Ursuline Convent Riots

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: North American History

The Ursuline Convent Riots were riots occurring on August 11 and August 12, 1834 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, near Boston. In the riot, a convent of Roman Catholic Ursuline nuns was burned down. The event was triggered by reported abuse of a member of the order, and was fuelled by the rebirth of extreme anti-Catholic sentiment in antebellum New England.


In 1820, the Most Reverend Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus, bishop of the newly created diocese of Boston, granted permission for the establishment of a convent of Ursuline teaching nuns in a building next to the cathedral. A school for girls was set up in the convent, in which approximately 100 students were enrolled.

By 1827, the school and convent had outgrown the building. In July of that year, the community moved to a larger building on Ploughed Hill (later Mount Benedict), in Charlestown. The school began to enroll primarily the daughters of the Protestant upper classes of Boston; by 1834 there were forty-seven students, only six of whom were Catholic. According to Jenny Franchot, the author of a history of the riots, the presence of a community of Catholic religious in their midst reminded Protestant Bostonians of the increasing influx of Irish Catholics, who were taking over the labor market. The Ursuline convent thus emphasized both the economic discomfort felt by non-Catholics in general, and the religious discomfort felt by conservative Protestants such as the Reverend Lyman Beecher. In late July and early August of 1834, this unease came to a head and fomented a riot.

Rebecca Reed

Rebecca Reed was a young Episcopalian woman from Boston who had attended the school in 1831 as a charity scholar: a day student for whom the convent waived tuition fees. In 1832, she declared her intention to enter the Ursuline novitiate, but left the convent after six months as a postulant. At some time after her departure, she began writing a manuscript entitled Six Months in a Convent. Although not published until 1835, some versions of the manuscript apparently circulated among the primarily Protestant student community, and versions of it may have gained wider circulation in Charlestown. Some authors, including a former student at the school, have speculated that discussion of the manuscript may have contributed to the anti-Catholic sentiment which incited the riots.

Reed described the convent as a prison, where young girls were forced into Catholicism, with grotesque punishment for those who refused. This book, along with a growing number of propaganda magazines including the Christian Watchman and Boston Recorder, stoked the fires of anti-Catholicism in Boston and the surrounding area.

July–August, 1834

On the evening of July 28, 1834, Sister Mary John (Miss Elizabeth Harrison), a nun teaching at the convent, made her way to the home of Edward Cutter, a resident of Charlestown. According to Mr. Cutter's account, she "appeared to be considerably agitated, and expressed her wish to be conveyed to the residence of an acquaintance in West Cambridge" The next day, after he had carried out her request, he returned to the acquaintance's house to ask why she had decided to leave the convent. Mr. Cutter was informed that Sister Mary John had returned to the convent, accompanied by her superior, Mother Mary St. George, and the current bishop of Boston, the Most Reverend Benedict Fenwick.

Local papers, on hearing rumors of the story, began publishing accounts of a "mysterious woman" (Prioli) kept against her will in the convent. As the accounts spread, concern over the fate of the "mysterious woman" (who may have been conflated with Rebecca Reed) appears to have incited the largely Protestant workmen of Boston to take action:

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 [sic] night—August 14."

The First Riot: August 11, 1834

By the end of the first week of August, both Mr. Cutter and the Charlestown selectmen were sufficiently disturbed by the rumors of impending action against the convent that they decided to investigate the situation further. With the permission of the Mother Superior, Mr. Cutter returned to the convent to interview Sister Mary John on August 9. He reported that he

was informed by her that she was at liberty to leave the Institution at any time she chose. The same statement was also made by the Superior, who farther remarked, that, in the present state of public feeling, she should prefer to have her leave.

. On Monday, August 11, a group of selectmen was admitted to the convent and given a detailed tour by Sister Mary John. That afternoon, the selectmen prepared a statement for publication in the Boston Gazette Tuesday morning. The statement was intended to reassure the public that the woman was in good health, that she was not being held against her will, and that the convent was fit to live in.

Although rumors of a planned disturbance had reached the convent by August 11, neither the nuns, the students, nor the parents appeared to believe that anything serious would occur. Franchot even reports one student comparing the day to a holiday.

At about 8:00 on the evening of August 11, a group of angry Protestant citizens gathered outside the door to the convent. They began to call for the release of the "mysterious lady". A witness to the riot reported that a nun came to the window and asked the crowd to disperse. According to this witness, on seeing the nun, the crowd offered their protection to the nun. At this point the mother superior appeared and stated that the nuns did not need any sort of protection, and that the entire household was in bed. She further threatened the crowd with retaliation from the Catholic population of Boston: "The Bishop has twenty thousand of the vilest Irishmen at his command, and you may read your riot act till your throats are sore, but you'll not quell them."

The crowd eventually dispersed, only to return several hours later. At about 11:00, a crowd of between fifty and sixty men (as estimated by the Boston Evening Transcript; the Mercantile Journal estimated the crowd as between 150 and 200) set fire to tar barrels on the convent grounds. Several fire companies were called to the scene, but failed to intervene, instead joining a crowd of spectators, which eventually grew to around 2000 people.

Soon after the tar barrels had been set alight, the crowd broke down doors and windows to enter the convent, and began to ransack the buildings. The nuns and pupils began to leave from the back, and hid in the garden. At about midnight, the rioters set fire to the buildings, which burned to the ground within an hour or two.

Response: The Faneuil Hall, Charlestown, and Cathedral Meetings

At 11:00 the following morning, Theodore Lyman, the mayor of Boston, invited the public to a meeting at Faneuil Hall to discuss "measures relative to the riot at Charlestown". The meeting took place at 1:00 that afternoon, and led to the adoption of a resolution which, among other things, nominated a committee to investigate the riot and events leading up to it. The resolution expressed the community's outrage at the events and provided for a reward to anyone providing information on the leaders of future similar events, as well as directing the investigative committee to discuss the possibility of indemnifying the diocese of Boston for the loss of property, which was not covered by insurance.

The selectmen of Charlestown also called a public meeting on August 12, passing similar resolutions condemning the violence. The resolution also set up a "Committee of Vigilance", with authority to investigate the incident and offer a reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators.

On the same day, Bishop Fenwick called a meeting of the Catholic citizenry of the Boston area. He encouraged the audience to forego revenge as incompatible with "the religion of Jesus Christ". He also thanked the public authorities for their stand against the violence, and expressed confidence that they would prevent further outbreaks from occurring.

The Second Riot: August 12, 1834

In keeping with the resolutions, Mayor Lyman ordered troops and police to be stationed not only around Faneuil Hall, but at the city arsenal, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the Catholic church in Charlestown, and the house of Edward Cutter. Notably, no troops were posted around the remains of the convent.

At about 10:00 on the evening of Wednesday, August 12, a crowd gathered outside the arsenal. Finding it guarded, they moved first to the cathedral, then to the city hall, and finally to the convent itself. At the convent, they destroyed the gardens and orchards, set bonfires, and pulled down fences. The mob left the grounds and dispersed a few hours later.

Investigation, Arrests, and Trial

The committee established by Mayor Lyman met every day except Sunday from 13 August to 27 August. Testimony heard by this committee, and by the Charlestown selectmen's committee, led to thirteen arrests, of which eight were for the capital crimes of arson or burglary.

The trials of the defendants began on 2 December 1834 with the trial of John R. Buzzell, the self-confessed ringleader of the mob. State Attorney General James T. Austin protested the early date of the trial, since death threats had been issued against any potential witnesses for the prosecution. Buzzell himself later stated, "The testimony against me was point blank and sufficient to have convicted twenty men, but somehow I proved an alibi, and the jury brought in a victory of not guilty, after having been out for twenty-one hours.". Eventually, twelve of the thirteen defendants were acquitted. The thirteenth, a sixteen-year-old who had participated in book-burning at the riot, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. He was pardoned by the governor in response to a petition signed by five thousand citizens of Boston, including Bishop Fenwick and Sister Mary St. George.


The investigative committee formed by Mayor Lyman had recommended that the city of Charlestown or the county of Middlesex indemnify the diocese of Boston for the loss of the convent property; or, if they did not act, that the Massachusetts legislature investigate the matter and provide compensation. Following this recommendation, Bishop Fenwick petitioned the legislature in January 1835 for indemnification to rebuild the convent and school, arguing that the state had been derelict in its duty of protecting private property.

The committee which heard the argument of the diocese resolved that the legislature authorize the governor to provide compensation to the trustees of the convent. The resolution was defeated by an overwhelming majority on the floor of the House.

Similar proposals for restitution were brought before the assembly in 1841, 1842, 1843, and 1844. Each time, the motion to indemnify the diocese failed. In 1846, the assembly voted to provide the diocese with $10,000. The diocese rejected the offer, estimating the actual loss at approximately $100,000. The request was presented again to the assembly in 1853 and 1854, and again was defeated each time.

Historical Interest in the Events

As noted in the Bibliography section below, Wilfred Bisson (1989) and Nancy Lusignan Schultz (2000,2002) have both published historical accounts of the period in question.It should be noted that there is seemingly less interest in Rebecca Reed's account and the ensuing events at Charlestown than in Maria Monk's later account, which has undergone successive reprintings since 1836. Reed's account has received no such detailed analysis other than Bisson and Schultz (below).

Retrieved from " http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursuline_Convent_Riots"