Behind the Artifact: Mother Seton’s Little Red Book - Seton Shrine

Behind the Artifact: Mother Seton’s Little Red Book

The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton will highlight an exhibit in its new museum and its significance in the life of the first person born in America to become a saint.

The Background

It was once thought of as a special gift when a parent or loved one would leave you with words of wisdom through a letter or journal. The custom was a way of passing on what an elder thought of as important advice, thereby leaving a part of themselves to their children. There are many letters of this kind left for us to read from people like John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Albert Einstein and others. These letters often give us personal insights into the writers about what they truly valued. Consider this note from Einstein to his daughter:

“There is an extremely powerful force that, so far, science has not found a formal explanation to. It is a force that includes and governs all others and is even behind any phenomenon operating in the universe and has not yet been identified by us. This universal force is LOVE.”

A Mother’s Advice for Catherine

Elizabeth Ann Seton would leave her daughter, Catherine, not just a letter but an entire book of wisdom.

In Mother Seton’s little red notebook of reflections and advice, she quotes St. Francis de Sales and St. Elizabeth of Hungary among others. The notebook’s contents were not meant for the public eye, and they are often directly to the point. It is advice that could be offered by any parent today:

I say the first, and the very first for after even a short indulgence of a strong first attraction, passion will soon blind poor reason, and even a Mothers tears would have no power to save her darling, …

in your dress mind that particularly- nothing is so easy as to forget it, on the pretext of doing as others do, be sure that simplicity should be your only rule it makes a lovely woman more lovely….

You said a word to me about dancing- I don’t know much of the style of the present day, but when I was young I never found any effect from it but the most innocent cheerfulness both in public and private- I remember remorse of conscience about so much much time lost in it, and my trouble at being unable to say my prayers seeing always my partners instead of my God.  

She gives Catherine advice similar to what she had given to William:

I beg you so much not to give way to National prejudices, but to allow for many customs and manners you will see, -why should not others have their peculiarities as well as we have ours-try to please everyone you must be with and to do every obliging action in your power…

She encouraged Catherine to show mercy:

We can never say a person is wicked without danger of untruth- for the goodness of God is so great that one moment suffices to obtain and receive his grace-how can we know that he who was a sinner, is so today … the day past should not judge the day present nor the present the past.  … there is but the last day which Judges all.

Elizabeth felt a closeness to all her children but the loss of two daughters, Anna Maria and Rebecca, was very difficult to overcome. With Richard and William far away by the summer of 1819, Elizabeth felt especially drawn to Catherine. She wrote to Catherine on her 19th birthday:

Whose Birth day is this my dear Saviour It is my darling one’s, my child’s, my friends, my only dear companion left of all you once gave with bounteous hand – the little relict of all my worldly bliss…

Catherine Heeds the Lessons

Catherine would take her mother’s advice. She would guard herself, think of others and do service to the poor and helpless.

“She devoted her life to the sick the poor and the unfortunate…. she visited the New York prisons twice a week. She was particularly devoted to prisoners, sentence to death, in order to prepare them for the end…. Her knowledge of French, Italian, German, and Spanish was a powerful asset on these missions of mercy. She estimated of the work of the public welfare accomplished by Mother Catherine may be formed in view of statistics of New York courts under date October 1874 which gives 49,251 as the number of prisoners held for trial 10,671 were born in the United states leaving the other 38,580 a foreign birth.”

Why did she become a Sister of Mercy?

As to her reasons for joining the Sisters of Mercy, “It is a fitting place for me,” she said, “for my mother often quoted a sentence from Job; From my childhood mercy grew up with me.’ I belong with you here.” (His mercy Endureth Forever – Burton, Katherine pg. 83)

For from my infancy mercy grew up with me: and it came out with me from my mother’s womb. – Job 31:17

Inscribed on the front of the Little Red Book is an inscription – “O May it by my daily study to follow the advice of the best of Mothers – Tuesday 2nd February.”