Today in Catholic History – The Ursuline Convent Riots

On the 11 August 1834, angry mobs of Protestants burned a convent of the Ursulines to the ground in Charleston, Massachusetts (near Boston).

Prior to the attack, tensions had been growing between the Catholics and Protestants. The vast majority of the women enrolled at the school operated by the Ursulines belonged to the the Protestant upper class and Boston was also experiencing a large increase in Irish Catholic into the labor market. Thus both religious and economic tensions contributed to the later riots.

However, a more immediate cause of the riot involved Rebecca Reed, a young Episcopalian, who had attended the Ursuline school and would later decide to enter the Ursuline novitiate in 1832. She left after six months and later wrote a text entitled “Six Months in a Convent” accusing the Ursulines of forcing girls into Catholicism and the convent as a place of terrible punishment.

On 28 July 1834, one of the Ursuline sisters who taught at the convent, Sister Mary John (Miss Elizabeth Harrison), mysteriously appeared at the home of a local resident in an agitated condition and asking to be taken to the home of an acquaintance. The resident took Sister Mary John where she wished to go and the next day returned to her acquaintance’s home to ask why she had desired to leave the convent only to find that Sister Mary John had returned to the convent accompanied by the Ursuline Mother Superior Mother Mary St. George and the bishop of Boston, Benedict Fenwick.

Local papers began to publish stories about a mysterious woman who was being kept against her will at the Ursuline convent. On 10 August, signs appeared in Boston saying: “To the Selectmen of Charlestown!! Gentlemen: It is currently reported that a mysterious affair has lately happened at the Nunnery in Charlestown, now it is your duty gentlemen to have this affair investigated immediately[;] if not the Truckmen of Boston will demolish the Nunnery thursday [sic] night—August 14.”

Concerned about the call for violence, local officials, with the permission of the Mother Superior, went to the convent to interview Sister Mary John. They prepared a statement to be published in the Boston Gazette that said Sister Mary John was in good health, was free to leave if she wished, and that the convent was in good condition.

However around 8:00 PM, a group of angry Protestants went to the convent demanding release of the “mysterious lady”. One nun appealed to the mob to disperse only to have the mob promise her protection should she leave. The crowd would become further incensed when the Mother Superior appeared and threatened the crowd: “The Bishop has twenty thousand of the vilest Irishmen at his command, and you may read your riot act till your throats are sore, but you’ll not quell them.”

Thus, while the crowd did disperse for a few hours, at about 11:00, a crowd of between fifty and sixty men set fire to tar barrels on the convent grounds. Fire companies that were called for help, failed to intervene, instead joining the crowd, which eventually grew to around 2,000 people. The crowd attacked the convent, breaking down doors and windows, and ransacked the buildings. The nuns and students were forced to flee. The rioters would eventually set fire to the buildings and destroyed them.

In response, the government of Boston passed a resolution condemning the riot and initiating an investigation into the attacks. Rewards were offered for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators. Bishop Fenwick called for the Catholics to refrain from any revenge and thanked the Boston authorities for their actions.

Troops and police were ordered stationed at several sites around Boston and Charleston, including the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. However, no troops were posted near the remains of the convent and at about 10:00 PM on 12 August, a crowd again attacked the grounds of the convent. The crowd destroyed the convent gardens and orchards and fences. They set bonfires on the grounds.

While thirteen would be eventually arrested, twelve would be eventually acquitted at trial – including the self-confessed ringleader of the mob. Only a sixteen-year-old who had participated in a book burning was convicted. He was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor but was pardoned by the governor in response to a petition signed by five thousand citizens of Boston, including Bishop Fenwick and Sister Mary St. George.

The Boston archdiocese tried several times to receive indemnification from the city, county and state government on the grounds that they had failed to protect the convent but without any success.

There is a latter account of one Protestant gentleman from Boston seeking an audience with Pope Gregory XVI only to be asked, “Was it you who burned down my convent?”

The land on which the convent was built is now part of Somerville, MA. Nothing remains of the convent but some of the bricks of the convent are now part of the arch of the front vestibule in the present Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.

Wikipedia has many good links to more information on the riots


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