The Nunnery As Menace: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent,
The painful story of the burning of the Ursuline Convent and school of
Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1834 took place in the New England of Andrew
Jackson's second administration. Jackson himself had a preview; in 1833 he
visited the partly-built Bunker Hill monument from which there was a clear
view of Mt. Benedict's impressive buildings. For casting, this tragedy drew on
Catholic and Protestant, Yankee and Southern, Irish, French and Anglo-Canadian
The convent owed its origins to the inspiration and financial base provided by
the Rev. John Thayer, whose Congregationalist family had been in New England for
many generations, and whose account of his conversion to Catholicism went into
several editions and was translated into eight languages. He had an earnest
desire to share his new faith with his fellow Americans, and it was thought that
he would do great things. Fervor, unfortunately, was not accompanied by tact or
prudence. While still in Europe after his conversion, he visited John Adams and
challenged that gentleman's beliefs. He was not invited to come back. He visited
Quebec in 1796, and Bishop Hubert wrote: "I have not given him any encouragement
to return." He tried the patience of John Carroll and of the faithful in
Massachusetts, Virginia, and Kentucky; there he was charged with serious
indiscretions. He left in 1803, and went to Europe, eventually settling in
Ireland, where he was a revered, if austere, figure. During his travels he had
seen evidence of the quality of education given by the Ursulines in France, and
he left his entire estate, valued at over $10,000, to be used to found an
Ursuline convent in Boston or its vicinity. John Thayer had found his way of
building the Church in his country.
The executor of the estate was the Rev. Francis Matignon, an aristocratic and
admirable refugee from revolutionary France who served the (mostly poor and
Irish) Catholics of Boston in a way that won their gratitude and the respect of
the Protestants of that city. Through Thayer's influence, two women came to
Boston to start the foundation. During his last years he had received
hospitality and much kindness from the Ryan family in Limerick, and he
encouraged Mary and Catherine Ryan to travel to America to begin the Ursuline
school. Their sister Margaret and widowed cousin, Catherine Molineaux, followed
a year later. A niece, Catherine Quirk, came yet later.
It was Matignon who welcomed the
Ryans to Boston and escorted them to the Ursuline Monastery in Three Rivers,
where they made their novitiate. Thayer's legacy was increased by Matignon's
wise management, and at his death in 1818 one-third of his own estate was added
to the fund for the Ursulines. He requested that his friend and fellow refugee,
Bishop Jean Lefebvre de Cheverus, attend to their needs. Though Cheverus would
have preferred to have sisters of the community of Elizabeth Seton, whom he knew
and admired, he was faithful to his charge. He purchased a lot for the Ursulines'
convent, adjacent to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, paying $4500 from the
Thayer legacy. He welcomed them to Boston when they completed their novitiate in
Three Rivers. When he returned to France in 1823, he left a portion of his
property to the Ursulines.
Both of these French priests were highly respected in Boston. They had found the
Catholics both unhappy and divided after the ministrations of two erratic French
priests, Poterie and Rousselet, and of John Thayer. They established peace among
the Catholics and good relations with the Protestant community. When Mary and
Catherine Ryan made their religious profession in the cathedral in 1820, a
considerable number of Protestants attended--something which would have been
unlikely in 1800, and virtually impossible in 1840. Among those who joined the
community were Rebecca De Costa, a Boston convert received into the Church by
Matignon, and Sarah Chase, a convert of Virgil Barber's from Cornish, New
Hampshire and cousin of Salmon P. Chase, later Chief Justice of the United
States. It is unlikely that either of these women had ever seen a nun. Both
chose to enter as lay sisters.
A convert with a more unusual story was Mary Barber. The eldest daughter of
Jerusha and Virgil Barber, she converted with them from the Episcopal Church, in
which Virgil was a clergyman. Because of Virgil's desire to become a Catholic
priest, Jerusha, in some anguish, entered the Visitation community in
Washington, D.C., one month short of her twenty-eighth birthday. "She loved him
dearly and was anxious to see him happy." The three older girls were placed
as boarders in the Visitation school. The youngest two children were given into
the care of Mrs. Fenwick, mother of the future bishop, until they should be old
enough for the Visitation and Jesuit schools. They spent the rest of childhood
in these schools, seeing very little of their father. The Visitation was
newly-established, and very poor. Jerusha was an excellent and experienced
teacher, and made notable contributions to the work of the community. But
supporting four non-paying boarders was a hardship for the school. Appeals to
the Jesuits to help with the support of the Barber children produced nothing.
The Barber daughters experienced real deprivation, and Jerusha suffered from
being able to do little for them. Mary, the eldest, was seven when they went to
the Visitation; they were seldom outside enclosures during the rest of their
lives. Mary, Abigail and Suzanne became Ursulines, and Josephine a Visitandine.
Samuel became a Jesuit. Mary, who entered in Boston and took the name Mary
Benedict, was a talented woman, and reputedly very beautiful. Some of the Yankee
heritage seemed to have survived in her. She once described a religious
community as "a republic in miniature."
Another convert who joined the community was the formidable Mary Ann Ursula
Moffatt. Daughter of a British army officer in Canada, she became a Catholic in
her late teens, and entered the Ursuline Monastery in Quebec. When the Boston
community was reduced in numbers because of several deaths, Rev. William Taylor,
vicar general of Boston, was asked by the dying superior to find help. He asked
the Ursulines of Quebec to lend an English-speaking religious who would be able
to guide the young community. Mother St. George Moffatt was persuaded to
volunteer. She was a capable and dignified woman, apparently much-respected but
not much-loved. Defending her, many decades later, Mother St. Augustine O'Keeffe
wrote: "Though the Superior had a haughty and an imperious manner of acting, yet
I never heard her say, or saw her do 'anything unbecoming a lady. .. . .
Clearly she was not a retiring or docile woman. But perhaps, as James J.
Kenneally notes, the gentleness and passivity so praised as the virtues of women
in the nineteenth century would have precluded her successful direction of a
major and very successful enterprise.
The first members of the community were, then, Irish, Yankee, and
Anglo-Canadian. They received fresh infusions of life from Ireland in the
persons of the three O'Keeffe sisters and of Grace O'Boyle; from Boston, when
Elizabeth Bennett, another convert, joined them; from Philadelphia in the
persons of Catherine Wiseman, daughter of the English consul, and the gifted
Elizabeth Harrison, whose personal difficulties would impact so painfully on the
community. If there were conflicts within the community on account of the
variety of backgrounds, there is no record of it.
Bishop Cheverus was succeeded in 1823 by Benedict Joseph Fenwick, who
brought with him considerable experience in administration from years in
Georgetown, New York, and a very troubled situation in Charleston, South
Carolina. It was he who had received the Barber family into the Catholic Church
and arranged, not without some hesitation, for the entry of the parents into the
Visitandines and Jesuits, respectively. He took considerable interest in the
Ursuline Community and visited the nuns and students often, bringing yet another
regional accent to conversations at the convent.
The convent next to the cathedral was very small. The nuns were able to offer
free education to one hundred poor girls, mostly children of Irish immigrants,
and to give attention to the needs of adult women. They were evidently very
happy in this work, but their health suffered. When Fenwick arrived in Boston in
1825, he attributed their "sickly and infirm state" to the fact that they were
"extremely confined . . . unable to take any exercise or even to enjoy the pure
air." With the energy which he brought to each of his many projects, he set
about finding a larger property in a more healthful environment. The superior,
consulting with the community, readily agreed to a move to Charlestown, about
two and one-half miles from their first home.
Arrangements were made with great interest on Fenwick's part, grateful
acquiescence on the nuns, and very businesslike negotiations between them.
Fenwick offered $8,000 for their property near the cathedral, to be used as a
residence for the bishop and his clergy. Ten acres on Ploughed Hill, west of
Bunker Hill, were purchased by him in the nuns' name for $3,300. With another
purchase, the nuns had twenty-two acres. They moved to the house on the property
in July of 1827; by April of 1828 the community of eleven was able to move into
the newly-constructed convent. Two additional wings were begun in 1829.
Bishop Fenwick took great interest in the building and the
grounds. He saw to the laying of the lawn, the planting of trees, and the
completion of the brick work, and built a small apartment for his own use. The
nuns' rule of cloister precluded their taking an active role in supervising
construction. Fenwick's energy and interest were more than up to it.
Once they were established in Charlestown, the bishop often went there for Mass,
sometimes making his way through snowstorms, even on foot. As he noted in his
third-person memorandum, "he is very sensible of the privation they suffer in
consequence of their having Mass only twice in the week, viz: Sundays &
Wednesdays: & so long as he enjoys health he will never deprive them of the Holy
Sacrifice on either of the above mentioned days." Fortunately he enjoyed
splendid health. His attentiveness to the Ursuline community should be seen in
the context of his responsibility for a diocese which encompassed all of New
England. The Mt. Benedict property was held in trust by Ursulines who were
American citizens: Mary (Benedict) Barber, Elizabeth (Mary John) Harrison,
Catherine (Mary Frances) Wiseman, and by the bishop.
The move to Charlestown meant a change in the population from which pupils would
be drawn. The cost of sending a daughter to board at the school ($125 per year,
plus extras) was more than most Irish Catholic families could afford. The
community would be able to take a few students without charge. But, as Bisson
said, "Its mission was clearly directed at the dominant Protestant
community--the upper strata of the Protestant community at that." He suggested
that, besides the need for increased income, the reasons for the changed focus
included a hope that the excellent schooling given to Protestant students would
enhance the Catholic Church in the eyes of New England society. In addition,
Fenwick was an aristocrat and naturally gravitated to the upper classes. It
might be added that Mother St. George, though her widowed mother had limited
means, clearly considered herself of the privileged class of society. This
change in direction would have seemed natural to her, but it caused some
disquiet, at least in the mind of Sister Mary Joseph O'Keeffe,
who had come with the hope of educating poor Irish immigrants.
If it is surprising that Protestant parents were willing to entrust their
daughters' education to nuns, one can find some explanation in the limited
alternatives available to families which wanted education beyond primary school
for them, and who also required training in that assortment of skills which were
called the social graces. Society in the Boston area was becoming more
sophisticated, and many of the well-to-do were departing from the strictures of
traditional Congregationalism. A school which promised its students French,
music, and the visits of a dancing teacher was attractive to them. The nuns
promised that they would not proselytize, and were scrupulous in keeping that
pledge. Richard S. Fay, who presented the argument for indemnification for the
destruction of the Mt. Benedict property before the state legislature in 1835,
solicited letters from non-Catholic families about the quality of the school.
Many testified to the excellence of the education offered there, and to the fact
that "No attempt was made to impress the minds of [students] with the peculiar
religion of the Convent; and the young ladies inform us that they never knew an
instance of the nuns attempting to influence the minds of pupils upon doctrinal
points; or in any way interfering with their previous religious sentiments."
Some pupils came from New England, some from the South, from Canada, and even
from Puerto Rico. The numbers grew steadily. In January of 1828 there were
eight; by August there were twenty-five. By the time of the fire in 1834
there were over fifty. The prospectus for the school stated that young
ladies were received from the age of six through fourteen. They would study the
three it's, geography, history, mythology, rhetoric, composition in prose and
poetry, moral philosophy, chemistry, drawing and painting. For an added fee they
might have lessons in French, Latin, piano, harp, guitar, and dancing. In the
last part of their schooling they might "attend to cookery." The list of
books used at Mt. Benedict was impressive. It was an ambitious program of
education, offered by women who showed every sign of competence. Clearly their
pupils were being prepared for a future in the drawing room and in the
management of households, and not for drudgery. Lucy Thaxter summarized her
experience as a pupil at Mt. Benedict: "I never found it other than a happy
home, nor ever experienced any other treatment than the kindness and sympathy
which greeted my first entrance there." Bishop Fenwick, not without some
proprietary satisfaction, called it ". . tone of the most splendid institutions
of its kind in the United States."
But there were clouds over Charlestown. Anti-Catholicism was a part of New
England's soul. The Irish immigrants in Charlestown and Boston had often felt
the extent to which they were unwelcome. The convent may have been welcomed by
the upper class New Englanders who could afford to send their daughters there,
but it was also an object of suspicion and dislike, especially on the part of
the lower classes, and of the Congregationalists--and these two groups tended to
coincide. Then there was the public excitement about Sister Mary John.
The nuns and the parents did not take alarm at the warning signs. Levi Thaxter
and Judge Fay visited their daughters on the tenth of August. Mother St.
Augustine remembered that everything had been done as usual on Monday the
eleventh. "We did not attach any importance to the rumors which were afloat,
neither did they seem to be credited by the children nor their parents, since
not a single child was withdrawn from school." Fenwick had heard a rumor
that the convent would be attacked, and at about eight in the evening he heard
that a horde was marching toward the convent. "Relying on the public authorities
he still trusts that no violence would be offered."
The doors and windows were not barricaded. An intruder into the kitchen was
turned out. The crowd began to demand to see Sister Mary John, who was rumored
to be held in the convent against her will. The superior refused, saying that
the inhabitants of the house were in bed. According to Edward Cutter she was no
meeker than on other occasions, and told the threatening crowd: "The Bishop has
twenty thousand of the vilest Irishmen at his command, and you may read your
riot act till your throats are sore, but you'll not quell them." There is no
unbiased record of her words, but Lucy Thaxter reported that she used "harsh and
abusive language." It did not calm the unwelcome visitors.
The nuns and their pupils went to bed--all but Sister Ursula Chase and her very
sick patient, Sister Mary Henry. It was Sister Ursula who heard the shouting of
the mob. The nuns woke the students. True to the orderliness for which convents
were famous, the students had their clothing for the morning carefully laid out
next to their beds, and were able to dress in the near-dark. Sister Mary Austin
(Sister Augustine) led them to a part of the building where they would not hear
the threatening mob. About an hour later she led them downstairs, and then she
fainted. At about the same time, a bonfire was lit in a field to the east of the
convent and belonging to Alvah Kelly; it seemed to be a signal to the crowd. The
students and nuns went to a summer house at the end of the garden, and then
realized that Sister Mary Austin was missing. Two nuns returned for her.
The mob roamed the convent building, breaking valuables, throwing others into
bonfires or out windows. Neighbors lifted the children over the back fence to
friendly hands on the other side. A small opening was made in the fence, and the
nuns crept through. They went briefly to the house of Mr. Cutter, and then to
Winter Hill and the larger Adams house "into which we were admitted, after some
hesitation on the part of the proprietor, who was afraid of drawing on himself
the fury of the mob." From an upstairs window the nuns saw the fire
destroying their home, and then knelt to say the psalm "Laudate Dominum omnes
gentes." Some of the marauders turned their attention to the little mortuary
chapel at the end of the garden. Coffins were opened, and the teeth of the dead
were pulled out. It was not the apogee of American civilization.
Where were the authorities? John Runey, one of the selectmen of Charlestown, had
earlier in the evening made an appeal to the mob. Not succeeding in calming
their zest for violence, he had returned home and retired to bed. Other
selectmen were notified of the problem but insisted that the police force (one
part-time officer) could handle the situation. There were fire engines on the
scene, but only one got close to the building. None turned their hoses on the
burning building, and some of the firemen joined in the activities of the mob.
What sparked this mob action? There were deeper and longer-standing causes of
the excitement, but the match which struck the tinder was a series of rumors
about Sister Mary John. On the previous July 28, suffering from an attack of a
mental disorder apparently brought on by overwork, she had left the convent and
gone to the nearby Cutter house. She refused to see either Bishop Fenwick or her
brother Thomas, who lived in Boston. On the next day she did see the bishop, who
persuaded her to return to the convent. Then the mills churned out the rumors:
she was being held against her will in the cellars of the convent; her life was
in danger. The gothic horror stories about convents that were part of the
heritage of New England came to life, in large print.
Representatives of the Runey and Cutter families attempted to see Sister Mary
John at the convent on July 30, but the superior would not allow it, saying that
she was under the care of a doctor, and could not receive visitors. Edward
Cutter finally did see her. She informed him that she was free to leave the
convent at any time. On August 9, several of the selectmen of Charlestown
had a conversation with her, and she gave them an extensive tour of the
building. They left convinced that all was well with her. They offered to
prepare a reassuring article for the newspapers. Theirs, and Edward Cutter's
account, appeared in the papers after the fire. Most of the students were
claimed from their refuge at the Adams house by their families and friends, and
the Ursulines and remaining pupils went to the house of the Daughters of
Charity, who had come to Boston several years earlier and who received them
There was a clear possibility that the thousands of Irishmen might react
forcefully to the outrage, but the bishop called a meeting and urged them to
remember that revenge "is not the religion of Jesus Christ." On the following
Sunday he preached from the text: "Father forgive them, for they know not what
they do." He urged his people to rely on the law to see that justice be
done. However, in the face of continuing threats, a guard was organized for
the cathedral and the bishop's house. There were immediate public expressions of
regret and revulsion, and even an attempt by Charlestown to say that the mob of
attackers was formed in Boston. (The selectmen later apologized for this.)
The selectmen of Charlestown offered a reward for the apprehension of the
leaders of the riot--a somewhat empty gesture since the latter were well known
and had made no effort to run away. They were doubtless secure in the knowledge
that the people of Charlestown, on the whole, supported them.
A notable meeting was held at Faneuil Hall on the twelfth. "Mr. Harrison Gray
Otis delivers a beautiful speech expressing his sentiments of the horrible
outrage & hurling on the perpetrators every epithet & horror in which all
present concur." The assemblage resolved, in part, that "the attack on the
Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, occupied only by defenceless (sic) females was
a base & cowardly act, for which the perpetrators deserve the contempt &
detestation of the community."
A committee was nominated by Theodore Lyman, Jr., mayor of Boston, to
investigate the outrage and to work to bring the perpetrators to justice. The
committee was also to consider the expediency of providing funds to repair the
damage done to the convent. It met every day but Sunday, all day, until August
27. Having no power to compel appearance or examine witnesses under oath, it
gave an assurance to those who came before it that testimony would be
confidential, unless the witnesses should be summoned to court. The work of the
Boston committee, and of that of Charlestown, led to thirteen arrests. Eight
were on capital charges.
Disclaiming any effort to justify the actions of the rioters, and still less to
"aid in the dissemination of the Catholic faith, being unanimously opposed to
its characteristic tenets," the Boston committee "nevertheless proposed to
inquire into the truth of the rumors which motivated the attackers." The
excellence of the school, the freedom of the nuns in their commitment, and the
care of the nuns to respect the religion of their Protestant students were
affirmed. The rumors about Sister Mary John were examined and dismissed.
One of the suggestions of the committee was the empowerment of special
magistrates in case of future disorders of this sort, in part so that those
guilty of instigating riots would be punished. Another proposal was that
officials be rendered indictable for neglecting the duty of preventing riots,
and that the public be made responsible for indemnifying the victims, to the
whole extent of monetary loss. The obligation of society to offer redress was
based on the concept of a contract between the individual and society; the
individual giving up the right to defense of self, and the society obligating
itself to guarantee security of life, liberty and property. When society and its
officials fail in this duty, the contract is broken and the sufferer is entitled
The proposal that funds be raised from private sources to indemnify the nuns was
judged to be less appropriate than the provision of monies by Charlestown or by
the County of Middlesex. Should both of these be unable to act, then the
legislature of the Commonwealth should investigate the outrage and provide
compensation--not, of course, as a means of supporting the Catholic faith.
Massachusetts must preserve public order and justice, and Massachusetts must
protect its reputation. There is a strong current here of reaction to exercise
of the popular will by a mob as distinguished from enlightened obedience to law.
Violence must not become a way of securing rights, lest the only refuge from
anarchy be military despotism. It is not hard to see these thoughts arising from
the representatives of the educated classes in the Age of Jackson.
The splendid oratory at Faneuil Hall did not reach everyone. A crowd went to Mt.
Benedict on August 12 and burned fences and trees; they were kept from storming
a nearby Catholic church only by the presence of troops. Two attempts were made
to burn the cathedral. A Charlestown shanty occupied by thirty-five Irish
laborers was burned down on August 15. The members of the upper stratum of
society were affronted by the outrage in Charlestown. There were many among the
less privileged who were neither ashamed nor converted to the ways of peace. The
attack on Mt. Benedict was the large print in the prologue to the tragedy of
In early December the accused leaders of the mob were brought to trial, Justices
Shaw, Putnam and Morton presiding. The defendants had been taken to a jail in
Cambridge, lest they be rescued. They were charged with arson and burglary. The
attorney general protested the early date of the trial, because general approval
of the attack on Mt. Benedict made it difficult to get witnesses. All those he
approached had received threats. On the old Charlestown Bridge a warning was
posted: "All persons giving information in any shape or testifying in court
against any one concerned in the late affair at Charlestown may expect
assassination according to the oath which bound the party to each other."
The prosecution was not allowed to question jurors on their anti-Catholic
sentiments. The defense attorney was allowed to state that the convent did not
have charity as its object and that the nuns who came to testify were pretending
to have colds as a result of the riot. Rebecca Reed, who had been drawing crowds
with her account of her escape from the convent, testified to the trials she had
experienced while an inhabitant thereof. The bishop and the superior were
cross-examined on the immorality of convent life.
The first trial took ten days. John R. Buzzell, the prime defendant, summarized
well this exercise of justice. "The testimony against me was point blank and
sufficient to have convicted twenty men, but somehow I proved an alibi, and the
jury brought in a victory of not guilty, after having been out for twenty-one
Buzzell received so many gifts from admirers that he was obliged to express his
thanks in the press. Fenwick, usually laconic in his daily notations, wrote:
"No law or justice is to be expected in this land where Catholics are constantly
calumniated & the strongest prejudices exist against them. Shame! Shame!" On
December 17 he noted that three more of the rioters were put on trial. "They
also will be acquitted." Finally one defendant was convicted and sentenced
to life in prison. This Marcy was a young man of seventeen, and he had indeed
taken part in the riot, conducting a mock auction with the bishop's books,
throwing each into a bonfire as it was bid for. But he was clearly a scapegoat,
not a leader or instigator. Both the bishop and the superior petitioned in his
favor; he was released after seven months and returned to his home in New
Several efforts were made to obtain an indemnity through legislative action.
Richard S. Fay, in 1835, developed an argument based on the contract between the
individual and society, similar to the one advanced by the Boston committee. The
dereliction of duty by public authority was recalled. Like the committee, he
suggested that legislation be passed to make the local civil society responsible
to indemnify in such cases. There were precedents for this in England and
Pennsylvania. (Such a law was later passed in Massachusetts, but was not made
retroactive.) Finally, he said, "The petitioners come to you, then, in the
character of persons, whose rights, guaranteed to them by the constitution have
been violated, because no remedy at law has been provided for them."
The committee of the House which heard the argument expressed its "deliberate
and indignant condemnation of such an atrocious infraction of the Laws." It also
resolved that the governor be authorized to offer a gratuity to the trustees of
the Ursuline Convent. Mr. Foster, on the floor of the House, moved to strike the
latter resolution, and his motion passed by an overwhelming majority. The
expression of indignation was passed in both houses. It didn't cost
In 1846, a paltry sum was voted, and refused. In 1853 and again in 1854
committees of the legislature recommended the appointment of a commission to
decide on a proper sum, and the proposals were defeated. Fenwick had estimated
the loss at forty to fifty thousand dollars. Nothing was ever received. But
Charlestown, and then Somerville, which became separate and independent in 1842,
faithfully taxed the ruined property.
The Ursulines had attempted to return to their work of teaching. After about two
months with the Daughters of Charity, they moved to the Dearborn house in
Roxbury, where Sister Mary Henry died of consumption on October 18. Her funeral
procession drew thousands. Some of the nuns went to the Ursuline Monastery in
Quebec. Those who stayed in Roxbury experienced nightly harassment and threats.
Some gentlemen organized guard and patrols. It was not an atmosphere which
encouraged parents to send their daughters to the relocated school.
In March Rebecca Reed's book, Six Months in a Convent, was published. The author
was a young woman whom Mother St. George had admitted to Mt. Benedict at the
bishop's request, and who claimed to have escaped over the wall. She had hoped
to be admitted to the community. Her previous recitals of stories about the
goings-on within the convent had contributed considerably to the cloud of rumors
which helped to bring about the assault of August 11.
Mother St. George published a reply, calling the author a person of "a flighty
and unsteady disposition of mind, disinclined to the work and labor which the
extreme poverty of her parents made it necessary for her to perform," and also
"an instrument in the hands of designing men." She was doubtless right on both
counts, but the book was a commercial and propaganda success.
In this atmosphere of tension and threats, Fenwick several times urged the
remaining nuns to go to Quebec. Mother St. George resisted his ever more
pressing advice. She wrote to Bishop Signay of Quebec (who was her
ecclesiastical superior, as she was "on loan" to Boston) that the nuns were in
no danger, that they had a fine school, and that the glory of God required that
they remain in Boston. In addition, she said that her physician had assured her
that she would not survive even a year in the colder climate to the north.
She responded publicly to some of the criticisms leveled at herself and at the
institution of religious life for women. In a revealing reply to the assertions
that it was improper for a group of unmarried females to live under the control
of a male (the bishop) she wrote: "The business of my community has, however,
been transacted by myself; and though I have, many times, asked his [Fenwick's]
opinion on various subjects, no one can thence infer that he or any other
gentleman, has exerted control over our institution.... Moreover, I think that
it would be a difficult matter for any man to control me...."
Not a retiring person, she showed a surprising distaste for appearances at the
trials of the men accused of the destruction of the convent. She wrote several
times to Attorney General J.T. Austin asking if she
might be excused. There was a curious issue of not wanting to be questioned
about her having returned to her room during the assault. She explained that she
went to retrieve a miniature of her mother (who was very much alive), and that
having to testify to
that would render her sensibility so wounded "that I should be overpowered, and
unable to say any thing more." In December she asked again that the nuns be
exempted from appearing, and that he favor them by discontinuing the trials
altogether. She argued that the rioters and their friends seemed to believe that
the nuns were thirsting for revenge, and that the question of safety was
alarming the parents. She was also concerned about the possibility of
destruction of their current property, as insurance did not cover losses which
resulted from mob violence.
In March she wrote to Austin to ask his advice about leaving, saying that the
bishop advised that they depart for a year or more. "He tells me that after we
are gone, the storm will blow over, and that we will be requested to return. But
the parents of the pupils, and our other friends, advise the contrary.... If you
will be so kind as to favor me with your advice, you will, Hon. Sir, much
On March 13, Fenwick handed her an order from Signay to return to Quebec. On the
following day he dissolved her connection with the Boston community, appointing
Sister Benedict Barber the superior. He rescinded these latter two directives at
the request of the nuns, but made it clear that he expected her to conclude
affairs promptly and be gone. There was a delay because of a required court
appearance, and Fenwick warned Signay that Mother St. George would try to induce
him to permit a yet longer stay. He insisted that she
and the other nuns were in danger. Sisters Mary John and Bernard left on the
sixth of May, and Mother St. George and Sister Mary Benedict on the
twenty-second. A written statement was left certifying that all the bills owed
up to that date had been paid. They were accompanied by Mr. Maguire,
chaplain of the Quebec monastery, and by several of their students. They went in
the expectation that they would return to Boston and resume their work there.
Putting a good face on it, Mother St. George wrote to J.T. Austin that she had decided to yield to the urgings and entreaties of
her friends and of the Bishop of Quebec. Fenwick wrote to Signay to thank
him for his help in "the management of this truly unpleasant business."
It is not easy to discern the reason for the obvious deterioration of the
relationship of Fenwick and Mother St. George. There is always potential for a
clash where two such determined persons come together. But in 1830 he had
written to the archbishop of Quebec to ask that "the pious and excellent Mad'me
St. George" be allowed to remain in Boston. In 1833 he wrote again of the
"superior management of Mad. St. George acquainted as she is with the genius of
our Republican institutions & a government peculiarly Protestant...." He asked
that this "excellent lady" be allowed to remain for six more years.
There certainly were dangers both to the Ursulines and to other Catholic
institutions; their continuing presence in the city may well have served to keep
excitement alive. But the nuns do not seem to have had a voice in the decision
about their future.
Mother St. George had experienced, with the others, what we today would call a
trauma. She had seen her work and her home literally go up in smoke. She had
become the object of public attacks. Perhaps she did not act prudently or
forthrightly in these circumstances. Her behavior may have added to his reasons
for insisting that they leave. There are indications of problems in letters
written by Sister Mary Benedict from Quebec. In August she told Fenwick that
payment was still due to Mrs. Barrymore (the dancing teacher) and that Mother
St. George was apparently not likely to give to that lady what was due to her.
In addition, she had purchased costly articles for her nieces during the trip to
Quebec. The coadjutor bishop of Quebec had demanded that Mother St. George
render a financial account, and had forbidden her to approach the sacraments
until she did so. A month later: "There is no alteration in St. George. Her
mother has been here, and taken away the two nieces. All these are, I believe,
boarding in Quebec."
Writing to the mother of a former student in the following January, she
commented that Mother St. George was in excellent health, but that she had no
employment in the school, or any particular occupation, but received frequent
visits from her mother and nieces.
On May 9, Bishop Signay of Quebec prepared a written permission for her to go to
the Ursuline community in New Orleans, since she declared herself unable to
bear seeing her dear sisters from Boston, a constant reminder of the terrible
fire. The bishop sent the permission to the superior of the Quebec monastery,
attaching an unusual condition. The superior was to require that she state in
writing her principal reasons for requesting a transfer, lest there be any
reflection on the reputation of the Quebec community. Apparently she did so,
though no copy has survived. On May 25 she departed. The annalist noted that the
departure was, for the community "un sujet d'affliction tres sensible de ne
l'avoir pu retenir dans sa Communaute-Mere." She also noted: "Toutes les autres
cheres soeurs de Boston . . . vent restees tres volontiers s'estimant heureuses
d'avoir trouve son asile dans notre maison."
Sister Mary Benedict predicted to Fenwick that M. St. George would never get to
New Orleans, and the meticulous records of that community show nothing about
her. There were rumors that she was later seen in St. Louis and in Bordeaux.
The formidable lady was not heard from again.
Sister Mary Benedict wrote often to Bishop Fenwick while the Boston nuns were in
Quebec awaiting the day of their return to Boston. Most of her letters were
cheerful reports on the activities of the community and students. But when she
wrote in September of 1837, she did so thinking that her precarious health would
not allow her to return to Boston with the others, or that she might die before
that happy event. She offered forty-three pages of observations and suggestions
touching on the members of the Boston group and on Quebec nuns who might be
willing to go to serve as superior. "Not one of the Boston nuns is now capable
of being Superior." She evaluated very frankly the abilities and personal
qualities of all concerned. Not without reason did she ask him to keep these
evaluations confidential. She also made suggestions about the future life of the
community and the conduct of the school. These reveal a somewhat rigid
mentality, or perhaps youthful fervor. It is a remarkable document, and suggests
a high level of trust between them. She ended: "I have trespassed too much upon
your time, dear Bishop; and if I have gone too far in my observations, I beg you
will forgive me, knowing the motive by which I have been activated."
But she was able to return to Boston with several others at the end of the
summer of 1838. Fenwick designated her superior. One may conclude from this that
he had not found her letter inappropriate. Mother St. Augustine commented
discreetly in her letter of 1887 that Mother St. George was not with them, and
that the latter "did not originally belong to our Community, having made
religious profession at the Ursuline Convent, Quebec."
Fenwick had rented a house for them at 2 Quincy Place, for $400 per year, and
had gotten some furniture. Classes were begun in October, and Mary Benedict
reported enthusiastically to the superior of the Quebec monastery that they had
twelve pupils: ten Catholics and two Protestants.
Sister Mary John had to return to Quebec in June. Boston had too many painful
memories for her. She was a (musically) talented person, but seemed to be dogged
by emotional problems. She must have had personal qualities to recommend her,
because the Quebec nuns welcomed her "avec toute l'affection qu'elle merite. De
l'agrement de l'autorite ecclesiastique, et par une decision capitulaire, elle
est admise membre de notre maison, prenant son rang de Profession." Being
received into another house was not something that one could automatically count
on. A statement of affection in the Annals of the monastery is not necessarily
simply <pro forma>. If they had not been glad to have her, there would simply
have been little or no comment.
Boston received a new member, a novice from Quebec. But things did not go well.
There were no repetitions of violence, but parents, remembering August 11, 1834,
were reluctant to send their daughters. There are hints of internal problems.
The nuns began to look for other Ursuline communities to which they could go.
Sister Mary Joseph, having been refused by the Ursulines of Charleston, South
Carolina, went to Three Rivers. There were questions about accepting her; she
was known for her stubbornness. Sister Ursula Chase joined her at the last
minute, and Three Rivers had questions about her formal permission from Bishop
Fenwick. They were admitted into the community after some delay, and
remained there for the rest of their lives.
Later in the year, Sisters Mary Claire De Costa and Ambrose Bennett, both lay
sisters, boarded a boat for New Orleans, where Sister Mary Claire remained,
while Sister Ambrose later went with a group that founded an Ursuline house in
Galveston. In August of 1841, the chapter of the New Orleans community had
agreed to receive two lay sisters and two choir nuns from Boston. Sister Mary
Austin (St. Augustine) who because of her health, could not live in Canada,
arrived in New Orleans in November of 1841. (She was highly respected there and
was elected superior in 1875.) The other choir nun whom the New Orleans
community was willing to receive was not named, but may have been Sister Mary
Benedict. She mentioned in a letter to Fenwick
in 1840 that she had not yet answered the letter from New Orleans, and asked for
However, she remained in Boston until 1844 against the wishes of the bishop.
Thomas Fennell O'Keeffe, brother of Sisters Mary Joseph and Mary Austin, wrote
in a letter of August, 1840 that he had obtained a house for the nuns at the
request of Bishop Fenwick. It was opposite his own, and the rent was less than
on Quincy Street. He predicted that the community could not last three months,
and commented especially on Sister Mary Austin's (St. Augustine's) poor health.
She would be unable to help with the school, he said, but could not live if
removed from Boston.
Her memories of her brother and his role in the affairs of the community were
not favorable. She believed that he wanted Sister Mary Joseph to leave Boston
(he accompanied her to Three Rivers) because he knew "he could not master Sister
Mary B. while we were all together, but he wanted me to stay being sick.... I
upset all their plans, for the moment I felt able I wrote to the Bishop that I
was ready to go.... [T.F. O'Keeffe] wrote me an insulting letter, sent it to me
by one of his children and never spoke to me afterwards . . . he was the most
hard hearted selfish man I ever met with."
Sister Mary Benedict wrote to Fenwick, who was in Baltimore, that in the new
house there were a chapel parlor, school rooms, a kitchen, and a room for the
bishop's use. What was not clear was who would teach classes.
She remained closely associated with O'Keeffe and his wife, a former pupil of
the nuns. She sent unpaid bills to Fenwick. Their relationship deteriorated. In
October of 1841 he had told her that she could not remain where she was without
another religious. She answered him two days later, reminding him that she
was waiting for letters from other Ursuline houses, as the others had, and
asking where she should go to Mass. Fenwick consulted with Eccleston of
Baltimore, who advised him not to send a priest to her for Mass and not to allow
her to attend Mass.
A year later she was still in Boston, and Fenwick was veritably sputtering on
paper: "Our Mary Benedict remains in the same situation as obstinate as ever.
Ever since the departure of Mary Austin I have charged her & even commanded her
under obedience to repair to [some] convent where she may live like a [Re]ligious.
But she disobeys and will no[t] go! She is keeping a little school with O'Kief
(sic) & his wife in the same house, & there things stand!"
At the end of 1843 she was still there, sick, and unable to support herself. She
reminded Fenwick that a religious was entitled to be cared for with the goods of
the community, and made a scarcely veiled threat to take him to court. She felt
herself deserted by him "because I do not, and cannot do that, to which I never
bound myself by any one of my obligations...." That seems to have meant the
relinquishing of her rights as trustee for the Mt. Benedict property.
By February of 1844 she was in debt for about $1,000. She begged him to pay, and
said she would sign any document he wished. She promised to go in June (if she
was still alive) to Kaskaskia, "to die with my mother" (who was in the
Visitation Convent there). Fenwick expressed his rage at the part played in
all this by "the infernal O'Kief[sic]" in a letter to the rector at Holy Cross
College of which Fenwick was the founder.
Fenwick wrote a note for the money, post-dated one year. He had her sign the
papers by which she as trustee handed over to him all her rights, titles and
interest in the land at Mt. Benedict. She would go to Kaskaskia as soon as
her health allowed. But it was to Quebec that she went, and where she was gladly
and kindly received. (Her sister Abby was in the community there.) She wrote to
Fenwick that she was "confounded at the extreme and undeserved affection and
charity that have been manifested in my regard. . . But a cloud often comes over
me when I think of the past, and for [sic] any trouble or uneasiness or
disrespect that I have ever shown you. I am truly sorry, and trust that you will
grant me your forgiveness. I have the honor to be, My Lord, Yours respectfully,
Sister M. Benedict. In happier days, she had addressed him as "My dear, dear
The many bills which Fenwick saved indicate that, whatever the irregularity of
her canonical status, she was simply paying rent, buying food, and getting the
things needed by a teacher. No written explanation of what she hoped to
accomplish by remaining in Boston has come to light; we know only Bishop
Fenwick's thoughts. But her resistance to signing away her, and the Ursuline,
trustee rights over the Charlestown property may point to an understanding of
When Fenwick was dying, a Protestant gentleman named Plimpton told him that he
had had a letter from Sister Mary Benedict, retracting her calumnies against
Fenwick, and asking him to tell Protestants who had visited her during her
rebellion the contents of her letter. Perhaps Fenwick wrote to her about the
pain she suffered, or forgiving her. She had known him since early childhood. He
had received her family into the Church and arranged their placements in
religious houses. She took his name as a religious. It sometimes seemed as if he
occupied in her life the place of the father of whom she saw so little. If there
was a peace-giving letter from him, it has not come to light. He died August 11,
1846. She died two years later in Quebec, after a painful illness, apparently
much-admired and loved in the community.
West of Quebec City, in Three Rivers, Sister Mary Joseph O'Keeffe was busy as a
teacher and community member, but she kept alive the idea of restoring the
Ursuline community in Boston and its original work of educating the poor Irish
children. She had been chagrined when the move to Mt. Benedict meant directing
their work largely to the Protestant upper classes. They kept their promise not
to teach Catholic doctrine to the Protestant children, but Catholic teachings
were what they had wanted to share. The superior had consoled Mary Joseph with
the idea that their work would result in a change of attitudes toward Catholics,
and that conversions would follow. She had promised, too, that the community
would open free classes, and that Mary Joseph would be placed in charge. On the
strength of these assurances, she had written to Ireland to invite her sisters
to join her in Boston.. When the community returned to Boston in 1838, she
wrote to Quebec about her wish for a Catholic school to serve the poor.
Eight years later she was writing from Three Rivers to Bishop Fitzpatrick,
asking to return to Boston to teach Irish Catholic children. He denied her
request, on the grounds that Nativism was too strong, and that costs would be
too high. (In the following year he also denied a request from the Ursulines
of Charleston, South Carolina to open a boarding and free school, on the grounds
of financial limitations.)
In 1849 this persistent nun wrote to Fitzpatrick suggesting that he, or she,
should ask Pope Pius IX to work through the U.S. consul in Rome to get
Washington to pressure Massachusetts about compensating the nuns for the
destruction of their property, so that they could re-establish their school.
This time it would be for Catholic children only, and "thus all cause for
jealousy on the part of Protestants would be prevented. . . ."
In 1871 she was still trying, writing to Archbishop Williams mourning the end of
the free education that the nuns had been able to give, largely because of
Thayer's legacy. She questioned the financial transactions between the diocese
and the community.
The archives of the Ursuline Monastery of Three Rivers have preserved a letter,
or draft of one, addressed by Sister Mary Joseph to the Holy Father in 1874. She
reviewed the history of the community, financial transactions, and the question
of the ownership of the Charlestown property, complaining that Bishop Williams
had gained possession by unfair means. (He had allowed taxes to go unpaid, and
then purchased it through an intermediary.) She suggested that she could get the
help of lawyers to restore the nuns' rights, if that were desired by the Holy
See. Sister Mary Joseph died, still in Three Rivers, in 1879, aged 76.
Indeed, a stubborn woman--or perhaps one who stood by her commitment.
There seems to be a legitimate question about the property. In the same year
that Sister Mary Benedict signed her rights as trustee over to Bishop Fenwick,
Sister Mary John Harrison, in Quebec, signed an instrument giving to him power
of attorney in regard to the property. Two years earlier, the mother and sister
of the deceased Sister Mary Frances Wiseman, the third Ursuline trustee, signed
a statement that they assented to her will of 1829, which had given control of
the property to Srs. Mary John and Mary Benedict, and to the bishop. Church
property must be protected from the possibility of relatives' claims on what was
held in trust for religious institutions. But it is clear that Bishop Fenwick
and his successors believed that the Ursulines' property should revert to the
diocese of Boston. Mr. Maguire, the chaplain of the Quebec monastery, had
written harshly to this effect to Sister Mary Benedict, threatening her with the
loss of her soul should she persist in refusing to sign the papers for
Rome did not entirely agree, showing concern for the rights of the religious
community and concern that the will of the benefactor be honored.
Fenwick had seen to the care of the property after the fire. Sister Mary Joseph
believed that income from real property which was part of the Thayer legacy was
sufficient to cover this and the taxes, which were not always paid in later
There is a question about how anxious Fenwick had been to restore the Ursulines
to Boston. In 1836 he had tried to get a group of Visitandines to establish an
academy. According to Sister Mary Joseph, he had proposed to members of the
Boston congregation that Sisters of Charity be established on Mt. Benedict, but
a Mr. Tucker objected, saying that it would be an injustice to the nuns, and
that the people had not forgotten the immense good that the Ursulines had done
in the city.
Fenwick apparently thought that another community would not suffer from the ill
will which had led to the fire of 1834. His enthusiasm for the two efforts to
restore the community and school in Boston had seemed far less than it had been
for establishing the Charlestown convent. When Mother St. George and Sister M.
Benedict attempted to remain in Boston, he made use of his power and the
authority of the Bishop of Quebec to make them leave.
The relationship of the religious of an independent house, which the Ursuline
convent of Boston was, to the ordinary of the diocese, leaves room for problems.
The bishop is the ecclesiastical superior of the community. It holds property in
its own name, and the bishop ordinarily should leave the internal affairs of the
house to the superior and the community. The community elects its superior,
under the Bishop's supervision. (It was understandable that the vicar general
and bishop took a hand in finding and appointing superiors for Boston since the
community was so young.)
In 1840, there were enough nuns to re-form the community and open a school. The
external circumstances and the limitations of the persons involved were factors
which affected the situation. But it does seem that Bishop Fenwick did not make
vigorous efforts to help the restoration succeed, and that the nuns' voices were
not heard in the process of deciding on the future of the project. There was no
higher Ursuline authority to whom the nuns could turn. Other Ursuline
communities, especially that of Quebec, had been generous and supportive, but
had no authority over another independent house.
The ending of the Ursuline work in Boston was at the point of intersection of a
line of strong but limited personalities with the lines of jurisdiction and
control within the Catholic Church. A wonderful inspiration to serve the Church
came to nothing, and good people suffered. But the nuns of Boston continued
their work in Three Rivers, in Quebec, in New Orleans and Galveston, and they
contributed to the education of many more generations of women. Perhaps, after
all, Thayer's dream did not come to nothing.
Having looked at the immediate causes of the riot, one needs also to look at the
factors in the New England of the 1830s which led to the dreadful night of
August 11, 1834.
There are numerous examples of anti-Catholicism in public sentiment and writing
and preaching in that decade. There were fears that the presence of a convent
school educating fifty Protestant girls would endanger the Protestantism of all
of New England, indeed of the country. Lyman Beecher urged his eldest daughter
Catharine to give her life to the education of female children of "the rising
generation, in which Catholics and infidels have got the start of US." This
latter fear is a perverse sort of compliment to the educational skills of the
nuns. But Beecher was not entirely mistaken. In 1820 there were ten convent
schools; by 1840 there were thirty-eight.
But there were other factors which contributed to the anti-Catholic ferment. One
consideration is that the Protestantism of New England was sorely divided. The
1802 Plan of Union of Presbyterians and Congregationalists was coming apart. The
Congregationalists were losing the allegiance of many of their better-educated
and wealthier members to Unitarianism. Congregationalism thus became aligned
with the "lower orders," and their resentment of the wealthy was joined to the
Puritan hatred for Catholicism. The official separation of church and state in
Massachusetts, in 1834, was as much a recognition of an existing situation as a
cause of change. The soul of New England was divided.
The society of Charlestown was largely made up of workingmen, who doubtless
suffered from the depression of 1833. Many were employed in the brickmaking
industry which dominated the economy of the town. A large portion of the work
force was made up of newcomers from the interior of New England, or from
Ireland--and there one sees a potentially explosive mixture. What was singularly
missing in Charlestown was an upper class. The politics of the town was
controlled by the leaders of the Workingmen's movement, who used the latent
anti-Catholicism "as a club against the financial elite."
The good will that Matignon and Cheverus had built up in Boston was largely
dissipated during Fenwick's tenure. It was a time of increasing antiCatholicism
in the country, and his was a more combative personality than that of Matignon
or Cheverus. Soon after his arrival he set up a series of lectures to respond to
the offensive sermons of Lyman Beecher. He founded a diocesan newspaper which
attacked the Calvinists so forcefully that Bishop Edward Fenwick of Cincinnati
(and of the same Maryland clan) was moved to protest. Benedict Fenwick's answer
was that "...they are our bitterest enemies.... There is no lie, no calumny . .
. that they will stop at, or which they do not insert in their scandalous papers
against Catholics and their tenets." Another factor which contributed to the
antiCatholic feeling was the conversion of a number of New Englanders, possibly
two thousand, to Catholicism during Fenwick's years in Boston and through his
The simmering started before 1834, and the heat was turned up by the preachers
of Boston, notably Lyman Beecher, whose church was nicknamed "Brimstone Corner."
Beecher had moved to Cincinnati to head the Lane Theological Seminary there, but
returned to Boston in 1834 on a fund-raising tour. In his <Autobiography>, a
collective composition by several of his children one reads:
It was during this visit that the Catholic nunnery at Charlestown was destroyed
by a mob, and the city of Boston thrown into a state of great excitement. This
circumstance, in connection with the fact that, in his "Plea for the West," he
laid bare the despotic character and hostile designs of popery upon our country,
led to the charge of having incited the mob to that act of violence.
Referring to this he says:
The late violence done to Catholic property at Charlestown is regarded with
regret and abhorrence by Protestants throughout the land, though the excitement
which produced it had no relation whatever to religious opinions, and no
connection with any denomination of Christians.
On the margin is penciled, in the doctor's handwriting:
The sermon of mine to which the mob was ascribed was preached before my presence
in the city of Boston was generally known, and on the very evening in which the
riot took place, two or three miles distant from the scene, and not an
individual in the mob, probably, heard the sermon or knew of its delivery.
Any good interfaith feeling Beecher might have generated by his disapprobation
of the riot was quickly dissipated.
For what was the city of Boston for five nights under arms--her military upon
the alert.... Why were the citizens, at sound of bell, convened at midday at
Faneuil Hall? --to hear Catholicism eulogized, and thanksgivings offered to his
reverence the bishop for his merciful protection of the children of the Pilgrims
I Has it come to this, that the capital of New England has been thrown into
consternation by the threats of a Catholic mob, and that her temples and
mansions stand only through the forbearance of a Catholic bishop?
Whether Beecher's sermon on that night should be considered to have direct
causality or not, it can be taken as a specimen of the thinking of at least some
of the Congregationalist clergy and, by extension, of the congregations. These
generally less wealthy families could not have afforded to send their daughters
to Mt. Benedict and they would not have chosen to. But the better-off Unitarians
did send theirs, and so the convent entered, in an inactive way, into the
divisions within Protestant society.
Another part of the climate of the 1830s was the idealization of women, and of
their roles as wives and mothers. No other roles were contemplated. If the nuns
were under the power of the Catholic clergy, they were at the same time too
independent. They operated a very large establishment. They did not fit the part
of the Christian women with "that shrinking delicacy of temperament and feeling
. . . which . . . unfits them for command. . ." The novels which received
their doubtful inspiration from the Mt. Benedict event, reflect the need of
women to be protected and rescued. Nuns seem to have been by their very way
of life an affront to the sensibilities of the 1830s. And their lives were not
available for public scrutiny.
The Ursulines represented to the people of Charlestown, then, Catholicism, the
Irish immigrants, the upper classes, and a contradiction to what women should
be. That the people who lived in Charlestown resented the convent on the hill
above the town is not a surprise.
There were suggestions that the mob was directed behind the scenes by a group of
conspirators, perhaps of the "more respectable" class of society. The Boston
Committee talked about conspirators who "were led to design the destruction of
the convent and to avail themselves of the aid of those miscreants, who,
actuated by the love of violence, or the hope of plunder, were the foremost in
the perpetration of the outrage." It also expressed the hope that a special
bench of magistrates would, in future, be able to detect those guilty of the
inception of such a crime, and be brought to "that punishment which now
generally falls upon the humbler instruments of their villany." On his deathbed,
Benjamin Wilbur, a member of one of the fire companies which had been at the
fire, confessed that the burning had been planned a fortnight before the event,
and that there were several meetings. Apparently there were meetings at the
schoolhouse in Charlestown. Wilbur confessed to having been hired to take part.
Both the attorney general and the counsel for the defense at the trial alluded
to instigation by better-educated and higher-up persons. But they were not
There may have been upper-class conspirators, but the allegations remain
unproven. Until evidence appears, one is forced to focus on the causes which can
be documented in some way. One probably has to read the terrible destruction of
the convent as the result of the coming-together of factors in society which
would almost inevitably lead to explosion. Mob action, resentment toward the
privileged of society, anti-Catholicism--these were part of the 1830s. The
people of Charlestown found a focus for their anger and a way to express it.
The walls of the convent stood for many years opposite Bunker Hill--twin but
contradictory monuments. Rev. Benjamin De Costa, nephew of Sister Mary Claire
and later a convert to Catholicism, visited the site in 1876 and sketched the
ruins. He wrote to Sister Mary Joseph in the following year, telling her that a
cat had taken up residence in their former oven, and that he could not find any
flowers. He took with him a handful of nails and two bricks.'05 Later the soil
of Mt. Benedict was used to fill in the Middlesex Canal. Then there was only
1. Robert V. Remini, <Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy>, Vol.
II (New York; Harper & Row Company, 1984), p. 214.2. John Thayer, <An Account of
the Conversion of the Reverend John Thayer> (Boston: William Goddard, 1788).
3. quoted in Richard J. Purcell, "Father John Thayer of New England and
Ireland," <Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review>, XXXI (March, 1942), pp. 173,
4. Carroll to Badin, Jan 30, 1801, <John Carroll Papers>, ed. by Thomas O'Brien
Hanley (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), II p. 346.
5. Lay sisters were members of the community who did the manual work of the
community and did not teach or say the office in choir.
6. Elleanore C. Sullivan, <Georgetown Visitation: Since 1799> (Baltimore:
privately printed, 1975) p. 65. See also: Louis De Goesbriand, <Catholic
Memories of Vermont and New Hampshire> (Burlington: privately printed, 1886),
7. Sister M. Benedict Barber to Mrs. J. Russell, Jan. 22, 1836, Archives,
Catholic University of America.
8. Mother St. Augustine O'Keeffe to Rev. F. Flynn, June 17, 1887. Known as
Sister M. Austin in Boston and M. St. Augustine in New Orleans; she wrote this
lengthy response to Louisa Goddard Whitney's <The Burning of the Convent>
(Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1877) at the request of Bishop J.A. Healy,
transmitted through a Father Flynn. She dictated it to an "amanuensis," who was
probably Sister Theresa Woulfe. Copy of holograph in Archives of Eastern
Province, Order of St. Ursula. The letter was printed in U.S. Catholic
Historical Society, <Historical Records and Studies> IV (Oct.,), pp.
218-31; it is a slightly variant text.
9. James J. Kenneally, <The History of American Catholic Women> (New York:
Crossroad, 1990), p. 19.
10. Benedict J. Fenwick, "Notes for a History of the Diocese of Boston," p. 52,
handwritten ms., Archives of the Archdiocese of Boston.
11. <Ibid> pp. 57-8.
12. Benedict J. Fenwick, "Memoranda of the Diocess (sic) of Boston from the
Arrival of Bishop Fenwick or rather from the day of his Consecration,"
handwritten ms. in AABo.; p. 27; the references are to the typescript in the
13. Prospectus, original in Archives of Catholic University of America. At the
Providence, R.I. Quaker school it was $60 to $80 per year in 1826; the
facilities and course offerings were simpler. Dorothy Sterling, <Ahead of Her
Time: Abby Kelley and the Politics of Antislavery> (New York: W.W. Norton &
Company, 1991), p. 19. In 1822, it was $150 at the Georgetown Visitation
Convent. Sullivan, <Georgetown Visitation>, p. 75.
14. Wilfred Joseph Bisson, "Some Conditions for Collective Violence: The
Charlestown Convent Riot of 1834" (unpublished dissertation, Michigan State
University, 1974), pp. 62-3.
15. N. Houghton to R.S. Fay, in <An Argument before the Committee of the House
of Representatives upon the Petition of Bishop Fenwick and Others> (Boston: J.H.
Eastburn, 1835) p. 42.
16. Fenwick, "Memoranda," 1, pp. 65,82.
17. Fenwick to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, Lyons, Sept. 1837
(microfilm, Archives of the University of Notre Dame). Numbers vary slightly in
the several accounts.
19. List appended to letter, Barber to Fenwick, September, 1837,
20. Lucy Thaxter, "An Account of Life in the Convent at Mount Benedict,"
<Charlestown Evening Transcript,> Feb. 4, 1843.
21. Fenwick, "Notes," p. 58.
22. There is an excellent account of the mood of the times, especially the
anti-Catholicism, in Ray Allen Billington, <The Protestant Crusade> (New York:
Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1938), pp. 533-84; he gives an outline of the events
surrounding the fire. Another is Robert H. Lord, John E. Sexton and Edward T.
Harrington, <History of the Archdiocese of Boston> (Boston: The Pilot Publishing
Company, 1945), Vol. 11, 205-239.
23. M. St. A. O'Keeffe "Letter," p. 47.
24. Fenwick, "Memoranda," I, p. 275.
25. Edward Cutter, <Bunker Hill Aurora>, Nov. 13, 1834.
26. Thaxter, "Life."
27. M. St. A. O'Keeffe, "Letter," p. 57.
28. <Ibid.>, p. 58.
29. <Ibid.>, p. 69, 70.
30. Edward Cutter, letter to <Morning Post,> August 12, 1834, in <Friend of
Religious Toleration: An Account of the Conflagration of the Ursuline Convent>)
(Boston: privately printed, 1834), pp. 6, 7.
31. ". . .they have the satisfaction to assure the public, that there exists no
cause of complaint on the cause of said female...." It was signed by Thomas
Hooper, John Runey, and several other of the Selectmen. <Daily Advertiser>,
August 13, 1834. Friend, pp. 7, 8.
32. George Hill Evans, "The Burning of the Mount Benedict Ursuline Community
House," Somerville Historical Monographs, Somerville, Mass. Public Library,
1934), p. 16.
33. Billington, <Crusade>, pp. 78, 84.
34. Isaac Frye, <The Charlestown Convent; Its destruction by a Mob, on the Night
of August 11, 1834>, (Boston: Patrick Donahoe, 1870), p. 34.
35. Fenwick, "Memoranda," I, p. 275.
36. "Report of the Committee Relating to the Destruction of the Ursuline Convent
August 11, 1834," in <Documents Relating to the Ursuline Convent, Charlestown>
(Boston: Samuel N. Dickingson, 1842), pp. 120.
37. Ephraim Tucker, "The Burning of the Ursuline Convent," <Collections of the
Worcester Society of Antiquities>, IX (1890), pp. 40-41
38. United States Catholic Historical Society, <Historical Records and Studies>
XII (June, 1918), p. 74.
39. Billington, <Crusade>, pp. 18, 110.
40. Fenwick, "Memoranda," I, pp. 286-87.
41. Fay, <Argument,> p. 40.
42. Rebecca Reed (Boston: Russell, Odiorne & Metcalf), 1835.
43. [Moffatt, M. St. George], <Answer to Six Months in a Convent> (Boston: J.H.
Eastburn, 1835), followed by a review of her answer and a supplement to Ms.
Reed's revelations. Dora Mahoney entertained her readers with a parody of <Six
Months>, entitled <Six Months in a House of Correction> (Boston: Benjamin B.
44. Moffatt to Signay, March 21, 1835, Archives of the Archdiocese of Quebec.
45. Moffatt, "To the Editor," <Recorder>, September 18, 1834, Archives, CUA.
46. Moffatt to Austin, Nov. 30, 1834, ACUA.
47. Moffatt to Austin, March 21, 1835, ACUA.
48. Fenwick, "Memoranda," I, p. 301.
49. Fenwick to Signay, May 3, 1835, AAQ.
50. unsigned document dated May 22, 1835, AABo.
51. April 15, 1835, AAQ.
52. May 23, 1835, AAQ.
53. Fenwick to Panet, Feb. 18, 1830 and March 13, 1830, AAQ,
54. Fenwick to Panet, Feb. 20, 1833, AAQ.
55. Barber to Fenwick, August 6, 1835, AABo.
56. Sept. 7, 1835, AABo.
57. Barber to Mrs. J. Russell, Jan. 22, 1836, ACUA.
58. document in AAQ.
59. <Annales de ce Monastere des Ursulines de Quebec, commence sous la
protection de nos Venerees Fondatrices.>..., Tome 11, 191-92, p. 191, 92.
Archives of the Ursuline Monastery of Quebec.
60. Barber to Fenwick, May 19, 1836, AABo.
61. <Ies actes des elections, les deliberations ou decisions du Conceil et du
Chapitre: 1727-1890>, Archives of the Ursulines of New Orleans
62. The Archives of the Archdiocese of Boston have seven letters, dated from
August, of 1835 to September of 1838.
63. Barber to Fenwick, Sept., 1837, AABo.
64. M. St. A. O'Keeffe, "Letter," p. 74; see n. 8.
65. Barber to Superior, Quebec, Oct. 30, 1833, AUQ.
66. Annales Quebec, II, 231,32, AUQ.
67. Thomas Maguire to Fenwick, May 30, 1840, AABo.
68. Signay to M. Ste. Marie, Apr. 30, 1840, Archives, Ursuline Monastery of
69. Barber to Fenwick, Sept. 8, 1840, AABo.
70. Thomas Fennell O'Keeffe to Sister Mary Joseph O'Keeffe, Aug. 10, 1840, AUTR.
71. Mother St. A. O'Keeffe to Sister Mary Joseph O'Keeffe, Dec. 3, 1867, AUTR.
72. Barber to Fenwick, June, 1840. AABo.
73. Fenwick to Barber, October 19, 1841, AABo.
74. Barber to Fenwick, Oct. 21, 1841, AABo.
75. Eccleston to Fenwick, Nov. 8, 1841, AABo.
76. Fenwick to Blanc, Nov. 18, 1842. Archives, University of Notre Dame.
77. Barber to Fenwick, Dec., 1843, AABo.
78. Barber to Fenwick, Feb. 10, 1844, AABo.
79. Fenwick to Mulledy, March 7, 1844, transcript, probably by Fr. Fitton,
Archives of Holy Cross College.
80. Power of Attorney and Deed to one-third of land at Mt. Benedict, signed on
March 5, 1844; handwritten, AABo.
81. Barber to Fenwick, Jan. 14, 1845, AABo.
82. in AABo.
83. Note by Bishop John B. Fitzpatrick. Fenwick's coadjutor and successor, on
the back of Barber's letter of Sept, 1837. He expressed strong disapproval of
that letter and of Sister Mary Benedict's having stayed in Boston after Fenwick
wanted her to leave. AABo.
84. <Ursulines de Trois-Rivieres>, (Trois-Rivieres: P.V. Ayote, 1892), n,
85. Sister M.J. O'Keeffe to M. Gabriel, Sept. 27, 1838, AUQ.
86. <Ursulines de T-R>, II, 614.
87. Fitzpatrick, "Memoranda," II, 197, typescript, AABo.
88. Sister M.J. O'Keeffe to Fitzpatrick, AABo.
89. Sister M. J. O'Keeffe to Williams, n.d. [response to his letter of July 25,
90. Sister M. J. O'Keeffe to "Most Holy Father," Sept. 15, 1874, AUTR.
91. Copies of these documents are with the papers of Father Fitton, AHC.
92. Maguire sent a copy of this letter to Fenwick; it is in the AABo.
93. The Holy Father insisted that the rights of the religious and the will of
the benefactor be respected, when Bishop Fitzpatrick, through Rev. J.A. Healy
(later bishop) wanted to purchase the Mt. Benedict property in 1860. Albert S.
Foley, <Beloved Outcast> (New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1954), p. 69. In
1862 and 1863, Cardinal Barnabo asked Bishop Fitzpatrick about the "goods" of
the Ursulines and then gave permission to sell the property and use the proceeds
to build a cathedral; letters, AABo.
94. Sister M.J. O'Keeffe to Williams, 1871, AABo.
95 <Autobiography of Lyman Beecher>, ed. Barbara Cross, Cambridge, Harvard
University Press, 1961), II, p. 167-68.
96. Mary J. Oates, "Catholic Female Academies on the Frontier, <U.S. Catholic
Historian>, XII Fall, 1994), p. 121.
97. Bisson, <Some Conditions>, pp. 80-85.
98. Benedict Fenwick to Edward Fenwick, July 19, 1830, AUND.
99. Eleanor Simpson, "The Conservative Heresy: Yankees and the 'Reaction in
Favor of Roman Catholics'" (Dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1974) p. 51.
100. L. Beecher, <Autobiography>, II, p. 251.
101. Rev. Ashbel Green, quoted in <Women and Religion in America>, Rosemary R.
Ruether and Rosemary S. Keller, eds., 1, p. 34.
102. cf. Harry Hazel, <The Nun of St. Ursula> (Boston: F. Gleason, 1845) and
Charles W. Frothingham, <The Convent's Doom> (Boston: Graves & Weston, 1854).
Dane Morison and Nancy Schultz have made an interesting study: "Image and
Perception: Historical and Literary Representations of the Burning of the
Ursuline Convent, Charlestown, Massachusetts, 1834," Salem State College
Research Seminar, April 25, 1994.
103. "Report of Boston Committee," p. 8.
104. Lord, <History>, II, pp. 234-35.
105. De Costa to Sister M.J. O'Keeffe, April 30, 1877, AUT-R.
Taken from the Winter 1996 issue of "The Catholic Historian", published by Our
Sunday Visitor, Inc., 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750, (800) 348-2440.