Thursday, January 27, 2011

Convent Burnings and Anti-Catholicism

In 1820 the Bishop of Boston, Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus invited the Ursuline nuns from Montreal to send a community of sisters to open a convent and school next to his Cathedral in Boston. The Ursulines had a fine reputation for the education of young women both in Europe and in French Canada. In fact this was there second school in the United States as they had operated an academy in New Orleans—originally French and only recently acquired for the United States—since 1727. The Boston convent and school moved to Ploughed Hill—now renamed Mount Benedict—seven years later. Most of the students came from upper class Protestant families who found the idea of sending their daughters to a “convent school” quite fashionable. (Georgetown Visitation similarly had a large population of upper class Yankee Protestant students at this same period.) All this was well and good during the lull in anti-Catholicism in the early years of the Republic but it would change as the embers of anti-Catholicism were fanned back into flame by the mass influx of Catholic immigrants in the 1830’s and 1840’s and by the anti-Catholic preaching of rabid demagogues in the pulpit, preachers like the Reverend Lyman Beecher, father of the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Beecher is probably best known for his abolitionism—his preaching and writing against slavery, but abolitionism is only a small part of a much larger picture. Abolitionism was certainly a noble cause but not all causes associated with American liberalism of the early nineteenth century were so idealistic. Yesterday we talked about the Whig party and the Whigs were the political expression of liberalism. The Whigs split, north and south, on the slavery issue but Whigism was primarily a Northern movement. The Whigs were anti-immigrant because they believed that the democratic ideals of the young nation could only be preserved by people of British ancestry since our Republic was founded to preserve the liberties granted to Englishmen going back to the time of Magna Carta. Representative Government came from the British Parliamentary heritage and while England itself still had a monarchy, its powers were severely limited by Parliament, particularly by the People’s House—the House of Commons. Whigs also saw and wished to maintain that Protestantism was rightfully seen, if somewhat unofficially, as the religion of this Republic. Catholicism was highly suspect. It owed allegiance to a foreign prince,—the Pope—who was an absolute monarch. Priests were agents of the Pope. These immigrants were coming—especially the Germans—from monarchial government. The Irish were worse. They were an inferior race, kept ignorant by their priests, and rebellious against their English masters. Nineteenth century “liberals” tended to be as prejudiced as any Grand Inquisitors of medieval Spain. The fact that most of the immigrants, and the Irish in particular, gravitated towards Jackson’s Democratic party only increased the Whig hatred of anything Immigrant, anything Irish, and anything Catholic. In addition to preachers like Beecher, and perhaps inspired by him, there was a rash of anti-Catholic literature with lurid stories about priests and nuns, vaults filled with the murdered babies of unholy liaisons, the dangers of a papal takeover of the American Republic, the suffering of Protestants in Catholic dominated lands, and other inflammatory prose.
A young Episcopalian student in the School, Rebecca Reed, converted to Catholicism and entered the Ursuline convent. It wasn’t a good fit and she was dismissed towards the end of her postulancy. Reed wrote a book Six Months in a Convent. The book was only published after the Charlestown riots, but drafts of the manuscript had circulated widely among Boston Protestants. The disgruntled would-be nun did not have a lot of good to say about her experience and her book was of a certain “escaped from the convent-genre” popular at the time for its sensationalism.
There was much social unrest in Boston and surrounding towns, especially among the laboring classes. The immigrants—in Boston mostly Irish—were cheap labor. Working class Protestants were finding it hard to compete for jobs. This added to the tension in the city.
On the evening of July 28th 1834, a distraught nun—Sr. Mary John (aka Elizabeth Harrison) knocked on the door of a Protestant Gentleman, Edward Cutter, in Charlestown and asked for help to reach an acquaintance in Cambridge. Mr. Cutter obliged. The next day Mr. Cutter went to the home of the acquaintance to inquire after the nun and was told that she had returned to the convent in the company (custody?) of her Mother Superior and the Bishop of Boston—now Benedict Joseph Fenwick. Rumors began to spread. Was Ms. Harrison being held against her will? Rebecca Reed’s monograph would certainly lead one to think this was a possibility. As the agitation spread, placards were posted around Boston declaring:
"To the Selectmen of Charlestown!! Gentlemen: It is currently reported that a mysterious affair has lately happened at the Nunnery in Charlestown, now it is your duty gentlemen to have this affair investigated immediately. If not the Truckmen of Boston will demolish the Nunnery Thursday night—August 14."
The nuns and the bishop did the utmost to head off trouble. Mr. Cutter and the Charlestown selectmen (town council members) were allowed to come to the convent and interview Sister Mary John, the sister whose flight to Mr. Cutter’s home had started the incident. The nun said that she was free to leave the convent at any time of her choice; she was not being held against her will. A few days later the selectmen were admitted to the convent and Sr. Mary John—not the superior, but again the nun whose notoriety had brought attention to the convent—gave them a thorough tour of the buildings. The Selectmen released a statement to be published in the press that Sr. Mary John was in good health, she was not being held against her will, and that the convent was in every respect a fit place for nuns and students.
That very same night, however, August 11, 1834, a mob of Protestants gathered outside the convent door, calling for the release of any being held there against their will. When a nun came to the window and asked them to disperse, declaring that the nuns and children had all retired for the night, the mob offered her “protection” if she wanted to flee. The Superior, Mother St. George, appeared and made what was probably the greatest mistake in the event, declaring “the Bishop has twenty-thousand of the most vile Irishmen at his command and you may read your riot act till your throats are sore, but you’ll not quell them.” This did not intimidate the mob in the slightest; it served only as a challenge. They dispersed only to come back about two hours later and about two thousand strong. The ringleaders set fire to barrels of pitch on the convent grounds. Fire companies came, but the firemen only joined the crowd. The mob, growing restless, broke into the convent through battered doors and shattered windows ransacking the place. The nuns and students fled to the gardens behind the school through back doors. The mob then torched the building. More to come

The image today is a sketch of the ruins of the Charlestown Convent

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