The night they burned the convent down

Senator takes place in a city and state dominated by Irish Catholics.  Rereading it reminds me that it wasn’t always like that.  Here is an account of the night in 1834 when poor Yankee laborers burned down a Catholic convent in Charlestown:

Boston’s Irish Catholic population doubled in the 1830s; religious, ethnic, economic, and political tensions mounted almost as fast. Stories of papist plots were everywhere — in sermons, on street corners, at taverns and bars. The mysterious doings at the Ursuline Convent were the subject of endless rumors. The tales of kidnappings, forced conversions, murders, scandalous sexual activity mimicked a popular new literary genre, the gothic novel. A superstitious public already viewed Catholicism as a dangerous realm of secret rituals and mystical powers. However far-fetched they were, stories of women held in dungeons and crypts filled with infants’ skulls stirred up fear and anger.

The convent’s strong-willed, imperious Mother Superior did not help matters. A community of women led by a woman was a novelty, and one that most Americans found alarming. Her assertive, even arrogant manner — so far from the submissive, domestic norm — only reinforced the view that something unnatural was going on within the convent walls.

August 11th was an oppressively hot night. An unruly, drunken mob of laborers, sailors, apprentices, and hoodlums gathered at the gates of the convent. They demanded to see one of the sisters who figured in a number of the rumors. When the Mother Superior refused, the men began to tear down the convent’s fence and used the wood to feed a roaring bonfire. The fire alarm was sounded, but Charlestown’s Protestant firefighters did nothing to fight the blaze.

The rioters shattered the convent’s windows, broke down the front door, and burst into the building. They went on a rampage, destroying furniture, musical instruments, books, and religious items, and then set the building on fire. The nuns gathered their terrified students and barely escaped out the back, fleeing through a hole that the Mother Superior ripped in the back fence. Dressed only in their nightclothes, they ran through the fields to a farmhouse a half-mile away, where they watched the convent burning. By daybreak, it lay in smoldering ruins.

I can remember the pride we felt when Kennedy was elected president in 1960, but of course I had no sense of the long, long history that led up to it.  We lived in a big city, but it was very tribal; I don’t recall knowingly meeting a Protestant kid until I was in the sixth grade and had to go to public school.

2 thoughts on “The night they burned the convent down

  1. My first memory of meeting a Protestant kid was when I went to college. And we lived two doors down from a Baptist church. Interesting, indeed.


  2. Wow. Hard to believe. Then again, why am I surprised? Until I was 14, I lived in very, very Catholic areas. I was the Protestant. Oh, I forgot–one other kid arrived Protestant at my school; she converted as fast as she could.

    Not me. I loved going to mass only once a week, and never having to go to confession. I emerged unscarred, and with respect for the nuns and others who taught me.


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