- 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
Bishop Fenwick, however, had crossed political swords with the Protestants before and he was not easily discouraged. He knew that no effort for compensation could be successful until the excitement had abated, and the issue was not brought before the legislature until 1841. By that time the general court had passed more stringent riot laws, which, among other things, mandated that local municipalities were financially liable for property destroyed by mobs. Nevertheless, in 1841 a petition headed by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier was submitted and rejected. Subsequent attempts for compensation in 1842,1843, and 1844 were unsuccessful. In 1846 a sum of ten thousand dollars was approved by the legislature but was rejected by the Catholics, who estimated the total loss of real estate and personal property at ten times that amount. In 1853 another bill for indemnification narrowly missed passage by 9 votes; but the same bill was defeated the following year by a resounding 160 votes, permanently dashing Catholic hopes for reparation.
The convent ruins stood for nearly half a century, grim evidence that Reformation fires of intolerance still smoldered more than two hundred years after they were brought to America.
The hill upon which the Ursuline convent stood is now part of Somerville. By the turn of the century Mount Benedict had been leveled, its soil used for landfill. Nothing remains of the convent except some bricks which form the arch of the front vestibule of the present Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.
For citizens who were able to rise above popular prejudice, the convent riot had a special, malign significance: a travesty of human rights had been committed adjacent to Bunker Hill, where the blood of American patriots had flowed while defending those rights. The monument commemorating America’s legendary stand against tyranny was well under construction in 1834, and soon it rose to tower above the blackened walls of the gutted convent. But those walls would stand on their hill for nearly half a century, and in time they too became something of a landmark, a cautionary counterpoint to Bunker Hill’s proud spire.
Attorney General Austin was prescient enough to see this bleak irony taking shape, and in his closing statements at Buzzell’s trial, he asked the jury: “Where will be the pride of your American feelings when you take the stranger to Bunker’s heights and show him the slowly-rising monument … where will be the pride of your American feelings when that stranger points to the other monument of ruins that frowns so gloomily on the adjacent eminence? The chills of fifty winters would not send such an ice-bolt through your hearts. ”