Roads to Rome: Molly Elliot Seawell (1860-1916)

Author of “The House of Egremont,” “The Fortunes of Fifi,” etc.

In the old country house, the Shelter, in Gloucester County, Virginia, where I grew up, there was a typical eighteenth century library. It had been partly selected for my great-grandfather by Thomas Jefferson. Everything in this library was strongly anti-Catholic.

I was allowed great liberty in reading, and from a very early age I read these books, which, of course, I only half understood. I soon noticed, however, that the Catholics were always represented as being in the wrong, in every religious and political collision. This seemed to my childish mind to be unjust, and I began to have a kind of sympathy with the Catholics.

When I was about fourteen, with a very precocious mind, I came across “Macaulay’s Essays,” which I devoured. I began to see that the Church which Macaulay said would be in full vigor “when the traveller from New Zealand, shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, sit on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s,” was an enormous and living fact. Then, after Macaulay, I made acquaintance with Thackeray, whose leanings toward Catholicism in his later life were so marked as to give rise to the report that he died a Catholic. I read Thackeray’s noble tribute to the Catholic Church— “the stately structure of eighteen centuries, the mighty and beautiful Roman Catholic Church.” The effect upon a young mind of these splendid tributes, from two great masters of English literature, may be imagined.

I began to make inquiries about the church and to read all I could find on the subject, from my fifteenth to my eighteenth year. I asked Protestants many puzzling questions, to which they could give me no answer, such as the meaning of Christmas. None of these Protestant friends could explain to me why they celebrated Christ’s Mass without a Mass. Thus I found myself a Catholic, by the operations of my own mind, under God; and when I announced my intention, at the age of eighteen, of joining the Catholic Church, I had never even conversed with a priest.

I now put myself for a few weeks, under ecclesiastical instruction, and was then received into the Church. The spirit of inquiry which made me a Catholic has never left me, and from that day to this I have been a constant reader of Speculative Philosophy and the history of religion. In the course of this reading, I have grown stronger in the Catholic faith. It has proved, according to my lights, to be the one practical system of philosophy which gives men mental peace, and which has, from the beginning, fed and clothed the poor, succored the orphan, taught the ignorant, and reformed the sinner. I have great respect for all Christian bodies; but, in their practical aspect, the Catholic Church as compared with the other Christian religions of the world, is like a regular army, ready for service anywhere, to a local militia.

I have observed that since the great schism of three hundred years ago, that as education and enlightenment advance, so the Catholic Church advances. In America, the Church’s progress has been still more rapid. The old superstition that the Catholic Church and liberty could not dwell together has been triumphantly refuted. It has placed no bar upon the most candid investigation, and for myself, having always been an investigator and reasoner to the extent of my abilities, I am and shall remain, a Roman Catholic.

Georgina Pell Curtis, ed., Some Roads to Rome in America: Being Personal Records of Conversions to the Catholic Church (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1909), 376-380.

Mary Elliot Seawell (1860-1916) belonged to one of the FFV’s (First Families of Virginia). Her paternal great-uncle was President John Tyler, and she grew up on a plantation known as “the Shelter,” which had served as a Revolutionary War Hospital. She studied at home under private tutors, but wasn’t allowed to read novels until she was seventeen. After her father’s death, she and her mother moved to Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle, where their home doubled as a literary salon. She wrote novels, history, biography, and essays. (Her early books were written under the pen name “Foxcroft Davis.”) At the turn of the century she was one of America’s most popular writers. She never married, and she died at age 56 in 1916.

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