Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Aftermath of the Charlestown Convent Burning

Looking through my notes several days ago, I realized that I had not posted my concluding blog on the Burning of the Charlestown Convent in 1834. As you remember a mob, enraged by anti-Catholic propaganda and rumors--and the growing number of Irish Catholic immigrants and how they were undermining the employment of local Protestant workmen--sacked and burned the Ursuline Convent School in Charlestown MA in August 1834. The story concludes (but the prejudice lived on as we have seen in Philadelphia and other cities). (For details, refer to the postings of January 26 and 27.)
The morning after the convent burning the mayor of Boston Theodore Lyman, convoked a public meeting at Fanueil Hall to discuss what that happened. The meeting adopted a resolution which mandated an investigation of the riot and events leading up to it. it also named member of an investigative committee. The meeting also resolved that the Diocese of Boston should be compensated for the loss of property and offered a reward to anyone providing information about who was responsible for this event The same day the selectmen of Charlestown convoked a public meeting and passed resolutions condemning the violence and setting up a Committee of Vigilance to investigate the affair and to solicit information about the perpetrators that would lead to their arrest and prosecution. These steps were a remarkably generous response to the convent burning and show that the more responsible citizens abhorred the sort of violence that the Charlestown Convent burning represented. Indeed the whole affair, including the relationship of the nuns with the Selectmen and Mr. Curry prior to the riot show that the more responsible sectors of society were not buying into Lyman Beecher’s pulpit pyrotechnics and the anti-Catholicism they represented.
The Catholics on their part kept a cool head about the whole event. Bishop Fenwick convoked a meeting of the Catholic citizens in the area and admonished them that any acts of vengeance would be incompatible with the “religion of Jesus Christ.” On behlf of the Catholic population, the Bishop thanked the Boston and Charlestown authorities for their stand against the violence and expressed his trust that the civil authorities would offer the protection and civil order that would insure this sort of event would not reoccur.
Despite the efforts of civic leaders to defuse the situation, the mob was again on the roll. That very night a mob assembled at the arsenal and moved off in the direction of the Cathedral. Fortunately the mayor had ordered police and military guards to be stationed at the Cathedral and the Catholic church in Charlestown as well as several civic buildings. Finding the Cathedral under guard, the crowd returned to the convent grounds which, curiously, had been left unguarded. The mob destroyed the grounds—tearing down fences and walls, uprooting shrubbery, ravaging the gardens and setting bonfires wherever they could.
In the end, the investigative committee met for three weeks and finally ordered thirteen arrests, eight for burglary or arson which were capital crimes. But that is not the end of the story. The Committee, the Selectmen, the Mayor were of one sort of Bostonian, but these thirteen alleged criminals were to be tried, as law requires, by their peers. All but one were acquitted even though the evidence against them in most cases was indisputable and indeed, the ringleader had admitted out of court, that he had played a pivotal role. The one person found guilty and condemned to life at hard labor, was a sixteen year old boy who had participated in burning books the night the convent sacked. At the request of a public petition signed by Bishop Fenwick and the Superior of the Charlestown Ursuline Sisters, the governor gave the boy a pardon,
The Charlestown Convent burning was early in the revival of anti-Catholicism. The 1840’s and 1850’s would be much more turbulent. The responsible action of the “better sort” of citizenry contrasted to the working class rioters indicates that—as is typical—prejudice generally exists among the less educated and those who feel themselves increasingly emarginated from society. But it is too simple to say that prejudice is limited to the underclass. History shows us something quite different. Lyman Beecher, one of the voices in Boston that was fanning the flames of anti-Catholicism, was a highly educated man with upper-class background. While a demagogue he may have been, a more astute analysis would see him as a man ahead of his time. Two decades after the convent burning some of the best names in the American Republic would be associated with rabid anti-Catholicism. As prejudice progresses it grows in respectability. The Jews in Germany would see this same progression from demagoguery to respectability with far more tragic results. Americans today should look carefully at how totally outrageous things that would once have been said only at White Supremacist rallies or American Nazi Party gatherings are said on cable networks and mainline political gatherings. This time it isn’t the Catholics, at least qua Catholics, who are the objects of vilification—but having been the victims of it in past history we certainly need to distance ourselves from it today.
Today's image is the Revernd Lyman Beecher, a famous Boston Clergyman, who was notorious for his anti-Catholic preaching and writing that contributed to the anti-Catholicism of nineteenth century Boston.

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