The Ursuline Outrage


On a sweltering Monday afternoon in July, 1834, Edward Cutter of Charlestown, Massachusetts, was startled by the sudden appearance of a woman in his house. Her hair was closely shorn, she was clad only in a flimsy nightdress, and she was muttering incoherently. Cutter probably surmised that she was from the Ursuline convent a few hundred yards up the hill, then known as Mount Benedict.

Sure enough, before long, a carriage was dispatched from the convent and the deranged woman was quietly escorted back there by the mother superior and the Right Reverend Benedict Fenwick, bishop of the Boston diocese.

Later, Cutter learned that the woman who had so unexpectedly descended upon him was indeed a nun; in fact, she was Sister Mary John, the mother assistant of the Ursuline community, which operated the Mount Benedict school for girls. Her bedraggled appearance and nervous disorder were, the mother superior explained, the symptoms of a “brain fever” brought on by the suffocating heat and the stress of a heavy academic workload. Following her return to the convent, Sister Mary John’s condition was reported as significantly improved under the care of the Ursuline sisters.

Before long, however, Charlestown bristled with rumors: a girl had tried to escape from the nuns at Mount Benedict but had been captured and was imprisoned at the Catholic school. Several daily newspapers ran sensational stories about the “mysterious lady” who was held against her will, maybe tortured, perhaps murdered by the Catholics. On August 8, 1834, the Boston Mercantile Journal , under the heading “Mysterious,” ran the story of her alleged imprisonment. Three days later the same paper published a small retraction: “The Bunker Hill Aurora says that the version we lately gave of the ‘mysterious’ affair at Charlestown, is materially incorrect ….” But it was too late: the flames of bigotry already had been kindled.

At the time of the American Revolution, there were about one hundred Catholics in Boston. Predominantly French, Irish, or Spanish, they had no church organization or regular place of worship. Priests were transient, and it was not until 1790 that the superior of Roman Catholic missions in the United States ordered one of his ablest men, the Reverend John Thayer—a former Congregationalist minister—to strike northward from Baltimore for the “hub” of the Protestant universe. Services in Boston for the next decade were held in a rented Huguenot chapel, but it was not long before the Catholics outgrew their humble origins. They were skilled artisans and shrewd businessmen who adjusted well to the Protestant work ethic, and by the turn of the century they numbered around twelve hundred and enjoyed two assets for continued success: influential friends and money. In 1799 they commissioned Charles Bulfinch—fresh from his work as chief architect of the Massachusetts State House—to build their exquisite cathedral. In 1808 even Rome began to take notice, and Pope Pius VII designated Boston an episcopal see. So by 1820 it seemed natural that the Catholic community should have an elegant school for girls.

The Ursuline curriculum included basic courses in “plain and ornamental Writing,” arithmetic, geometry, chemistry, and botany. Natural and moral philosophy, rhetoric, logic, and “the use of the Globes” were also taught along with “Ornamental Needlework,” “Japanning,” and drawing “in all its varieties.” Finally, almost as an afterthought, for an additional twenty dollars, students could “attend to Cookery.”

Established in 1820 on Franklin Street, the first Ursuline school prospered so quickly that in 1826 the mother superior, Sister Mary Edmond St. George, moved her community to a larger building in Charlestown at the foot of “Ploughed Hill,” directly across from Bunker Hill. The name of the property was changed to Mount Benedict, after the presiding bishop, and construction began on the new convent school.

The completed building was, for the 1830’s, most elaborate—a brick structure eighty feet long and three stories high, with wings on either side, an enclosed courtyard, and terraced gardens. Years later, Louise Whitney, a student at Mount Benedict, recalled that “nearly the whole of Mount Benedict was inclosed for the use of the Convent; there was a lodge, a Bishop’s house, several terraced walks, and grounds tastefully laid out, for the recreation of the pupils. No such elegant and imposing building had ever been erected in New England for the education of girls. Picturesque on the summit of the hill…, its many windowed façade, glowing in the light of the setting sun, [it] was a sightly object to the good citizens of Boston, returning from their afternoon drive in the suburbs. ” Unfortunately, the good citizens of Boston were not the only ones eyeing the new building.

To the Protestant workers toiling throughout greater Boston, the hilltop edifice typified a religion whose presence signaled economic strife. They failed to distinguish between the small, affluent religious community that sponsored the convent and the masses of poor Irish Catholics now settling in Boston, willing to provide the cheap labor that threatened the livelihoods of thousands of Yankee workmen. By the 1830’s scuffles between Protestants and Catholics were commonplace.