Throwback Thursday: Yup, convents were cultish, but where’s Jesus in all of this?

Welcome to this week’s “Throwback Thursday” installment. Today, we’re going to revisit a post that was originally published back on October 26th, 2015 and has been revised.

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Forgotten Women in Convents
By Helen Conroy
Christ’s Mission, 1960, 121 pp.

2 Stars

Protestant books examining abuses in Roman Catholic convents proliferated throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. “Forgotten Women in Convents” by ex-nun, Helen Conroy aka Sister Mary Ethel, was originally published in 1946 and was one of the last books of this once-popular genre. The 1960 edition that I purchased was published by Christ’s Mission, a Protestant evangelization outreach ministry to Roman Catholics, as part of a tidal wave of anti-Catholic literature that swept the nation leading up to the Kennedy-Nixon presidential election.

On the plus side, Conroy offers many valuable insights into how the Catholic church lured girls and young women into its nunneries and how it discouraged them from ever leaving. Evangelicals’ antennae go up if you mention the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, but is there anything more cultish than a Catholic convent? As Conroy points out, Catholicism adopted the notion of a cloistered community of virginal women, completely dedicated to (g)od/s, from pagan religions for its own purposes. These poor, deluded women were attempting to merit their salvation via the strict codes of their religious orders, through self-denial and even physically harmful self-mortification practices. Of course, extremely few Catholic women are joining convents these days and many of those who do will enjoy freedoms unimaginable to the nuns of Conroy’s era.

On the minus side – and this is a HUGE minus – Conroy never once alludes to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Does she just assume her Protestant readers have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior? In her exodus from Rome, did Conroy ever accept Christ? There’s no testimony therein of that being the case in this book. Instead, there’s quite a bit of criticism of Catholicism’s treatment of its nuns as being antithetical to American freedoms, but there is no mention of how Catholic works-righteousness legalism and ritualism is opposed to the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. In its surprisingly Christ-less approach, “Forgotten Women in Convents” reminds me quite a bit of a very popular anti-Catholic bestseller from the same period, “American Freedom and Catholic Power” (1949) by atheist Paul Blanshard.

See my earlier post for a booklist of “convent escape narratives.”

Throwback Thursday: 20 Former Nuns Who Left Roman Catholicism and Accepted Jesus Christ

Welcome to this week’s “Throwback Thursday” installment. This week, we’re going to revisit a post that was originally published back on October 28th, 2015 and has been revised.

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The Truth Set Us Free: Twenty Former Nuns Tell Their Stories of God’s Amazing Grace
By Richard Bennett
Solid Ground Christian Books, 2010, 237 pp.

5 Stars

In this valuable book, Richard Bennett,* ex-Catholic priest and director of the Berean Beacon ministry, presents the testimonies of twenty former-nuns who left behind the false gospel legalism and ritualism of Roman Catholicism and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior by faith alone. The personal accounts average only about eleven pages each so there’s not a lot of detail about Catholic theology, but each testimony is a blessing.

When Christians refer to “cults” they usually have Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses in mind, but can there be a practice more “cultish” than a convent full of virginal women who believe they are married to Jesus Christ, replete with wedding rings? The inspiration for the Catholic convent was the convent of the vestal virgins of pagan Rome.

All of the twenty ex-nuns in this book joined their religious “orders” with high expectations, believing they were pleasing God by earning their salvation through self-denial and ritualism, but they found no joy or contentment in the convent. All were introduced to the Word of God and were saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone. These women gave up the only life they knew to follow Christ, but what Christian can look back with regret at the corrupt things of this world when the glory of our Savior is before us?

“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” – Philippians 3:7-9

I attended a Catholic grammar school for eight years back in the 1960s and was taught by nuns belonging to the order of the Sisters of Mercy. Our parents assumed the nuns were shining examples of love and contentment, but we students witnessed those women as they really were; troubled souls who sometimes vented their frustration, anger, and cruelty on their charges. Sisters Imelda, Annunciata, Tarcisius, Gemma, Mary Ann, and Virgina, whatever became of you??? By God’s grace, were you somehow able to see through through the religious legalism and ritualism you taught to us and find the Savior?

Convents are few and far between these days. The great majority of Catholics can’t even bother to attend obligatory mass on Sunday let alone take up a religious vocation. In 1965, there were 180,000 nuns in the United States, but by 2006 the number had declined dramatically to only 67,000. By 2014, the number had further dropped to 50,000.

These twenty ex-nuns with their testimonies are bold, uncompromising witnesses to lost Roman Catholics and to accommodating and compromising evangelicals who embrace the RCC with its false gospel as a Christian entity.

Copies of “The Truth Set Us Free” are available from Solid Ground Christian Books here.

*The Lord’s faithful servant, ex-priest, Richard Bennett, went home to the Lord on September 23rd, 2019.

Throwback Thursday: Sister Rita of Cascia – “She returned the maggots to the fetid sore.”

For our first Throwback Thursday installment, we’re going to take a look back at this post that was originally published July 19, 2015, with a few minor revisions.

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Many canonized Catholic saints of the past are admired and venerated for their “asceticism” (definition: a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from sensual pleasures, often for the purpose of pursuing spiritual goals). However, some of those saints took their asceticism to an extreme level including self-harm. Bible Christians would rightly judge such practices as anti-Biblical and the practitioners as mentally disturbed and/or demonically influenced. Let’s examine one such “saint,” a nun, Margherita Lotti aka saint Rita of Cascia (1381-1451) using information from a Catholic source:

“On one occasion, a Franciscan friar named Blessed James of Mount Brandone, came to the church of St. Mary to preach on the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ, focusing mostly on the Crown of Thorns. Rita wept as though her heart was broken. After the sermon was over, she went to her cell and prostrated herself before the Crucifix, meditating on the pains Christ suffered from the thorns. She asked Jesus to give her at least one of the 72 thorns which pierced His poor head, causing Him so much pain and suffering, that she might feel a part of that pain. Upon completion of that prayer, Rita’s Divine Spouse granted her wish, making of His Crown of Thorns, so to speak, a bow, and one of the thorns, an arrow. Jesus fired it at the forehead of St. Rita with such force, that it penetrated the flesh and bone, and remained fixed in the middle of her forehead, leaving a wound that lasted all her life, and even to this day, the scar of the wound remains plainly visible.

The pain was so intense that Rita fell into a swoon. She would have died right there had Jesus not preserved her life. The pain caused by the wound increased daily. It became so ugly, foul smelling and revolting, that Rita became an object of nausea to many who saw it. As a result, Rita asked permission to spend most of her time alone in her cell, but she was happy. Little worms fed themselves on the open wound, thus giving her new occasion to practice patience.

The year 1450 was proclaimed by Pope Nicholas V as a Jubilee Year, thus providing many indulgences for those who would go on pilgrimage to Rome. Several of the sisters were given permission to go. At the feet of her superior, St. Rita also asked permission to go. Fearful that those who might observe the ugly and foul smelling wound might be scandalized, the superioress denied her permission to go unless the wound would disappear.

Rushing to the feet of her Divine Spouse, Rita humbly sought God’s will, asking Him to take away the wound, but to continue to allow her to suffer the pain from the wound. The wound disappeared at once. Rita gave thanks and rushed to her superioress, who was surprised and astonished – and Rita was granted permission to accompany the other nuns to Rome.

The sisters visited the stational churches and the tombs of the martyrs. Many were touched by Rita’s devotion and piety. As they returned to the convent – just as Rita stepped over the threshold, the ugly wound reappeared on her forehead, and she suffered intense pains. The offensive odor and the worms reappeared also. When one of the worms fell to the floor, Rita picked it up with care, and placed it back in the wound. She called them “her little angels,” as they were instruments for testing her patience as they recalled to her the intense suffering of her Jesus. She once again retired to her cell so as not to inconvenience the other nuns.”

http://www.sacramentals.org/saintritaofcascia.htm

As with this story of saint Rita, many of the accounts of the nun mystics include thinly-veiled erotic inferences. Academics refer to this as “bridal mysticism.” In addition to other elements, the visionary is often pierced by some type of instrument or light. The phallic symbolism is fairly obvious. If this information upsets you, I can certainly understand why, but let’s not shy away from the facts.

Today, Margherita Lotti aka Sister Rita of Cascia would be properly diagnosed as mentally ill, but the Roman Catholic church venerates this 15th-century nun as a “saint.”

Roman Catholicism betrayed its demonic elements by exalting extreme asceticism including various forms of harmful self-mortification as well as subjective, anti-Biblical religious experientialism/hysteria aka mysticism. Praise God for the Good News! of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone!

“28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30

Convent horrors: From the frying pan into the fire

While searching our county library’s database for items listed under “Roman Catholicism,” I stumbled across this very interesting French film:

The Nun (La religieuse)

  • Directed by Guillaume Nicloux
  • Based on Denis Diderot’s popular 18th-century novel, “The Nun (La religieuse),” and adapted to the screen by Guillaume Nicloux and Jérôme Beaujour
  • Featuring Pauline Etienne as Suzanne Simonin, Isabelle Huppert as Supérieure Saint-Eutrope, and Louise Bourgoin as Supérieure Christine
  • Distributed by Le Pacte (France), 2013, Running Time: 100 minutes

Plot

In mid-17th-century France, a 17-year-old girl, Suzanne, is placed in a convent by her parents for supposedly only a limited period of time. Suzanne subsequently learns from the friendly mother superior (Francois Lebrun) that her parents intend for her to remain in the convent and become a nun. The girl rebels against the rigidity of convent life, refusing to take her “final vows” at the last second, and is sent back to her parents.

Suzanne’s mother reveals to the girl that she is her illegitimate child and that she will not be sharing in the family’s dwindling estate. Suzanne is sent back to the convent, much to her displeasure, but sadness turns to terror when the friendly mother superior dies and is replaced by the harsh Supérieure Christine, who is determined to crush the girl’s rebellious spirit. Suzanne manages to smuggle out a plea for help to sympathetic parties, and Supérieure Christine retaliates by relentlessly punishing the girl to the brink of death.

Suzanne’s outside benefactors are able to arrange her transfer to a different convent, which initially appears to be much less harsh. However, it’s soon revealed that the nun in charge, Supérieure Saint-Eutrope, is a lesbian who preys upon her younger charges. Saint-Eutrope makes several advances upon Suzanne, but the girl is able to rebuff her. Suzanne reveals the sordid goings on within the convent to a visiting priest confessor, who then works in league with her benefactors to stage her escape.

After traveling all night, Suzanne awakes inside a sprawling estate. She learns her wealthy benefactor, who had saved her from the horrors of the convent, was her biological father, who had died during the night. She can look forward to a secure future on the estate with her half-brother.

Commentary

It’s disturbing to follow Suzanne’s horrific experiences within the two convent hell-holes. However, this fictional story is an excellent portrayal of the real abuse that routinely took place within Catholic convents, rectories, seminaries, and the palaces of prelates century after century. Suzanne’s character represents the millions of women and men, girls and boys who were physically, emotionally, and/or sexually abused over the course of a millennia by the “celibate” Catholic clergy. Sadder still are all of the Roman Catholic souls who have been misled by their church’s false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit.

Actress Pauline Etienne does an excellent job in her portrayal of a young woman caught in her religion’s legalism, ritualism, and extreme asceticism, which all veiled the unspeakable corruption at its core.

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Supérieure Christine devises another “discipline” for the rebellious Suzanne.

Catholic archbishop accuses pope Francis of covering up abuse, demands he resign.

I normally collect news stories over the course of the week and post them as part of the Weekend Roundup, but every once and awhile a story is so important, like this one, that it cannot wait.

Following closely on the heels of the news of U.S. cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, being stripped of his office due to allegations of sexual abuse, and then the pedophile priest and cover-up tsunami in Pennsylvania, we have another disturbing but unsurprising revelation. According to the story below, which is breaking across all major news outlets, archbishop, Carlo Maria Viganò (above photo, left), the former Vatican nuncio (ambassador) to the United States, claims to have informed pope Francis in 2013 that cardinal McCarrick had sexually abused children, seminarians, and priests, but that Francis did absolutely nothing. Viganò is calling for Francis to resign.

The Catholic hierarchy is corrupt from top to bottom.

I’ll be posting follow-ups to the story in the Weekend Roundup if not sooner.

Pope Francis Long Knew of Cardinal’s Abuse and Must Resign, Archbishop Says

A priest and nun trust in Christ by faith alone and come out of Catholicism

From Darkness to Light
By Frank and Joan Testa
Xulon Press, 2012, 173 pages

This book is the testimony of Frank and Joan Testa, a former Roman Catholic priest and nun.

Frank grew up in Newark, New Jersey as part of a Catholic family and states that he “came to know the Lord Jesus as (his) personal Savior” in his early teen years, but that he remained in Catholicism out of ignorance. He determined to become a priest and attended seminary in the U.S. and Europe and was ordained in 1964. He quickly became involved with Catholic social agencies and was drawn to urban activism in several New Jersey cities, often earning the disapproval of his more traditionally-minded superiors. But by reading the Bible and through contact with Christians in the communities he was serving, Frank came to understand that many of the doctrines and practices of Roman Catholicism are opposed to Scripture. He resigned from the priesthood and left Catholicism in 1977.

Joan grew up with her Catholic family in Newburgh, New York (sixty miles north of NYC) and entered a convent of the Dominican order in 1955, immediately following her high school graduation. She earned college degrees and subsequently taught in Catholic schools in the States and Puerto Rico. She was drawn to studying God’s word and also became involved in community activism in New Jersey, where she became acquainted with Frank on a strictly professional basis. Through the study of God’s Word and the witness of Christian friends, Joan accepted Jesus Christ as her Savior by faith alone in 1978 and left her religious order and the Catholic church.

Although they were both out of Catholicism, Frank and Joan were still involved in urban activism and their paths crossed regularly. A special friendship developed and the two were married in 1980. Together, the couple founded an urban mission church, ministered to addicts through the Teen Challenge program, and became involved in foreign missions. In 1999, they began their “Repent America” ministry, which involved guest-speaking at churches and street preaching all across the U.S.

While I enjoyed this book, I do have a few qualifications. Firstly, Frank says he entered into a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ as a young teen while reading the book, “God Goes to Murderer’s Row” by “father” M. Raymond, a Trappist monk. I am curious how a person could trust in Jesus Christ by faith alone, and then go through eight years of Catholic seminary and thirteen years as a priest without ever comprehending that Catholicism’s legalistic calculus and ritualism have no connection with the genuine Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Perhaps Frank had had a preliminary insight into salvation in Christ as I had as a child in 1967 (see here), although I would not actually accept Jesus as Savior until 1983. Despite the confusion, it appears from his writing that Frank eventually acquired a full understanding of the Gospel and genuinely accepted Christ as his Savior by faith alone.

Secondly, both Frank and Joan are outspoken Pentecostals. I’m a cessationist in regards to the apostolic gifts of the Spirit, so there are several passages in the book that I read with a good amount of skepticism. I generally avoid discussing the apostolic gifts in a general forum such as this because there’s nothing to be gained by debating this topic involving secondary beliefs with my Pentecostal and charismatic brethren, but I do need to point out that in this book, Frank refers to believers who are cessationists in a negative manner.

Despite the above qualifications, I enjoyed this book overall.

Remember convents? Catholic girls were once attracted to the “discipline” of religious orders.

Novitiate
Written and directed by Maggie Betts and featuring Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, and Dianna Agron.
Sony Pictures Classics, 2017, 123 minutes

You have to be around sixty-years-old or older to remember pre-Vatican II, militant Catholicism. This film brought back memories.

Plot (spoiler alert!)

Young Cathleen experiences very little love in her broken home, but she is awarded a scholarship to a Catholic school for girls and is intrigued by the nuns who teach her. To the absolute chagrin of her “freespirited” mother (Nicholson), Cathleen (Qualley) decides to enter the convent of the Sisters of the Blessed Rose in 1964 at the age of seventeen. She is attracted by the nuns’ close-knit community, disciplined lifestyle, and intense “spirituality.” However, Cathleen’s fanciful conception of convent life meets cold reality like a hard slap across the face in the person of Reverend Mother (Leo), who rules the institution with an iron fist. Cathleen and the other novices must endure harsh and humiliating treatment and adhere to a thick catalog of rules and regulations for the opportunity of becoming a full-fledged nun. Many drop away or are deemed unsuitable and dismissed. The remaining young women have a sympathetic ally in one young nun, sister Mary Grace (Agron), who chafes under the boot of Reverend Mother, but the old war horse has her own problems.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) is ushering in many reforms of church practices and rules governing religious orders and Reverend Mother is none too pleased with this threat to her fiefdom. She resists the changes as long as possible while venting her frustration on her charges. Cathleen struggles to endure her training and even starves herself into the infirmary in an attempt to master her spiritual failings. Under orders from the archbishop, Reverend Mother can no longer forestall the Vatican II reforms and reluctantly notifies the sisters of the changes. Horrified by the unsettling news, many nuns leave the convent and return to the secular world. Only a small handful of novices remain, and on the day they take their “final vows” to become full-fledged nuns, Cathleen decides to leave the convent.

Comments

Boy, did this film bring back memories. I attended Catholic parochial school from 1961 to 1970 and personally witnessed the last stages of militant, pre-Vatican II Catholicism and then the dramatic window-dressing changes of Vatican II. I can remember all the nuns who taught me quite vividly. Some were kind and some were very troubled souls who released their anger on us children. Those poor women were attempting to merit their way to Heaven by living ascetic lives according to the strict rules of their order, the Sisters of Mercy. We talk about religious cults, but was there anything more cultish than a group of women living together as the brides of Christ replete with wedding rings and dressed in 11th century garb? As the movie shows, these women had to endure great hardship and humiliation. Many forms of self-mortification were encouraged. This movie alludes to lesbian relationships inside the convent, what real-life nuns termed as “particular friendships.” This is a sensitive topic, but lesbianism was a very real issue in convents, where women, young and old, were deprived of natural affections. As an eighth-grade student, I witnessed signs of a “particular friendship” between my homeroom teacher and another nun.

This was a good film, but a painful one to watch because of the memories. As a child, I witnessed first-hand the type of vicious cruelty doled out by the film’s Reverend Mother. Being the target of a nun’s hissy fit was painful. Melissa Leo is excellent in the role of convent despot.

Additional comments from an ex-Catholic believer

Catholicism changed its window dressing with Vatican II, but it still preaches the same core doctrines and the same false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit. All of these poor nuns attempted to earn their salvation through severe asceticism, but Catholics still try to merit their salvation as they are instructed by their church. At the end of the film, it states that, following the changes of Vatican II, “90,000 nuns renounced their vocations and left their convents.” My hope is that some of them eventually trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone. There are relatively very few nuns in the U.S. today; the number dropped from 180,000 in 1965 to 50,000 in 2014 and the majority of those that remain are elderly.

For the testimonies of 20 former nuns who left Catholicism and accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, see here.

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In this scene, the novices meet with Reverend Mother and each confess their sins publicly as a weekly ritual . The other novices are asked to accuse each nun of any sins they have observed.

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

 

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

A convent in flames

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.

 

Mount B

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From a nun to a child of God!

Sister of Mercy: From Serving God to Knowing Him
By Wilma Sullivan
Emerald House Group, 1997, 80 pages

In this short book, former nun, Wilma Sullivan, testifies of her journey from being a Roman Catholic nun to salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Sullivan was born into a Catholic family and educated by the Sisters of Mercy at St. Agnes Catholic Grammar School in Towanda, Pennsylvania up until the sixth grade. The dedication of the nuns made a huge impression on her. Being an athletic girl, she chose to attend public schools from seventh through twelfth grades because of their superior sports programs and facilities, but continued with her CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) religious classes for Catholic children attending public schools. Sullivan desired to become a nun following high school, but fulfilled her father’s wish that she first go to college.

After graduating from a two-year college, Sullivan entered a Sisters of Mercy convent in 1967. Shortly afterwards, she was assigned to teach a second-grade class at a Catholic grammar school. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) brought many changes into the church including changes in religious orders. Nuns were given greater independence. Sullivan was disillusioned with what she saw as the disintegration of community life in her religious order and left the convent in 1971. But she remained faithful to the Catholic religion and volunteered for various assignments at two Catholic parishes.

During a hospital stay, Sullivan struck up a friendship with another patient, a born-again Christian. The two discussed spiritual matters often. Sullivan bought a Bible (her first) and attended weekly services at both the Catholic and the Baptist church of her friend. She eventually understood that salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone and accepted Christ as her Savior. After several months, Sullivan found that she could no longer continue to attend the Catholic church services because so many of the beliefs and practices were contrary to God’s Word, including the false gospel of sacramental grace and merit.

For many years, Sullivan traveled across the country speaking to women’s groups about her journey from legalistic, institutional religion to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

I enjoyed this short book quite a bit and read through it in only a couple of sittings. I was also taught by the Sisters of Mercy in Catholic grammar school. I praise the Lord that Sullivan accepted Christ as Savior and came out of Catholic legalism. Faithful Catholics and ecumenical evangelical Judases don’t know what to do with a testimony like Wilma Sullivan’s. If she is right, they are wrong and that just won’t do according to their way of thinking.

Order the Kindle edition of “Sister of Mercy” here.

Read a shorter version of Sullivan’s testimony here.