elizabeth’s consciousness so that she could conjure up years later both the context and the conversation with relative ease. “The first word I believe you ever said to me after the first salute was to trust all to him who fed the fowls of the air and made the lilies grow-and I have trusted and he has fed and with your own hand in great measure.”[10] “The first words you ever told me was to trust in God who took care of the young ravens and made the lilies grow-I could show you the spot at Filippo’s where you told me that, and then declared the one way to get to His kingdom.”[11]

Elizabeth’s letters to Antonio, while heavily objective about events in the new community and very focused on her material needs and the guidance of her sons, also included personal reports of her spiritual and physical situations. She kept Antonio aware of her serious illness in 1818. “It is suspected that I, your poor little sister, am about to go and meet your Filippo.”[12]

Her last two letters (shorter than usual) could serve as a reprise of her correspondence with Antonio because they carry the same themes of affection, gratitude, and progress in the community. In her letter of April 1820, she began with her great love for Antonio, offered a brief spiritual commentary, forwarded greetings to the entire Filicchi family, and cited the enclosed copy of Dubourg’s Louisiana Lenten regulations which she thought Amabilia, Antonio’s wife, would consider a “miserable idea of penance.” She ended with the image she had used so often to describe the apostolic work of her community. “Our poor little mustard seed spreads its branches well, they have written us from New York to come and take a [or 8] hundred children of the State School beside our orphan asylum.”[13]

In the last and brief letter of 19 October 1820, just three months before her death she begins with “this then is the earthly fruits of your goodness and patience with us these 20 years.” Elizabeth reported that Richard was in difficulty in Norfolk and that she had sought the help of General Harper “to have the kindness to see about him, not dearest Antonio, for his relief but for a Mother’s duty.” The formerly anxious mother ends that section with a peaceful and resigned “He will save their souls.” Parenthetically, Richard visited his mother briefly two weeks before she died and himself entered eternity just two and a half years later. Elizabeth then concluded her letter very simply but powerfully, “the reason of this writing, I received the last sacraments three weeks ago, ever yours and God’s.” E. A. Seton.[14]

Perhaps that closing is the best way to conclude this commentary on three of Elizabeth’s many productive, generous, and reciprocal relationships. Indeed, in her key relationships, she was “ever yours and God’s.” She lived Leon Bloy’s observation: “The more of a saint a woman is, the more of a woman she is.”[15] She did, indeed, “ride horseback into heaven” using the many opportunities of mutuality to find that Christ within and the Christ without. Her courage allowed “no creeping or idling” as she journeyed toward eternity even though the ride took her over difficult roads and offered challenging experiences. Courage, her “doing heart,” made “the bit of the bridle all gold, and the reins all of silk.”[16]

End of Article


[1] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 22 April 1816. Leghorn Archives.

[2] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 8 November 1809, ibid.

[3] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 20 May 1810, ibid.

[4] lbid. Emphasis in original.

[5] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 1 July 1814, ibid.

*Erikson: Holistic Development comes as a result of successfully negotiating the crisis of human life.

[6] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 29 July 1815, ibid.

[7] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 1 July 1814, ibid.

[8] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 16 September 1817, ibid.

[9] lbid.

[10] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 1 July 1814, ibid.

[11] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 22 April 1816, ibid. Emphasis in original.

[12] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 8 August 1818, ibid.

[13] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 18 April 1820, ibid. Emphasis in original.

[14] Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 19 October 1820, ibid.

[15] Leon Blay, The Woman Who was Poor, trans. I. J. Collins (New York: 1939), 63.

[16] Brute, Mqther Seton Notes, 221.


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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