- 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
Soon the noisy crowd swelled as hundreds of spectators joined the core of rioters. Tar barrels set ablaze brought firemen from surrounding communities, but when they arrived on the scene they did nothing. Two days later the Mercantile Journal reported that “from 150 to 200 [men], disguised in various fantastic dresses, and with painted faces, immediately commenced breaking open the doors and windows of the Convent…. The number of persons assembled as actors in this scene of destruction, or spectators, has been computed at from some thousands. But no attempt was made to restrain the mob in their acts of violence. Not a Magistrate nor Police Officer was to be seen. Engines from Charlestown, Boston, and we believe from Cambridge, were on the spot, but no effort was made by the firemen to extinguish the fire. …”
As the rioters crashed through the front doors, the nuns and schoolgirls were quietly slipping out into the back garden, where a high wooden-fence blocked their escape. They took refuge in front of a mausoleum containing the bodies of several Ursuline nuns. There the terrified nuns and children hid as the assault on the convent got under way.
Once inside, the mob quickly overran the convent from garret to cellar. First the rioters ransacked the basements, where they hoped to uncover the fabled dungeons and torture chambers. Finding none heightened their anger to frenzy. Huddled in the garden with her schoolmates, Louise Whitney heard their voices sounding like “the hoarse growling of a pent-up sea.”
With the mausoleum at their backs, the refugees watched the destruction of their school. The darkened windows came alive with torches. Story by story, fantastic silhouettes ascended, upending furniture, smashing pictures and china, stealing what could be carried. Occasionally the din would give way to a brief silence; suddenly a window would clear, and a large piece of furniture would fill the gap for a minute and then crash to the pavement below, followed by cheers and laughter.
Despite their terror, none of the girls cried out even as smoke began to drift from the convent. “We were shut up in that garden,” Mrs. Whitney wrote, “as closely as if we were in prison, with no place even of temporary refuge from the rioters but the tomb, and the poor girls held the tomb in as much horror as they did the rioters.”
Within minutes they heard footsteps on the other side of the fence. Beset by new terror, the children rushed toward the mother superior, trying to stifle their screams lest they be heard. Suddenly the footsteps stopped and hands began to tear down the fence. Louise Whitney heard “the deep breathing of men intent on hard work”: it became clear that escape was impossible. “I looked at the superior anxiously; brought to bay at last, she opened her mouth to call out, ‘Who is there?’ I hastily interrupted her, not knowing what might happen if her voice was heard, and, taking the word from her lips—with a desperate effort of courage, I confess—I called out, ‘Who is there? What do you want?’” A horrible moment of silence, and then a suppressed voice answered: “‘We are friends; don’t be afraid, we have come to save you.’ The Superior knew the voice and exclaimed joyfully, ‘It is Mr. Cutter, and his men are with him. O, God be thanked!’ she added fervently.”
As the nuns and schoolgirls were spirited away, the carnage continued. While flames roared through the .convent, rioters looted and fired surrounding buildings, including the bishop’s house and library. Then they broke into the mausoleum, opened the coffins, and mutilated the remains of the dead.
When news of the convent’s destruction became known, everyone expected reprisals by bands of enraged Irishmen. Even Bishop Fenwick feared the worst, and in a letter to his brother he confided: “Certainly some lives will be lost in case of another attack, for our good Irishmen are now wound up to a point where if you go one step further the cord will snap. …”
But the reprisals never came. How Irish-Catholic emotions were kept in check is still a mystery; the bishop’s pleas for restraint alone could not have been enough in light of continued Protestant outrages. On August 12, the night after the Mount Benedict riot, another mob marched through Boston intent upon burning the Catholic cathedral. When confronted with armed guards, the mob returned to Mount Benedict, where they proceeded to finish the work begun the night before, setting shrubs, vines, fruit trees, and fences ablaze. The rampage was resumed yet a third time on Wednesday, August 14, with another attempt to “pull down” the cathedral. Again confronted with armed guards, the mob set out for Charlestown and was detained only when the Boston drawbridge was raised against it.