All the brick-kilns had been set burning, and as night concealed the ugly brickyards and clay-fields in which they were erected, nothing was visible but the magic circle of fire that seemed to be drawn around the Convent.
-- LOUISA WHITNEY, The Burning of the Convent, 1877
In the twilight of a sweltering August evening in 1834, groups of men are gathering on the Winter Hill Road in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, near the main gate of a Roman Catholic convent. It is Monday, and they have come here after rounds of drinks at the local tavern, following another backbreaking day's work. They are brickmakers, sailors, firemen, apprentices, and hooligans, Charlestown's poorest and least educated, and tonight they have a job to do. Cloistered inside are about a dozen Ursuline nuns who, in the last eight years, have built an elegant brick boarding school for wealthy girls high on a hill encircled by the brickyards of Charlestown, where most of those in the crowd at the gate eke out a meager living. Tall, sturdy fences fully enclose Mount Benedict, the nuns' lush twenty-four-acre farm, with its fragrant orchards of apple and pear, its heavily laden vineyards, its bounteous herb and vegetable gardens, its pebbled maze of walks through roses, a veritable self-contained Eden.
The men at the gate are angry. They're angry about a lot of things. Many have come down to the city from New Hampshire, leaving wives and children behind to manage as best they can the failing farms where the men once made decent livings growing alfalfa and clover for animal feed. As generations passed, the farms had been subdivided, and New Hampshire's sons had inherited fewer and fewer acres. Even with their thrifty Presbyterian Scots backgrounds, the men were finally unable to sustain a living from the exhausted soil of their parcels. Now they lived in dirty, crowded all-male dormitories owned by the brickyard boss, and worked with their backs for a dollar or two a day, supplying bricks for the rapidly growing city of Boston. Daily, as they wiped the sweat from their eyes, they glanced up from the brickyards to see verdant Mount Benedict, where the daughters of some of Boston's most prominent Protestant families were receiving an expensive European-style education from a community of Ursuline nuns. On this night, August 10, 1834, there were about ten Catholic and forty Protestant girls inside, many from elite Unitarian families in Boston, who paid a yearly tuition to the nuns equivalent to a brickmaker's wages for six months' labor.
Though many of the men had indirectly won their livelihood from the extensive construction work at the boarding school, lately the convent's relationship with the neighboring brickyards had deteriorated. Rumors had been circulating around Charlestown that something was amiss. A novice named Rebecca Reed had escaped over the convent wall two years before and told disturbing tales of the abuse she and other nuns suffered within. A convert to Catholicism, Miss Reed had been admitted to the school as a charity pupil, and had aspirations to become a nun. But she became dissatisfied with her life in the community, and fancied that a plot was afoot to imprison her in a Canadian convent. She had found a ready audience for her stories in anti-Catholic Yankee Boston, foreshadowing the wild success in 1835 of her published exposé of convent life. And just two weeks before, another nun named Sister St. John had run away from the convent to the home of one of the brickyard bosses, begging him to take her safely away. That nun had been brought back, against her will, or so the locals believed, by the Roman Catholic bishop, Benedict Joseph Fenwick, after whom Mount Benedict had been named. Now the Mercantile Journal was publishing rumors that St. John, whose given name was Elizabeth Harrison, was dead or held captive within the convent walls. When the selectmen of Charlestown had been sent in to investigate on the day before the riot, they had been treated with contempt by the convent's feisty mother superior, Sister St. George, née Mary Anne Moffatt.
Though Harrison, the escaped nun, assured the selectmen that she now wished to remain in the community, Moffatt's haughty demeanor disgusted them. One ringleader of the rioters, a strapping six-foot-six brick maker named John R. Buzzell, later said that Moffatt was "the sauciest woman I ever heard talk." Yesterday, the Superior had berated the selectmen for interfering with the running of her business. Today, as darkness deepened and the crowd grew, she threatened destruction of their homes and businesses. Standing at the front window, Moffatt ordered the crowd to disperse. If they didn't, she said, "The bishop has at his command an army of twenty thousand Catholic Irishmen who will burn your houses."
Bottles of rum and whiskey were passed around by the men at the gate, some of whom had painted their faces like Indians for the occasion. Around half past nine, a shout went up from the crowd, "Down with the Pope! Down with the convent!" alarming the nuns and students. The mother superior quickly assembled her sisters and ordered them to take the nightgown-clad girls, who ranged in age from six to fourteen, to the rear of the building. She then came to an upper window to face the crowd below, and demanded to know what they wanted.
"We want to see the nun who ran away!"
When Moffatt disdainfully shook her head in denial, two gunshots were fired in the air as a warning. At eleven o'clock the crowd began to tear down the convent fence, and lit a bonfire of fencing and tar barrels on the neighboring property of brickyard owner Alvah Kelley. Its light was visible for miles around. Local church bells began to peal out the signal for fire, and engine companies from Charlestown and Boston raced to the scene. But many of the firemen had friends in the crowd, and escaped nun Rebecca Reed's brother-in-law, Prescott Pond, was a member of Boston Engine No. 13. Instead of fighting the fire, the men from No. 13 provided cover for the rioters as they raced up the hill toward the convent. Stones and bricks shattered the rows of windows in the three-story building and its adjoining wings. A farmhand grabbed a stake to batter in the front door, and the rioters burst into the building. Moffatt ordered the nuns to take the flock of children down the back stairway to the convent garden. She then quickly returned to her office, and put something in her pocket, a miniature of her mother, she would later claim. Two other nuns ran to the chapel and wrenched the mahogany tabernacle from the center of the altar. Inside was an antique silver ciborium, a sacred chalice holding the consecrated bread that in Roman Catholic belief is the body of Christ. The nuns hid the tabernacle in a rosebush blooming in the garden.
By midnight, the rioters had penetrated to the heart of the cloister. Some of them broke up furniture and heaped it in the center of the large assembly room. Others gleefully hurled musical instruments out the windows, violins, harps, and even pianos. Amid cheers and jeers, the Bible, the ornaments of the altar, and the cross were tossed on the pyre and with their torches, the rioters ignited a fire. The firemen outside stood idly by, or returned to their engine houses as a crowd of about four thousand looked on. Hearing the shouts of the rioters inside the convent, the nuns and students, who had been cowering near the mausoleum in the garden where the convent buried its dead, fled through an opening they had made in the fence. In their nightgowns, the women and girls ran through the field in the light of the second-quarter moon, and took shelter half a mile away at the home of Mr. Adams, a neighbor. By one-thirty in the morning they could see that the entire building was engulfed in flames.
The rioters, who for sport had donned the slate gray uniforms and white dresses of the students, began to whoop it up at the bishop's lodge. This was a small cottage tucked away in a quiet corner of the property, where Benedict Fenwick, the second bishop of Boston, would occasionally spend the night after an afternoon happily puttering in the convent's gardens. Fenwick did not have much leisure time in these early days of establishing the diocese of Boston, and gardening in the lovely enclosures on Mount Benedict was one of his few recreations. But on this night, a fresh-faced boy named Marvin Marcy conducted a mock auction with Fenwick's small but well-stocked library, calling out "Sold!" as he consigned books to the flames.
Not satisfied with this vandalism, the rioters moved on to the mausoleum in the garden. This was a tiny chapel of brick where prayers for the dead were offered, and the bodies of deceased nuns lay in the crypt below. The rioters battered their way in, lifted the trap door, and raced down the stone steps of the nether chamber, looking for the bodies of murdered Protestant girls. Only the corpses of six or seven nuns lay in coffins. With pickaxes, they pried off the tops, and pulled the bodies out onto the floor. Turning over a corpse with the toe of his boot, one of the rioters took a cudgel to the skull, and some teeth went skittering across the stone floor. Laughing and joking, still swigging whiskey, the men pocketed the teeth for souvenirs. Next, they moved on to destroy the remaining buildings on the premises: the barn, the stables, the icehouse, and a restored farmhouse. By daybreak, the magnificent convent was a heap of smoldering ruins.
Only one part of the property stood relatively untouched -- the convent's lush terraced gardens. After a day recovering from their business of the previous evening, the men returned as soon as darkness fell to finish the job. Crossing the drawbridge to Charlestown once more, they again streamed up the center road to Mount Benedict. Tonight their object was the end of Eden. They pulled the vines laden with ripening grapes from trellises. They swung axes at apple and pear trees heavy-hung with fruit. They trampled neat green rows of lettuce and broccoli, and hurled tomatoes and bean plants skyward. Finally, they trampled the rose bushes, even as the thorns tore at their clothes and skin.
The night before, two men had found the mahogany tabernacle hidden in an especially beautiful rosebush, covered with voluptuous red blooms of an overpowering fragrance. Tonight, one of these men again stood before the bush with a scythe, recalling how he and his companion, a wagon-hand from Newburyport named Henry Creesy, had rejoiced when they spotted the tabernacle hidden there. Creesy, known in his native town as having "a melancholy temper, but inoffensive and industrious," made a slim living from the patronage of the wagoners, whom he followed around the city and offered assistance where needed. The teamsters or truckmen -- a hardy crew who manned the long, two-wheeled carts then in use -- could be frequently found at disturbances around town. On this night, Creesy assisted the truckmen in perpetrating one of the most notorious acts of anti-Catholic violence in American history. When the wagon-hand pulled the silver ciborium from the tabernacle hidden in the rosebush, he shoved a few of the wafers it held into his breast pocket, and laughed as he announced, "Now I have God's body in my pocket!" At the same moment, he looked up to see flames coming from the convent window. Shrieking with glee, the wagon-hand hurled the silver vessel into a thick hedge.
Creesy must have been pretty drunk, thought his companion, to toss away a valuable silver goblet and just keep the wafers. Last night, the man with the scythe had hunted a long time for it, but darkness and the thickness of the hedge obscured it from his view.
"Drunken fool," he murmured, shaking his head with disgust, as he stood before the imposing bush.
Then he raised his scythe and hacked and hacked at the rose bush until the branches all lay broken, and red petals were strewn like bloodstains on the white stones of the pathway.
Old and hackneyed as they may seem; -- threadbare as they may be supposed to have become, by the continual wear and tear...in the public papers, in private conversation, in the reports of the Committees, and in the arguments of the Bar, -- I yet venture to say that there are not only unexhausted, but almost unnoticed incidents in the history of this transaction, which, in the hand of one skilled and practised [sic] in touching the strings and sounding the stops of the human breast, might be made to harrow up the sternest soul, and freeze the youngest blood among us...
Robert Charles Winthrop made these observations about narrating the burning of the Ursuline convent on March 12, 1835, just as the trials of the convent rioters were winding down, and a few short days before the appearance of escaped nun Rebecca Reed's best-selling exposé of the Charlestown community, Six Months in a Convent. Winthrop modestly went on to demur, "I have no such skill," and left the challenge to others. Though his speech before the legislature in favor of compensating the Ursulines for their losses was compelling, it was ultimately not successful. During the nearly seventeen decades that have followed, many lawyers, commentators, and scholars have taken up Winthrop's challenge to harrow the soul and freeze the blood through the telling of this tale.
And the themes are harrowing. They include the real secrets of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown: mysticism, alcoholism, a secret burial, a possible illegitimate birth, and the mysterious fate of the mother superior, Mary Anne Moffatt, whose strange and troubling disappearance remains an unsolved mystery. Persons connected with the riot suffered a variety of devastating effects. Some went mad, including escaped nuns Rebecca Reed and Elizabeth Harrison, convent rioters Henry Creesy and Marvin Marcy, the daughter of the buffoonish Charlestown selectman John Runey, and possibly Mary Anne Moffatt herself. Others developed permanent disfigurements or disabilities. This was the case with William Croswell, Rebecca Reed's minister, whose once handsome appearance was marred by a worsening facial tic that developed after his stressful involvement in the controversy. At least two deaths indirectly resulted from the catastrophe at the convent. A young Irish nun named Sister St. Henry was the first victim, dying within six weeks of shock and tuberculosis. The father of the only convicted rioter, seventeen-year-old Marvin Marcy, apparently died of shame or grief during the course of the trials. Within four years of the event, Rebecca Reed herself had succumbed to tuberculosis, which the twenty-six-year-old claimed to have contracted at the convent. The terrifying legends that arose after this event are intertwined with larger historical themes of class warfare, erupting tensions over religion and gender, and the struggle to define a democratic society in the years following the American Revolution. In many ways, the story of this riot in antebellum Charlestown, Massachusetts remains the story of today's America.
Henry Creesy's suicide and the snapshot of the riot contain many of the larger threads of the story. But history begins with people, not events, and the story of the destruction of the Charlestown convent is the story of intersecting lives: Mary Anne Moffatt, the convent's powerful mother superior; the ambitious second bishop of Boston, Benedict Fenwick; the impressionable and romantic novice Rebecca Reed and her high-strung minister William Croswell; the beautiful and eccentric nun, Mary Barber; and the unflappable leader of the convent rioters, John R. Buzzell, the strapping brick maker from New Hampshire. The lives of these main characters, as well as of a host of supporting players, help weave the tapestry of this formative event in American history, which itself has ancient origins. Members of the Charlestown Ursuline community and their attackers were actors in a centuries-old tradition with both European and colonial American roots.
The story of the Charlestown Ursulines dates back to the settling of North America. The first nuns on the continent were Ursulines, arriving from France in 1639, and settling in Canada to teach Indian girls and the daughters of French settlers in their Quebec monastery. For a century before their arrival in the New World, the Ursulines had been pioneers in women's education. As in many religious orders, Ursuline nuns take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but for five hundred years, this venerable order has made a fourth commitment: to devote their lives to educating women. In 1727, with the arrival of ten sisters in New Orleans, the Ursulines founded what was to be the first permanent establishment of religious women in the United States. Half a century before the Revolution, the New Orleans Ursulines became in fact the first professional elementary school teachers in the United States. Though other orders later founded houses, the Ursulines remained one of the most elite, enjoying the friendship and patronage of American founding fathers Samuel Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.
In fact, the first-rate schools run by these women had historically attracted the daughters of the upper classes, both Protestant and Catholic, and the order developed its prestigious reputation. Ursulines heroically adjusted their mission and nursed American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Roman Catholic Church leaders in the United States also appreciated the excellent work of the Ursulines in women's education. The first Catholic bishop in the United States, John Carroll, was advised by Rome in 1788 to bring in more Ursuline sisters to help with setting up the first diocese. Mary Anne Moffatt, Mary Barber, and the other Charlestown Ursulines, then, were continuing this long and distinguished tradition of service in establishing the Ursuline Academy in Charlestown, Massachusetts during the early nineteenth century.
Other Roman Catholic nuns followed. Between 1790 and 1829, twelve different orders of nuns established convents in the United States, though only about half of these communities flourished and grew. An Ursuline house in New York that had been founded in 1812 by sisters from Ireland was one of the early casualties. Summoned by the state's vicar-general, Anthony Kohlmann, the sisters had some success in attracting pupils, but not American postulants, girls who would prepare to join the order. To remain a viable institution, the New York Ursulines needed to attract Americans who could afford a dowry of $2,000. As a historian of this period notes, "Since no interested New Yorker of the day could afford the dowry, none entered, and the sisters returned to Ireland in 1815."
The Boston Ursuline mission had been the dream of a priest, Father John Thayer, a former Congregationalist minister who had once served as chaplain to Massachusetts Governor John Hancock, the American statesman and first signer of the Declaration of Independence. Born in Boston May 15, 1758, John Thayer was the fourth son in a family of eight boys, the children of Cornelius and Sarah (Plaisted) Thayer. On a trip to Rome in 1793 after his graduation from Yale, the twenty-five-year-old Thayer converted to Catholicism, after witnessing miraculous cures at the shrine of the venerable Benedict Joseph Labré. Thayer wrote a vivid account of his conversion experience that was widely read, reprinted in several editions, and translated into eight languages. Almost immediately, the young man decided to enter the priesthood. Thayer was fervent in his new faith, but lacked tact and prudence. He often alienated both Protestants and Catholics with whom he came in contact, including John Adams, Quebec's Bishop Hubert, and Baltimore's John Carroll. While on his way back to America from Europe, he had traveled to Boulogne-Sur-Mer in France and met with members of the Ursuline order there. Impressed with their way of life, he vowed to establish an Ursuline convent in his birthplace, Boston. An Indian school run by the Catholics that had been in existence earlier had closed, leaving no Catholic schools in the city, and the small population of children of this faith were educated in public or Protestant institutions.
In 1790 Thayer returned to Boston, where Catholics numbered fewer than a hundred out of a population of 18,000, and began his ministry. There the young priest proposed the radical idea of founding a convent in Boston. His Catholic opponents ridiculed Thayer for this plan, because until 1803, there were only two convents in the entire United States, the French Ursulines in New Orleans and the Carmelites of Maryland. Thayer's vision of educating women was somewhat eccentric since there were no schools for young Catholic men in the area. Thayer probably saw the education of girls as a means of strengthening Catholic families, and thought that the poorest Catholics needed the greatest assistance. But in selecting the Ursuline order for this mission, Thayer may have inadvertently planted the seed for controversy. The Ursulines had always had a dual mission in women's education, a commitment to helping the poor as well as to educate the daughters of the elite. With the move from Boston to Charlestown, the New England convent's mission easily shifted from Thayer's original intention, heightening Yankee anxieties about the convent's education of upper-class Protestant girls.
In Boston, Father Thayer quickly became enmeshed in disputes with local Protestant ministers, which convinced him that the hostile climate he perceived in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century New England would hinder his dream of bringing a monastic community into the city. He decided he would have to find outside financial backing in order to found an Ursuline convent in this Yankee stronghold. Thayer requested a transfer to Virginia, and Bishop Carroll of Baltimore agreed and sent a replacement for the Boston mission. Thayer subsequently embarked for Europe in 1803, and to Ireland in 1811, settling in Limerick to work among the poor and raise money for the Boston academy, which he was still intent on founding. In Limerick, the priest stayed with a cloth merchant's family by the name of Ryan, giving French lessons to the youngest daughter, Margaret. Two of James Ryan's others daughters, Mary and Catherine, had been educated by Ursulines at Thurles, in Tipperary County, and Thayer believed the Ryans had the faith and education to open and operate a school in Boston. Surely by now, he believed, the city would have become more tolerant in its attitude toward Catholics.
During his stay with the Ryans, the charismatic Father Thayer spoke often of his vision of founding an Ursuline convent in Boston, and of his disappointment at the refusal of the Blackrock Ursulines of Cork to found another mission after their abortive attempt in New York in 1812. Moved by the priest's description of the spiritual needs of New Englanders, Mary and Catherine Ryan, each independent of the other, offered to join the projected community. That the two sisters volunteered is not surprising, since the Ryan family was notable for its vocations. James Ryan's four daughters all became Ursuline nuns. His daughter Anne, the only one to marry, bore three daughters and a son before she became a widow and followed her sisters into an Ursuline convent. All four of her children became members of a religious community, the son joining the Jesuits and the three daughters the Ursulines.
Once he had a commitment from Mary and Catherine Ryan to found the Boston mission, Father Thayer arranged for the women to train for the sisterhood in the Ursuline Convent at Trois Rivières in Canada. Their sister Margaret and widowed cousin Catherine O'Connell Molineaux also signed on for the project, and planned to join them at Trois Rivières the following year. There the four women would train to become Ursuline nuns and study the administration of a convent, but would not enter as members of the Canadian community. Instead, they would be preparing to found their own in Boston. Thayer expected to accompany the Ryans to Canada but in 1815, the fifty-three-year-old priest fell suddenly and gravely ill. Realizing he would die without seeing his dream fulfilled, he wrote to Boston, entrusting his Ursuline project to a priest and former Sorbonne professor named Father Franç:ois Antoine Matignon who was stationed in the city. Thayer bequeathed his considerable savings, a sum of over ten thousand dollars, to the Ursulines. The whole estate was valued at $10,764 -- a large one for the day, consisting of a house on Prince Street valued at $1,000 and diverse stocks. Father Matignon, the assistant of Boston's first bishop, Reverend Jean Louis Anne Magdeleine Lefebre de Cheverus, was named his legatee. Matignon, like Cheverus, was an aristocratic refugee from the French Revolution. Both men were admired and respected by many of Boston's Protestant leaders, and therefore were able to considerably improve the climate for opening a school in the city.
The Ryans made the crossing on May 4, 1817, on the ship Victory, which sailed from Limerick to Boston. Matignon then escorted them to the Ursuline convent at Trois Rivières to begin their training. In Boston, Matignon and Bishop Cheverus, who had arrived in Boston in 1796, together worked to foster the fledgling Catholic church and the planned Ursuline mission. Matignon invested Thayer's money wisely, and the original legacy nearly doubled. When Matignon himself died on September 19, 1818, he also directed a third of his inheritance, $2,500, toward the future Ursuline foundation to be established in that city.
A month after they were saddened by the death of Father Matignon, but with a renewed sense of mission, Mary and Catherine Ryan took preliminary vows in the Ursuline order at Trois Rivières in October 1818 under the religious names of Mary Joseph and Mary Magdalene. Later that year, the Ryans were joined in their vocation by their sister Margaret and their cousin, Catherine Molineaux, who took the names Augustine and Angela. A year later, Mary and Catherine Ryan took lifetime vows.
By June 16, 1820, Bishop Cheverus was proceeding with plans to bring the Ursulines to Boston, and to bequeath them his rectory as their home. For the location of his new rectory, Cheverus purchased a lot adjacent to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross for $4,500, and welcomed the four sisters from Trois Rivières. Cheverus had long cherished the idea of a school for Catholic girls in Boston as the foundation for building strong Catholic families. Though he privately expressed a preference for Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton's Sisters of Charity, Thayer's will had been absolute in dictating that the Boston academy be opened by Ursulines. Father Thayer's protegée, Mary Ryan, now Sister Joseph, was named superior, and the sisters opened a day school for the education of poor girls as their benefactor had planned. The first professed American postulants who trained in Boston were Elizabeth Harrison, Sister Mary John, and Catherine Wiseman, Sister Mary Frances. Two additional American converts would later join the order, Mary Rebecca Theresa DeCosta, Sister Mary Claire, and Sarah Chase, Sister Mary Ursula. By 1822, the community numbered seven religious and two novices. All of these accessions attracted public attention, and some discomforting rumbling was heard in the press about a growing Catholic presence in Boston. The popular Bishop Cheverus intervened with an editorial, appealing to the ideals of liberty and freedom that the nation stood for, and rhetorically asking what threat could be posed by a small number of people assembled for the just cause of teaching children.
The small band of Ursulines opened their school adjoining the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Franklin Street in Boston, and welcomed about one hundred pupils as day scholars, half of whom attended in the morning and half in the afternoon. With the inheritance they had received from Fathers Thayer and Matignon, the Boston Ursulines had sufficient support to operate their academy, so the girls, mostly poor and the daughters of Irish immigrants, paid no tuition. According to the second superior of the Ursuline convent, Thayer's will had dictated that "the property was to belong solely to the Ursuline Community." Some of the money continued to be invested in public funds and stock, and was generating income from interest. The revenue from these investments enabled the first Ursulines to offer free education and the school thrived immediately.
But their prosperity was to be short-lived. Soon the members of the Ryan family would begin suffering from symptoms of deadly tuberculosis. Then, in 1823, the king of France recalled the ailing Bishop Cheverus to France, despite a petition for him to remain in Boston signed by two hundred prominent citizens. When the bishop returned to France in 1823, he too left a portion of his property to the Ursulines. It is likely that among his gifts to the Ursulines was the antique ciborium that Henry Creesy so carelessly tossed aside on the night of the riot. Cheverus's replacement, Bishop Benedict Fenwick, did not arrive in Boston until 1825.
During the final months of Cheverus's tenure, the Ursuline sisters were plagued with tuberculosis. Both Catherine Molineaux, Sister Mary Angela, and Catherine Ryan, Sister Mary Magdalene, died the same year. Ryan, who had been inspired by Father Thayer to cross the Atlantic and found the Boston convent, passed away on April 9, 1823 at age twenty-eight. Three months after Bishop Cheverus left, the first Ursuline superior, Mary Ryan, Mother St. Joseph, also dying of tuberculosis, asked the Reverend William Taylor, whom Cheverus had appointed two years earlier to administer the diocese, to write to another community of Ursulines in Quebec City for help. By mid-1824, three of the four foundresses, all in their twenties and thirties, had died, leaving the community with very little leadership. The fourth, Margaret Ryan, Sister Mary Augustine, would die in 1827. Reverend Taylor turned to the elite Quebec Ursulines for help in maintaining the community, and the Canadian Monseignor Plessis was able to lend one sister from the Quebec monastery, thirty-year-old Mary Anne Ursula Moffatt, Mother Mary Edmond St. George.
Madame St. George, who gazed down from her window on the night of the fire with such angry disdain, had arrived in Boston in Spring 1824. Mary Ryan, the first Boston superior, then lay near death in the final stage of tuberculosis. When the plea for help came from the illness-decimated New England Ursulines, Mary Anne Moffatt had already been a member of the Quebec cloister for ten years, and had risen to the position of mistress of the demi-pensionnaires, wealthy day pupils, at the academy. Monseignor Plessis, the monastery's spiritual advisor, approached Moffatt as a possible superior for Boston, but she initially declined, citing her unworthiness. When his disappointment was reported back to her, "that he had believed her capable of greater generosity," she agreed to begin the long trip from Quebec to Boston. Moffatt thus consented to undertake a radically different mission in Boston from that of Quebec's. She would be relocating from a community that dated back nearly two centuries to one that had been founded only four years before. And the school's clientele as envisione
The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834
Fire & Roses
The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834
After battering down the front door, the men destroyed icons, smashed pianos, hurled the bishop's library into a bonfire, ransacked the possessions of both sisters and students, and finally burned the imposing building to the ground. Not satisfied with this orgy of vandalism, they returned the following night and tore the lovely gardens up by the roots. The ruins sat on Mount Benedict, a hill overlooking Boston Harbor, for the next fifty years. The arsonists' ringleader, a brawny bricklayer named John Buzzell, became a folk hero. The nuns scattered, and their proud and feisty mother superior, Mary Anne Moffatt, who battled the working-class rioters and Church authorities, faded mysteriously into history.
Nancy Schultz brings alive this forgotten moment in the American story, shedding light on one of the darkest incidents of religious persecution to be recorded in the New World. The result of painstaking archival research, Fire & Roses offers a rare lens on a time when independent, educated women were feared as much as immigrants and Catholics, and anti-Papist diatribes were the stuff of bestsellers and standing-room-only lectures. Schultz examines the imagined secrets that led to the riot and uncovers the real secrets in a cloistered community whose life was completely hidden from the world. She provides a glimpse into nineteenth-century Boston and into an elite boarding school for young women, mostly the daughters of wealthy Protestants, vividly dissecting the period's roiling tensions over class, gender, religion, ethnicity, and education. Although the roots of these conflicts were in the Puritan migration to America, it was ultimately the mob's perverse fantasies about cloistered women -- in an independent community -- that erupted in a combustible night of violence.
By unearthing the buried truth and bringing alive these fascinating characters, Nancy Schultz tells a gripping story of prejudice and pride, courage and cowardice in early nineteenth-century America that not only restores a clouded chapter in the country's history but also has a poignant resonance for our own times.