Mrs Seton and the founding of the Order of the Daughters of Charity

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XVIII (13) start of chapter

In founding the Order of the Daughters of Charity in the United States, Mrs. Seton not only rendered a lasting service to religion and humanity, but afforded the honest doubter, as well as the scoffer and the hater of Catholicity, the most convincing proof of what it teaches, what it practises, and what it really is. Born in New York, in the year 1774, of Protestant parents, her father, Dr. Bayley, being an eminent physician of that city, Mrs. Seton was ever remarkable for singular sweetness of disposition, tenderness and compassion for every form of human distress, and a fervent piety, which found the most eloquent expression in her conversation and in her writings. To those who desire to witness, as it were, the struggles of a Christian soul, distracted by doubts springing from the purest conscientiousness, and yet impelled to the light by an invisible influence, we cordially commend the admirable 'Life of Mrs. Seton,' (24) by the Rev. Dr. White; a work that will well repay perusal, whether by the Catholic or the fair-minded Protestant.

It may be remarked, that this holy woman, this model wife and daughter, was deeply impressed with the religious demeanour of the poor Irish emigrants of that day—the opening of the present century—who were detained in quarantine at Staten Island, and attended by her father, as Health Physician to the Port of New York. 'The first thing,' she says, 'these poor people did, when they got their tents, was to assemble on the grass, and all, kneeling, adored our Maker for His mercy; and every morning sun finds them repeating their praises.' The scenes then witnessed at Staten Island remind one of those which were so fatally frequent in subsequent years. Even at that time—1800, and the years following—large numbers of emigrants arrived at the port of New York, suffering from the dreadful scourge of fever, so calamitous to the Irish race. A striking picture of the sufferings of its victims is given in a letter, addressed by Mrs. Seton to her sister-in-law:—

Rebecca, I cannot sleep; the dying and the dead possess my mind —babies expiring at the empty breast of the expiring mother. And this not fancy, but the scene that surrounds me. Father says that such was never known before; that there are actually twelve children that must die from mere want of sustenance, unable to take more than the breast, and, from the wretchedness of their parents, deprived of it, as they have lain ill for many days in the ship, without food, air, or changing. Merciful Father! Oh, how readily would I give them each a turn of my child's treasure, if in my choice! But, Rebecca, they have a provider in Heaven, who will soothe the pangs of the suffering innocent.

She would willingly have become a mother to those helpless little ones, but her father would not permit her to obey the womanly impulse, as her first duty regarded her own child. In 1801 her father fell a victim to his attendance on the Irish emigrants. He had directed the passengers and crew of an Irish emigrant ship, with fever on board, to go on shore to the rooms and tents provided for them, leaving their baggage behind; but on going into the hospital the following morning, he found that his orders, given the evening before, had been disobeyed, and that crew and passengers, men, women, and children, well, sick, and dying, with all their baggage, were huddled together in the same room in which they had passed the night. Into this apartment, before it had been ventilated, he imprudently entered, and remained but a moment, being compelled to retire by deadly sickness of the stomach and intense pain in the head, which seized him immediately on entering within its precincts.(25) From the bed to which he at once retired he never rose again. This was Mrs. Seton's first great grief; but many times, in her after life, was her tender heart wrung by the loss of those whom she loved with all the passionate strength of her nature.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America