Fire & Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834
By Nancy Lusignan Schultz
The Free Press, 2000, 317 pages
Catholic and even non-Catholic journalists and commentators often like to cite examples of anti-Catholic bigotry in American history. One of the most notorious examples of anti-Catholic hatred was the burning of the Mount Benedict convent and boarding school in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1834. I had always wanted to acquaint myself with the particulars of that event, so I borrowed this book from the library.
The first convent and Catholic school in Boston, Massachusetts was established in 1820. Nuns from the Ursuline order were enlisted from Quebec to staff the fledgling school. Due to inadequate space, the convent-school was moved to an impressive, newly-built structure on Ploughed Hill* (renamed Mount Benedict) in Charlestown in 1827-1828. Most of the student boarders were daughters of wealthy Protestants.
The Protestant majority of Boston and the surrounding towns already harbored feelings of fear and distrust toward Catholicism, but a number of circumstances and events led to the burning of the convent in 1834:
- Working-class Protestants in Charlestown were resentful of the visibly prominent and grandiose convent-school building with its 24-acre manicured grounds and the foreign French Catholic nuns with their unusual outfits.
- The influx of Irish Catholic immigrants into Boston and Charlestown increasingly forced working-class Protestants to compete for employment.
- Protestants were angered that children of Protestants were being educated/indoctrinated by Catholic nuns.
- In 1832, a young postulant, Rebecca Theresa Reed, left the convent and subsequently related stories of abuse within the institution. She would later publish her experiences as “Six Months in a Convent” in 1835.
- In July of 1834, another nun, Elizabeth Harrison, left the convent under unusual circumstances, exacerbating the already agitated state of the Protestant population following Reed’s escape.
- On Sunday, August 11, famous Presbyterian preacher and abolitionist, Lyman Beecher, spoke at several Boston churches on the errors of Romanism and the dangers of Protestant parents sending their children to Catholic schools. Did he cite Mount Benedict specifically?
- On Monday, August 12, a town committee appointed to investigate circumstances at the convent in regards to Elizabeth Harrison was treated contemptuously by the Mother Superior and students. That evening, a crowd of around 2000 people gathered at the convent’s gates, and beginning at 11:00 p.m., around 50 men participated in burning down the convent. The ten nuns and fifty students escaped, but the convent-school was completely destroyed. Fire brigades stood idly by and favorably observed the destruction along with the cheering crowd.
In December, thirteen men were tried for the crime, however, all but one were acquitted. After an attempt to reestablish the convent and school in the nearby town of Roxbury, the nuns returned to Quebec in 1835. Another attempt in 1838 to revive the school was unsuccessful.
The violent destruction of the Mount Benedict convent was certainly regrettable. Followers of Jesus Christ do not condone sectarian violence. But we do a disservice to the truth if we lift these events out of their wider context. Protestant immigrants to America were painfully aware of the tyrannical nature of the Catholic church in Europe. In countries where Catholics were in the majority, Protestants were oppressed, oftentimes severely. Right up until the end of the 19th century, popes issued encyclicals condemning democratic forms of government and freedom of religion. Persecution of Protestants in Catholic-controlled countries continued well into the 20th century.
I certainly don’t approve of the mob violence in Charlestown in 1834 or any other examples of anti-Catholic violence in American history, but the fear of militant Catholicism had a factual basis in the Inquisition and the persecution of Protestants throughout Catholic Europe and Catholic Latin America.
The author of this book, Nancy Lusignan Schultz, is a Roman Catholic and her account is not without some bias, but I did enjoy learning more about this tragic event. Her less-than-flattering accounts of Mount Benedict’s haughty mother superior, Mary Anne Moffatt, are very interesting. Despite a certain degree of sectarian prejudice, this book is well-researched and informative.
*Although Ploughed Hill/Mount Benedict was eventually leveled and used as fill for the abandoned Middlesex Canal, a marker near the intersection of Broadway and Illinois Avenue in Somerville designates the approximate former location of the destroyed convent-school.