- Historic Sites
The Nun’s Story
A look at one of America’s most resilient prejudices
September 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 5
Those fortified with enough caffeine to follow our presidential race, may have noticed the frequent presence of a priest behind George W. Bush. Not so long ago, such an escort would have been unthinkable in American politics—particularly for a Republican candidate—but unfortunately the sudden appearance of the clerical collar does not mean that the issue of an old prejudice has been put to rest.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2000 campaign is that the issue of anti-Catholicism has again raised its ugly head, in the wake of the now-infamous speech Governor Bush gave at South Carolina’s Bob Jones University. It wasn’t so much what Bush said as what he did not say—failing to excoriate the fundamentalist president of Bob Jones for littering the Internet with various anti-Catholic tirades.
A wounded Bush later protested that he himself was in no way antiCatholic. He pointed out that both his father and Ronald Reagan had spoken at BJU without sparking any protests. But the clerical collars soon began to pop up anyway, as a sort of ecclesiastical insurance.
Governor Bush had a valid point about his father and President Reagan. Somehow, their speeches at Bob Jones—or, for that matter, Reagan’s notorious speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, during the 1980 campaign, in which he failed to so much as mention the three civil rights workers murdered there—never seemed to arouse anything like the media ire directed toward, say, Jesse Jackson’s panderings to the Nation of Islam.
It is true, too, that the whole issue of anti-Catholicism has produced some splendid demagoguery in recent years. One need only recall Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s 1999 jeremiads against the “Sensation” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum because it included a painting of the Virgin Mary painted partly with elephant dung. Then there were the vituperative attacks directed by William Donohue and his Catholic League against Terrence McNally’s 1998 play Corpus Christi before it even opened. Too often, political opportunists have used “anti-Catholic” for anyone who happens to disagree with their particular brand of religion.
Unfortunately, though, old prejudices— real prejudices—tend to be remarkably resilient, capable of revivifying themselves in ways that are often too subtle for us to grasp at first. For further proof, one need only take a look at the remarkable book cover reproduced on this page. Awful Disclosures , by the pseudonymous Maria Monk, is not simply another sweaty piece of contemporary pornography but a book that figured in some of the worst episodes of religious persecution this country has ever witnessed.
“Maria” and her book burst upon the American scene in 1836. At the time, the nation was enduring a wave of nativist, “Know-Nothing” feeling. Just two years earlier, a mob of disgruntled Boston workingmen had marched on a convent of Ursuline nuns in nearby Charlestown and burned it to the ground.
Worse was yet to come—thanks in good part to Miss Monk. Awful Disclosures purported to be the memoir of how, as a young girl growing up in Montreal, she converted to Catholicism, joined a local nunnery, and found herself in a convent that sounds more like a road company of Marat/Sade than anything ever sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church.
For any of you tempted to carnal sin by the curvaceous “nun” on the cover, Awful Disclosures will prove disappointing. Disobedient nuns are repeatedly whipped, beaten, and gagged, and there are plenty of Gothic flourishes, including a great many hidden rooms and an order of “Black nuns,” but little that the modern reader would consider explicitly salacious.
More disturbing are Maria’s “revelations” about how nuns from wealthy families would be secretly murdered or imprisoned if they expressed dissatisfaction—or how all nuns were forced to have sex with Catholic priests. The progeny of these liaisons were supposedly baptized, then murdered and buried within the convent walls. Nuns who refused to accede to these practices were also murdered. To avoid such a fate and to save her unborn child, Maria fled to New York and into the arms of Know-Nothings and journalists.
Awful Disclosures became an instant bestseller. This is not too surprising, since it was ghostwritten by some professional hack. Just how many of its calumnies were invented by Maria is unclear, but they echoed the most widespread antiCatholic slanders.
Kennedy was thought to have put the issue of anti-Catholicism to rest, but here it is 40 years later.
For lending her name and person to this propaganda, Maria was lionized for a time by a group of Protestant clerics and sent out on a series of speaking tours. Then the inevitable shoe fell. Maria’s mother revealed that she had never been a nun at all but the runaway inmate of a Catholic asylum for delinquent girls. The father of her child had not been a priest at all but the boyfriend who helped her escape. Her clerical champions—and her publishers—quietly fell away, leaving her nearly as penniless as when she had first arrived in New York.
“When she gave birth to a second fatherless child, she did not bother to name him after a priest,” William V. Shannon wrote pointedly in his excellent history The American Irish .
Maria seems to have become a prostitute and died in prison after being arrested for pickpocketing. Her lies lived after her, as lies will. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, successive waves of anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant violence wracked the nation. A series of wild riots near Philadelphia, in 1844, left 13 dead, while three Catholic churches and many Catholic homes were burned to the ground. Priests, nuns, and thousands of lay Catholics were forced to flee for their lives.
Through the mid-1850s, nativist mobs committed more murders and burned more churches and homes, in cities from Baltimore to Lawrence, Massachusetts. Know-Nothing politicians won sweeping electoral victories, once taking over almost the whole Massachusetts legislature and threatening America’s whole legacy of immigration.
Throughout these depredations, the bible of the Know-Nothings remained Awful Disclosures —no matter how thoroughly Maria Monk was discredited. Shannon records that the book “went through twenty printings, sold 300,000 copies, and down to the Civil War served as the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of the Know-Nothing movement. The book was again in circulation on a small scale in the presidential campaign of 1960.”
John Kennedy was running for President in 1960, and he was thought to have put the whole issue of anti-Catholicism to rest once and for all that year. Yet here it is back with us, 40 years later—along with Awful Disclosures . The ersatz nun featured here is on the cover of a paperback edition published no longer ago than 1997, by something named Senate—the imprint of no less a publisher than Random House UK Ltd. It might be justifiable to publish such a document as something of purely historical interest, but as both the cover and an inside illustration of various whips and chains make clear, the publisher’s intentions are somewhat less high-minded.
There is, as well, an anonymous introduction to this edition that purports to vouch for all of Maria Monk’s “disclosures.” The unwitting reader is offered absurd “proofs” that “the truth contained in this explosive book was undeniably confirmed” and fed the outright lie that”… Maria Monk was able to corroborate her claims by producing reliable witnesses. This show of good faith effectively prevented the detractors from taking the matter further, and, over the years, Maria Monk’s story has been freed from any suggestion of untruth.”
In an age when every outrageous conspiracy theory and nugget of Internet gossip are passed off as the historical record, the truth is more important than ever. It is doubtful that Maria Monk—or even Bob Jones University—will be able to do much damage to individual Catholics or the Catholic Church in the foreseeable future (or that new readers of Awful Disclosures will be outraged about anything so much as the fact that the disclosures aren’t awfully erotic).
It’s instructive to note, though, that just this past April the American Jewish Committee was forced to run a large ad in The New York Times , protesting that an even more notorious fraud, Protocols of the Elders of Zion , was being republished by a pair of extremist publishers and distributed through the mainstream booksellers Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. Yet what are we to expect when even a major, respected publishing house is willing to make a few bucks by passing off old ethnic and religious slurs as mere sexual high jinks? Once the whole tissue of truth is torn, once reality becomes a weak and tattered thing, there is no keeping down the most monstrous of lies. This is why history matters. This is why truth matters.