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Elizabeth Ann Seton: slaveholding saint?

Last month's conference for US Catholic educators brought resources and camaraderie aplenty, but one event during the pre-conference included a claim that might turn heads.

Last month’s National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) annual conference went virtual, but brought its usual energetic flair, displaying the value of Catholic education via a series of presentations, breakouts, and keynotes.

The pre-conference event featured Dr. Shannen Dee Williams of Villanova covering US Catholic history, and her offering was perhaps the most notable of all—though not for the reason you might think.

The session mostly focused on her specialty of Black nuns, and also delved into the history of racism in the Catholic Church against religious sisters as well as other Black people across the globe.

Partway through, however, came an explosive claim about a White nun: that Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton—a primary inaugurator of the US Catholic school system, patron saint of the world’s Catholic schools, founder of the first US religious order (the Sisters of Charity), and the first American-born individual to be canonized by the Church—was a slaveowner.

The claim first became public on Twitter, where Carol Zimmerman, of the USCCB’s Catholic News Service, highlighted it in a live-tweet thread of Dr. Williams’ address.

(Dr Williams also works for CNS, writing a monthly column on Black Catholic history.)

Zimmerman's tweets were liked by hundreds, and she would later reproduce the claim in a CNS article on the conference, which was subsequently published by multiple diocesan news outlets—chief among them DC’s Catholic Standard.

Upon first seeing the accusation against St Seton, one might react with quite a bit of shock—perhaps because they've never before heard such things about St Seton, but also because of the likely ramifications.

On the first point, the idea that St Seton owned slaves has apparently been a popular rumor for quite some time. On the second, the jury is obviously still out.

We have published before on what happens when US Catholic institutions get wind of slaveholding among their more prominent historical figures, and as of late it has spelled doom for any number of statues, roads, dorm names, and other visible commemorations—not unlike the recent trend in the secular world.

In other words, one might expect that numerous schools, churches, and other buildings around the country (and world) are in need of a nomenclatural makeover if in fact St Seton were indeed a slaveholder.

But, as it turns out, she almost certainly wasn’t.

Dr. Williams appears to have gotten her information from a book authored by Dr. Catherine O’Donnell, “Elizabeth Seton: American Saint", released in 2018. It is the most recent biography of St Seton, and states that her grandfather Richard Charlton owned several enslaved people and in his will bequeathed one—a “negro boy formerly named Brennus”—to three-year-old Elizabeth and her newborn sister.

After the CNS Twitter account amplified Zimmerman’s thread, a back-and-forth ensued between Our Sunday Visitor’s Michael Heinlein, who questioned Dr. Williams' claim, and Dr. Williams herself, who responded by citing O’Donnell’s book.

Heinlein responded with a quote from O’Donnell herself, who in an interview with the Gotham Center about the book stated that “it was Catholic laity and clergy, rather than Seton and the Sisters, who actually owned slaves".

And though Dr. Williams thereafter admitted that no record exists of what happened to Brennus after the death of his owner, she doubled down on her original claim, saying that “the fact remains that Seton was a slaveholder".

Exactly how remains unclear. (The NCEA ultimately did not respond to a request for comment.)

O’Donnell spoke with BCM shortly after the CNS story broke, taking care to acknowledge St Seton’s involvement in a “world shaped by slavery” and noting that “her father unquestionably owned an enslaved person”.

She declined, however, to paint St Seton herself as a human trafficker.

“I don’t think it’s correct to envision her as someone who bought or sold enslaved people,” Dr. O’Donnell said in an email exchange.

“And I think it’s quite unlikely—extremely unlikely—she herself ever personally owned a slave.”

There is, however, the sticky issue of a domestic servant, “Mammy Huler", in the employ of St Seton during her adult life before becoming a nun (or a Catholic), but Dr. O’Donnell thinks this was a free White woman. (The census did not list a slave in Seton’s married household.)

O'Donnell addressed this issue in her book, as well as the fact that there is no record of St Seton opposing slavery in an era when it shaped everything around her. O’Donnell even faced criticism on the latter point in a 2019 book review from a Catholic priest, who felt she was painting the saint in a negative light by bringing it up in her biography.

Even so, despite the claim that O’Donnell was “determined to inject the issue of slavery into her narrative”, it was clear even to him that O’Donnell did not claim St Seton engaged in slaveholding.

Dr. Williams, who came to the opposite conclusion, ended her exchange with Heinlein by dismissing his concerns and implying that he himself is a racist. She also quickly retweeted a number of concerns of her own.

That defense notwithstanding, to say she is outnumbered on the claim concerning the possibility of Seton’s slaveholding would be an understatement. There does not appear to be even a single source corroborating it. (And several preclude it outright.)

Despite this, as the assertion gains oxygen in Catholic media (and perhaps among thousands of US Catholic school educators and students), it remains to be seen if the reputation of one of America’s first Catholic saints will suffer as a result.

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