A biased examination of “convent escape narratives”

Escaped Nuns: True Womanhood and the Campaign Against Convents in Antebellum America
By Cassandra L. Yacovazzi
Oxford University Press, 2018, 202 pages

American Protestants of the 19th-century viewed Roman Catholicism with a good degree of well-earned mistrust and antagonism. Popes had openly condemned democratic forms of government and freedom of religion. In Catholic countries, Protestants were not tolerated (to put it mildly). The determined efforts of the Jesuits to counter and reverse the spread of the Gospel were known to all.

As large numbers of Irish and German Catholics began immigrating to America in the early 19th-century, they were accompanied by priests and nuns. Convents were seen by Protestants as especially vile institutions, where it was suspected some nuns were abused and/or held against their will. It was also feared that Catholic schools staffed by nuns would draw an increasing number of Protestant children who would be indoctrinated into the Catholic religion. The very idea of unmarried women living together communally, dressed in their strange, 12th century habits was antithetical to the Protestant ideals of female virtue, marriage, and domesticity.

In this book, historian Yacovazzi, examines the Protestant reaction to the alarming influx of Catholic immigrants and especially the growing number of convents. In 1835, “Six Months in a Convent” was published in which ex-nun, Rebecca Reed, documented her escape from a convent and the abuses that took place therein. Ex-nun, Maria Monk’s “Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk” was published the following year to a large and receptive audience. Similar “convent escape narratives” would continue to be published into the mid-20th-century.

Yacovazzi dismisses all of these books, just as Catholic spokespersons did at the time they were published, as anti-Catholic fiction meant to appeal to prurient interests and Protestant sectarianism. To what degree those works were fiction or fact is still roundly debated. It’s interesting that Yacovazzi makes no mention of Herbert Wolf’s “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio” (2013) in which the award-winning historian documented the abuses in a single 19th-century Italian convent, abuses that were no more “outlandish” than those told by Reed, Monk, and the rest (see my review here). It’s also very interesting that Yacovazzi’s only mention of the Catholic church’s ongoing pedophile priests and hierarchical cover-up scandal is encompassed in one sentence on the second-last page of the book. Given the sheer enormity of the ongoing 20-year scandal, it’s amazing to me that Catholic apologists and academicians like Yacovazzi still attempt to discredit Reed, Monk, and the other ex-nuns who penned “convent escape narratives.” Catholicism’s rule of clerical celibacy led to widespread abuses then and now. Objections to historical accounts of abuse in Catholic celibate institutions reminds me of when Mafia-funded, Italian-American organizations protested the “defamatory” nature of the film, “The Godfather,” while it was being filmed in New York City in 1970.

In building her case against 19th-century American Protestant anti-Catholicism, Yacovazzi unsurprisingly makes no mention of those historical anti-Protestant factors that I cited at the outset. The omission is not an accident and serves the author’s agenda. A reader of this book would unwittingly assume American Protestants’ fear and anxiety regarding Catholicism were hatched in a vacuum.

Given the academic credentials of the author and publisher, I was quite surprised at the sectarian nature of this book.

Postscript: Ms. Yacovazzi included a short chapter in which she paralleled American Protestantism’s strong reaction to nuns and convents with its negative reaction to Mormon polygamy. Well, of course 19th-century American Christians saw the convent and polygamy as threats to women and orthodox Christianity! Yacovazzi’s argues from her 21st-century progressive soapbox that the nuns and Mormon women of the 19th-century were actually farther ahead in the proletarian feminist struggle than Protestant women!

Postscript II: I don’t pretend to be an academician, but I do know more than a few things about Catholicism and Mormonism. In the chapter on Mormon polygamous wives referenced above, Yacovazzi cites Emma Smith, wife of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, as 1) being opposed to her husband’s polygamous marriages, but that she 2) remained “a willful, vocal member of the church until her death” (p.118). Both claims are entirely untrue. Following her husband’s death in 1844 and the subsequent power struggle within the church, Emma Smith split from the main body of the Mormon church (led by Brigham Young) in 1846. Throughout the remainder of her life, she held firm to her denial that her husband had ever suggested or practiced polygamous marriage, attributing that novel doctrine to Brigham Young and others. In 1860, she joined the newly-formed Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with her son, Joseph III, as the appointed president. The RLDS condemned polygamous marriages. Yacovazzi’s inaccurate assertions regarding Emma Smith reveal some very shoddy scholarship.

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