- Historic Sites
The Ursuline Outrage
In the shadow of Bunker Hill, bigots perpetrated an atrocity that showed a shocked nation that the fires of the Reformation still burned in the New World
February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
To make matters worse, the exotic quality of the building and the nuns who moved through it piqued local curiosity: “[The] whole establishment,” said Louise Whitney, “was as foreign as the soil whereon it stood, as if, like Aladdin’s Palace, it had been wafted from Europe by the power of a magician.”
Although the school was run by Roman Catholics, fewer than ten of the fifty to sixty students enrolled in 1834 were of the Catholic faith. The remaining majority were mostly daughters of upper-class Boston Protestants, cultured and successful parents who wanted more for their young women than the public schools then provided. (For the first one hundred and fifty years of Boston’s existence, only boys were permitted to attend public schools. Girls were not admitted until 1790, and then only for six months a year.) Thus, opposition to the convent school came, in part, from other Boston Protestants, and especially from conservative clergymen like the Reverend Lyman Beecher.
Beecher was convinced that the “Romish heretics” meant to subvert the United States government and deliver America squarely into the Pope’s despotic hands. Deluding the cream of Protestant youth was the first step, and papist propagandists had gotten a foothold in—of all places—Boston, the bulwark of American Puritanism. Pulpits rang with clamorous accusations, and always there were the questions: Why were the Catholics meddling with our children? Why were they not uplifting their own miserable offspring from their lamentable poverty?
The sisters of the Order of St. Ursula were primarily educators, and their mission in Boston was to provide a superior education for young women, whatever their religious denomination, whose parents could afford it. Few could have foreseen that by 1834 the Catholic population would increase tenfold to more than twenty thousand souls, most of them indigent and uneducated. With their distinguished history of charitable works, it is likely that the Ursulines would have adjusted their mission to meet the growing social need. But they never really had the chance.
The riot that broke out on the night of August 11,1834, was precipitated by rumors of the “mysterious lady,” combined with tales of depravity and torture professed by a girl, Rebecca Teresa Reed, who claimed to have escaped from the convent in 1831. The workmen of Charlestown confused the mysterious lady with young Rebecca, and the story became more fanciful and grotesque with each telling. On Sunday morning, August 10, placards were found posted in several parts of 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 night—August 14.”
Convinced trouble was brewing, the selectmen enlisted Edward Cutter and on Monday afternoon were permitted to inspect the convent. Their guide was none other than Sister Mary John, the mysterious lady herself, now happily recovered from her “brain fever.” No dungeons, torture chambers, or improprieties of any kind were uncovered, and the selectmen went home to draft a statement assuring an aroused public that nothing unusual was going on at Mount Benedict. This statement was to appear in Tuesday morning’s papers and might well have saved the convent. But even as the selectmen wrote, events overwhelmed them.
The siege of Mount Benedict began around 8:00 P.M. when a mob gathered at the front door of the convent shouting for the release of the mysterious lady. At least part of the responsibility for what followed must be borne by the mother superior, a headstrong woman who did little to conceal her contempt for the workmen. Hadn’t the innocent sisters already endured enough slanderous abuse? Hadn’t she opened her doors—just a few hours ago—to an inspection committee and hadn’t they left completely satisfied? What would it take to convince these vulgar blockheads that there was nothing here for them? Exclaiming that “the bishop has twenty thousand of the vilest Irishmen at his command,” she threatened the Protestants with ferocious retaliation.
Sister Mary St. George’s declaration enraged the mob, whose spirits already had been enlivened with rum. Her threat was answered with two pistol shots, apparently meant as signals to others milling at the foot of the hill. Lucy Thaxter, a student at the school, said: “I could keep still no longer but getting up went to a window from which I had a distant view of the convent gate. There I could see a dense black mass apparently moving up the avenue towards the house and the sound of their prolonged hurra’s came upon my ears like the yells of thousands of fiends.”