When the orphan and Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean — aka Alexander Hamilton — finally made his way to New York City as a budding revolutionary, he rubbed elbows with other influential members of early American society - including a future Catholic saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton.
The Setons do not feature in “Hamilton,” Lin Manuel-Miranda’s wildly popular Broadway show. But they did work, worship, and otherwise socialize with Alexander, Eliza and the Hamilton family, who were their neighbors. Eventually, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Eliza Hamilton collaborated on charitable projects together.
“They ran in the same circles,” Catherine O’Donnell, a history professor at Arizona State University, and author of a biography on Seton, told The Pillar. The Hamiltons and Setons had similar levels of education and social status, and were part of a social circle comprised mostly of people of Scottish descent.
Seton's legacy as America's first native-born saint is being showcased this year at the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland, as part of the 200th anniversary of her death.
‘History is happening in Manhattan’
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was born Elizabeth Ann Bayley in 1774 to a colonial family in New York. Both Elizabeth’s father and her future father-in-law were supporters of the British during the Revolutionary War, but became key players in the building of the United States afterwards.
Elizabeth’s father, Dr. Richard Bayley, served for a time as New York’s health officer, a position which put him in close contact with Alexander Hamilton, Founding Father Gouverneur Morris, and other men of “superior sense” and “great brilliancy of wit,” according to the Sisters of Charity, founded by St. Elizabeth.
In a letter to Elizabeth, Dr. Bayley wrote: “I esteem it a high good fortune to be on a footing of communication, of feeling, and sentiment with them.”
Before Elizabeth married, her future father-in-law — William Seton Sr. — worked as a cashier for the Bank of New York, which was founded by Alexander Hamilton. He played an important role during the financial panic of 1792.
Elizabeth’s future husband, William Seton Jr., also had an apprenticeship at Hamilton’s bank.
When Elizabeth and William married in 1794, they lived on Wall Street, “which was Hamilton’s stomping grounds,” O’Donnell explained, and the street on which the Hamiltons lived until 1802.
The Setons and the Hamiltons both attended Trinity Church, an Episcopalian Church on Wall Street which counted many socially prominent New Yorkers as its parishioners at the time.
Elizabeth and Eliza might have bonded over being more religiously devout than their husbands, O’Donnell said. Alexander’s faith was known to have waxed and waned throughout his life, though he always considered religion to be a pillar of society, and he requested to receive communion on his deathbed.
Elizabeth Seton and Eliza Hamilton were especially connected through their charitable work for widows and single mothers — a cause they took up before they were both widowed themselves.
Along with philanthropist Isabella Graham, Elizabeth Seton helped in 1797 to found the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. Eliza joined the project soon after it began.
Seton and Hamilton “were women of privilege, but women who also saw vulnerability and came to experience it themselves. And they worked to try to create some kind of charitable organization that would help other women,” O’Donnell said.
Years later, Isabella and Eliza would found an orphanage in Alexander Hamilton’s honor, the one memorialized at the end of the “Hamilton” musical. It still functions today, as a service for foster children, and is called Graham Windham.
‘Dying is easy, living is harder’
Elizabeth and Eliza eventually came to have a difficult experience in common: The untimely death of their husbands, which left them both as widows and single mothers of multiple children.
In 1803, Elizabeth, her husband William and their eldest daughter, Anna Maria, traveled to Italy in a last-ditch effort to save the health of William, who had tuberculosis. Two weeks after they were released from their mandated quarantine in Italy, William died, and Elizabeth, then 29, became a bankrupt widow and single mother to five children.
The Italian friends who surrounded Elizabeth after William's death wasted no time in trying to convince Elizabeth to convert to Catholicism.
“The Italian friends immediately decided the thing to do with this grieving widow is convert her, as one does, right?” O’Donnell said. “Actually [Elizabeth] finds it amusing too, there's some line where she says ‘Oh these charitable Romans, they’re not going to let a minute go by!’”
Elizabeth had been interested in religion for some time, O’Donnell said. As her husband’s health and business had both started ailing in New York, a charismatic new pastor came to Trinity Church, and Elizabeth had become interested in Episcopalian liturgy, and in having a personal experience of and relationship with God.
Her faith transformed from something more “cosmopolitan” — i.e., going to church because it is what was expected of good people — and became more of a personal passion, O’Donnell said.
Once in Italy as a “worldly New Yorker,” she didn’t shy away from invitations to attend Mass with her friends.
“To her surprise, she finds herself reacting not just as a tourist but as someone who is moved by Catholicism,” O’Donnell said. “She’s moved by the figure of the Virgin Mary, who is much more important in Catholicism than in the kind of Protestantism that she'd known. She loves the art, she loves the culture of the saints and the idea of intercession, and she loves the Mass.”
Elizabeth did not convert immediately, and instead returned with her daughter to New York in 1804, where she would face pressure to drop her notions of conversion.
Within a month of her return, Alexander Hamilton was shot and killed in a duel with Aaron Burr.
Elizabeth heard of Hamilton’s death as bells tolled throughout the streets and businesses were ordered to close for the day. She recorded it as a “melancholy event – the circumstances of which are really too bad to think of.”
‘Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?’
Elizabeth Seton converted to Catholicism in 1805, despite the best efforts of family and friends at Trinity Church to convince her to remain an Anglican.
“To the Trinity Church ministers, Catholicism was superstitious and an old-world thing,” O’Donnell said, a view shared by many in the United States at the time.
As for Seton’s family, O’Donnell said she thinks they are often portrayed unfairly as especially anti-Catholic. In reality, the historian said, they likely just wanted Elizabeth to do the most sensible thing: find and marry a rich Protestant, and quickly.
“They had a kind of distaste for Catholicism, but a lot of it is just that these are cosmopolitan New Yorkers who were uncomfortable with someone trying to evangelize other people,” she said. “They respected her view, she should respect other people's choices. And underlying it, also, I think, was the thought: ‘How are we ever going to marry this woman?’”
Seton ultimately converted because she could not reason her way out of Catholicism, O’Donnell said. She saw that Catholicism had raised the stakes of salvation, in a way: the Church’s claims about heaven and hell were bolder than what she had heard in Protestant churches, and so she wanted to choose what seemed to be the surest path of salvation.
“It’s almost like a version of Pascal's Wager, you know, she says, ‘Well...the Catholics are kind of more terrifying with the consequences of getting this wrong,” O’Donnell said. “But she also feels this pull to Catholicism and so she decides, whatever the consequences, she's going to covert.”
Once Catholic, Seton faced resistance within the Church when she tried to found the Sisters of Charity, O’Donnell said. Seton’s inexperience with religious life was part of that, O’Donnell added, but also, Church leaders didn’t want to add to the suspicions with which the Church in America was already viewed.
“They don't want her to go beyond doctrinal bounds, but they also don't want her to convince people that, ‘yeah, the Catholic Church really is a place of crazy enthusiasts who keep women captive in convents,’” the historian said.
Eventually, with the help of clergy, friends, and boarding schools, Elizabeth founded and led the Sisters of Charity, an order dedicated to serving the poor through soup kitchens, hospitals, schools, orphanages and other ministries, while raising her children at the same time. After years of service, she died at the age of 46, having contracted tuberculosis, which had killed her husband and two of her children.
She was canonized in 1975 as the first United States-born saint, and is a co-patron of the United States.
‘History has its eyes on you’
As a historian, O’Donnell became interested in the story of Seton after a student submitted a project on her. She said she’s learned that Seton is a saint whose passion and devotion can continue to inspire Catholics today.
“On the one had, she was a woman who ended up being a single and working mother, who...succeeded in finding time to lead a life of faith also,” she said.
“And she does have this single-minded devotion, and throughout her life she struggled with how to live a kind of faith-filled, single-minded life in a way that doesn't harm other people, or that doesn't cause arguments or cause people pain who think differently, or even cause her children harm, as she's figuring out how to devote herself to God and devote herself to them at the same time.”
Not unlike her friend Alexander Hamilton, Seton was a force to be reckoned with - so much so that it earned her the nickname “Wild Betsy.”
“She managed to present herself as kind of demure and genteel, and she minds what she says,” O’Donnell said, “but she was this force who will do what she will do.”
The saint in the narrative
In commemoration of 200 years since the death of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the National Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton is planning for 2021 multiple events and exhibitions, including the display of artifacts from her life, including as her iconic bonnet, writing tablets, and wedding portraits, which have been donated by the Sisters of Charity. The sisters and shrine staff hope the items will bring the person of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to life.
“These treasures have always had a great significance for us,” Sister Donna Dodge, president of the Sisters of Charity of New York, said in a statement. “It is with great joy that we send them on a new mission where more people can appreciate them and draw closer to Mother Seton.”
Rob Judge, executive director of the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, said he hopes the artifacts will help more people relate to Mother Seton.
“The more she’s relatable, the more she becomes an example, an inspiration and a friend in heaven,” he said.