The Scholar, the Saint, and the Historical Process

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Over the past few weeks the Ramonat Scholars have been talking about the concept of urban religion and the European background of Catholic immigrants to Chicago. This week we switched to the growth of Catholicism in the young United States. We were very fortunate to have Dr. Catherine O’Donnell join us for the first of our evening seminar series to talk about her new work on Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Catherine O’Donnell is an Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University.  She is the author of Men of Letters in the Early Republic: Cultivating Forums of Citizenship (Chapel Hill, 2008), as well as articles appearing in the William and Mary Quarterly, the Journal of the Early Republic, Early American Literature, and the US Catholic Historian.  O’Donnell graciously shared with us a draft of chapter seven from her book manuscript, entitled “A Convert in New York: Elizabeth Seton and St. Peter’s Parish, 1805-1806.”  A lively conversation about the paper ensued Thursday evening and then continued throughout the weekend as the Scholars wrote blog posts with their reflections on the relationship between biography and history:

  • Guy asks how do you write the biography of a saint, one whose life does not end with death?
  • Dan reminds us how the life of a saint not only has much to tell us about the history of the Church, but also the history of society.
  • The nature of that society, Claire muses, can have an important impact on the reception of religious belief and practice.
  • Maya explores the opportunities and challenges of writing a biography and reflects on her aptitude for the task while Bianca connects these questions to her personal experience;
  • Biography and history share common ground, Brendan tells us, but depart from each other in important ways.
  • How does the scholar draw a line between celebration and critical assessment of one’s subject? asks Shannon.
  • In considering the tension between assessing man’s impact on society and society’s impact on man, Andrew finds inspiration in the pioneering work of Lytton Stratchey.

Our warm thanks to Prof. O’Donnell for giving us much to think about in relation to the experience and place of Catholicism in the early United States as well as the challenges and opportunities for writing a historical biography.

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