The Burning of the Ursuline Convent
July 13, 2014 5:55 PM   Subscribe

In the late 1700's, when the US constitution was ratified and the first Catholic diocese was established in the US in Baltimore, the vast majority of Christians in the US were Protestants - only something like 30,000 Catholics called the new country home. This number rose dramatically within a few decades to over a million with the influx of Irish and German Catholic immigrants in the early 1800's. Simmering anti-Catholic feelings that dated back a hundred years or more occasionally boiled over - one of the most notable incidents, the burning of the Ursuline Convent, happened in sight of Bunker Hill in August 1834.

Just outside Boston, Massachusetts in a section of Charlestown that later became part of Somerville, a convent of Ursuline nuns built a school to educate children both Catholic and Protestant in 1820. It moved and expanded in 1827 to a hilltop. In the summer of 1834 a nun ran away from the convent and was later convinced to return by the bishop of the diocese. However, rumors that the girl had been kept against her will and tortured combined with other general anti-Catholic rumors that convents were places of great debauchery and sin, and this served to inflame anti-Catholic feelings among some of the Protestants residents. It culminated in a riot where anti-Catholic protesters broke into the convent and ransacked it and set fire to it.

The Charlestown fire department, comprised of Protestants, did nothing to stop the fire, which burned until it had destroyed the convent. The ruins stood for decades until the site was leveled in 1875. The hill was used for fill and the bricks of the burned convent recycled and incorporated into the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.

Some links if you'd like to learn more about this: A pamphlet about the event published later that year. Text of an article about it from the Boston Evening Transcript, 12 Aug, 1834. The Catholic website EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) has a piece about the fire (published 1996) as well.
If you're local to the area, the Somerville Public Library has a bunch of source material if you want to get your research on.
posted by rmd1023 (19 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, I live in Somerville and didn't know about this at all. Thanks, rmd1023.
posted by maryr at 6:16 PM on July 13, 2014

It culminated in a riot where anti-Catholic protesters broke into the convent and ransacked it and set fire to it.

I think it's okay to call them a mob.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 6:35 PM on July 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

(I'm having trouble figuring our where Mt. Benedict was, but the Middlesex Canal it was leveled to fill in ran along Alewife Brook Parkway)
posted by maryr at 6:45 PM on July 13, 2014

Treating Catholics shittily has a long history in Boston. (Treating almost everybody shittily over religion has a long history in Boston.)

If you're visiting the North End you might see a cosy little pub named Goody Glover's. You probably won't notice the historical plaque there, which explains that
Not far from here on 16 November 1688, Goodwife Ann Glover, an elderly Irish widow, was hanged as a witch because she had refused to renounce her Catholic faith. Having been deported from her native Ireland to the Barbados with her husband, who died there because of his own loyalty to the Catholic faith, she came to Boston where she was living for at least six years before she was unjustly condemned to death. This memorial is erected to commemorate 'Goody' Glover as the first Catholic martyr in Massachusetts.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:50 PM on July 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Some of the escaped nun narratives listed in that last link are accessible via GoogleBooks and, including Rebecca Reed and Hannah Corcoran. There's also a scholarly edition of Reed's book, published alongside Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. Books like this had an incredible lifespan in North America and the UK--you see variants on their themes right up to the end of the nineteenth century and beyond (in fact, the godawful 1899 anti-Catholic/anti-Ritualist novel I was reading this week had a classic "righteous Protestant dude busts terrified novice out of a convent" moment).
posted by thomas j wise at 7:02 PM on July 13, 2014

Rebecca Reed's Six Months in a Convent is available online. Reed was a student at the Ursuline Convent and published her account after the riot. I believe it was the first anti-Catholic convent narrative by an American, and it spawned a little mini-genre of books about virtuous Protestant girls trapped in scary, scary convents. It's been an age since I read it, but I remember it being kind of boring. A lot of Reed's imitators read as completely unhinged.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:05 PM on July 13, 2014

Hah. Jinx.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:05 PM on July 13, 2014

Just five years later, there was another battle between Irish immigrants and Protestants in Boston - the Broad Street Riot, which started as a confrontation between some Irish men about to participate in a funeral march and some Protestant firefighters, who, having just returned from putting out a fire in neighboring Roxbury, celebrated by getting drunk out of their minds. It ended with store windows across downtown Boston smashed, nearby homes of Irish immigrants busted up - and, ultimately, with the creation of Boston's first fulltime, professional fire department (Broad Street eventually got renamed Atlantic Avenue; the riot started near what is now South Station).

Copies of documents related to the riots, including bills of damages by shop owners and a report by committee (chaired by the mayor) that tried to figure out what had happened (I've summarized it here).

Riot on Broad Street - by the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones.
posted by adamg at 7:20 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's funny, growing up in a family of lapsed Catholics in Boston, I was probably in middle school before I realized that there were other kinds of Christians than Catholics. I knew more Jewish people than Protestants. Hard to believe there was a time when Catholics were not the dominant religious presence in the area. Thanks for the post.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:55 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

>First Catholic diocese

St. Mary's City, Maryland (1634). "The fourth oldest permanent English settlement in the United States and also considered to be the birthplace of religious freedom in America, with the earliest North American colonial settlement ever established with the specific mandate of being a haven for both Catholic and Protestant Christian faiths." Maryland is the birthplace of Catholicism in the colonies. It started in St. Mary's, moved up the bay to Annapolis and finally to Baltimore.
posted by stbalbach at 10:03 PM on July 13, 2014

(I'm having trouble figuring our where Mt. Benedict was, but the Middlesex Canal it was leveled to fill in ran along Alewife Brook Parkway)

According to this map on Wikipedia, the convent was located near the intersection of Broadway and Glen streets, in East Somerville.
posted by sriracha at 4:01 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is getting fairly technical, but St. Mary's wasn't a diocese. A diocese is the territory supervised by a particular bishop, and the 13 colonies didn't get their own bishop until shortly after American independence. So St. Mary's was the sort of informal headquarters of American Catholicism for a while, but the Baltimore diocese was the first diocese.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:19 AM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know I didn't say it was a diocese. Just pointing out why the first diocese ended up in Baltimore and not, say, Boston or somewhere else.
posted by stbalbach at 6:08 AM on July 14, 2014

Thanks, sriracha! Looks like it was located where the state streets are now - which is not the nicest part of not the nicest part of town.
posted by maryr at 8:42 PM on July 14, 2014

Either you mis-typed or you really don't like Sullivan Square.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:51 PM on July 14, 2014

It is not the nicest part of town. The state streets in particular show up frequently in the police blotter. At least, in my memory, perhaps that's a confirmation bias.
posted by maryr at 8:07 AM on July 15, 2014

benito.strauss is jokingly referring to your (inadvertent?) doubling down.

maryr: which is not the nicest part of not the nicest part of town.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:22 AM on July 15, 2014

Oh, I meant that, East of the McGrath highway is not the nicest part of Somerville. The state streets in particular are not the nicest part of East Somerville. Thus, it is not the nicest part of not the nicest part of town.

(Says the snob who lives in snooty Davis Square. A quick look at a Somerville crime map doesn't particularly back me up (in fact, my neighborhood looks not great due to a bunch of thefts from cars!), so I may just remember a couple of more publicized incidents. East Somerville is a far less affluent part of town, so as noted, I may just be a total snob.)
posted by maryr at 8:41 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

maryr, it's like what Rock Steady said. I sometimes get distracted while commenting and type the same block of words twice. I really couldn't figure out if you had done the same or actually intended to call it the worst of the worst.

(If your car is parked on the wrong streets when they declare a snow emergency in my Boston neighborhood, it gets towed to an impound lot near Sullivan Square. So you have to get ~$200 cash, take the T there, then walk about a half mile to the lot. During a blizzard. I share your feelings for Sullivan Square.)
posted by benito.strauss at 11:44 AM on July 15, 2014

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