First “convent escape narrative” published in America

Six Months in a Convent
By Rebecca Theresa Reed
Book Verve E-Books, 2014 (originally published in 1835)

Several days ago, I posted a review of “Fire & Roses,” a history of the burning of the Mount Benedict convent and boarding school in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1834. See here. Intimately entwined with that unfortunate event is the story of Rebecca Theresa Reed.

Reed was born in Charlestown in 1813 into an Episcopalian family. It was in 1826, in her walks past the newly-built convent, that the thirteen-year-old became mesmerized by the impressive building with its manicured grounds and gardens and by the nuns with their unusual garb and their separation from the world. Reed envisioned convent life as a blissful existence of prayer and dedication to God and began pleading with her parents to allow her to enter the convent, which they were not agreeable to. But after the death of her mother, Reed entered the convent as a postulant in 1831 at the age of eighteen. However, her romantic notions of convent life quickly came crashing to the ground. In this book, she describes the harsh living conditions imposed upon the nuns and the severeness of the mother superior, Mary Anne Moffatt aka Sister Mary Edmond St. George.

After Reed began resisting Moffat’s heavy-handed discipline, she overheard the mother superior and bishop discussing plans to forcibly transfer her to a convent in Quebec in order to break her spirit. The postulant nun escaped the convent and her story quickly spread throughout Charlestown and Boston. Protestants were already resentful of the Ursuline convent and boarding school because girls from wealthy Protestant families made up the majority of the student population. Tensions reached the tipping point after another nun escaped the convent (only to return) in addition to several other factors. An angry Protestant mob destroyed the convent on the evening of August 12, 1834.

Reed’s book was published the following year in 1835. Despite Catholic aspersions to the contrary, her 66-page account is actually non-sensationalistic and quite reasonable. In addition to her story, the original publisher included a 71-page “Preliminary Suggestions for Candid Readers” apologia section which seeks to exonerate Reed of any direct responsibility for the riot, to warn Protestant parents of the dangers of educating their children at Catholic institutions, and also to contend for the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone versus Rome’s false gospel of sacramental grace and merit. “Six Months in a Convent” sold 10,000 copies after its first week in print and more than 200,000 overall; amazing numbers for that era.

After leaving the convent and Catholicism, Rebecca Theresa Reed returned to her family’s Episcopalian church, Old North Church, in Boston. It was at Old North Church on April 18, 1775 that sexton Robert Newman placed two lanterns in the steeple to alert Paul Revere that British troops were advancing by boat across the Charles River into Cambridge. Reed died from tuberculosis in 1839 at the young age of 26. See here. It’s not explicitly clear from the text whether she ever placed her trust in Jesus Christ as her Savior.

Reed’s “Six Months in a Convent” was the first “convent escape narrative” to be published in the United States. Many more would follow throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Catholic critics were duty-bound to dismiss the accounts as sensationalistic and prurient fiction, but we know from recent research (and headlines) that Catholic convents, rectories, seminaries, and schools were hothouses of abuse and deviancy. See here for one example.

The editor of this 2014 Kindle ebook version thought it proper to include a five-page introduction that smears both Reed’s factual testimony and the publisher’s apologia as anti-Catholic “hate literature.” No surprise. The text of the book is a bit difficult to read, especially the apologia section, due to the flowery, 19th-century prose. This book is strictly for those readers interested in the circumstances involved with the burning of the Mount Benedict convent and/or convent escape narratives in general. Order from Amazon here. Several free PDF versions can also be found on the internet including this one.

Postscript: American Protestants eventually grew indifferent to the concept of Catholic convents, but actually few religious establishments are more cultish if you stop and consider it. In reading this book I couldn’t help but remember those women who lived together in a convent only two blocks from our house and taught us in our parochial school that salvation is merited by all those who are baptized (preferably into the Catholic church) and are “good;” sisters Imelda, Annunciata, Tarcisius, Lourdes, Gemma, Maryanne, Virginia, and Edwardine. They dedicated their lives to trying to merit Heaven and inculcating their young charges with the same.

Interesting quote: “The (Irish) Bishop remarked, ‘The Yankees celebrated independence day in honor of men, and appointed days of thanksgiving, instead of celebrating the birthday of the Redeemer, in honor of God.'” – Kindle position 581 of 2310

 

RReed
An illustration of Rebecca Theresa Reed following her escape from the Mount Benedict convent

5 thoughts on “First “convent escape narrative” published in America

  1. Wow thank you for this review of the first convent escape genre; hopefully she came to know the Lord salvifically by believing in salvation by grace alone. You are right to note the cultic nature of covenants considering the theology driving it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Jim! I’ve been meaning to read this book for 4 years. I’m glad I read the history book first. Unfortunately, Reed didn’t make it clear whether she understood the Gospel although the publisher’s apologia was quite orthodox.

      Liked by 1 person

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