Fire and Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834 / Edition 1

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In the midst of a deadly heat wave during the summer of 1834, a woman clawed her way over the wall of an Ursuline convent on Mount Benedict in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and escaped to the home of a neighbor, pleading for protection. When the bishop, Benedict Fenwick, persuaded her to return, vicious gossip began swirling through the Yankee community and in the press that she was being held at the convent against her will, and had even been murdered. The rumored fate of the "Mysterious Lady," as she became popularly known, ultimately led to the burning of the convent by an angry, drunken mob of Protestant men. The arsonists' ringleader, a brawny bricklayer named John Buzzell, became a folk hero. The nuns scattered, and their proud and feisty mother superior, Mary Anne Moffatt, who battled the working-class rioters and Church authorities, faded mysteriously into history.

Nancy Lusignan Schultz brings alive this forgotten event, focusing her probing lens on a time when independent, educated women were feared as much as immigrants and Catholics, and anti-Papist diatribes were the stuff of bestsellers and standing-room-only lectures. She provides a glimpse into nineteenth-century Boston and into an elite boarding school for young women, mostly the daughters of wealthy Protestants, vividly dissecting the period's roiling tensions over class, gender, religion, ethnicity, and education.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This gripping narrative retraces the convergent emotional, cultural, and social forces that impelled a group of otherwise ordinary citizens to participate in an unthinkable act of violence and religious persecution. . . Utilizing court documents, letters, diaries, and newspaper articles, Schultz does a remarkable job of piecing together the startling circumstances surrounding this devastating tragedy." —Booklist

"Schultz is to be commended for her riveting historical study, which is plotted like a novel, with tight pacing and fully realized characters." —Publishers Weekly

"Painstaking scholarship and stylish, vivid description. . . A scholarly study that is also gripping drama."—Kirkus Reviews

“Fire & Roses, which includes a wealth of early Catholic history in Boston, at times reads like a mystery novel. The suspense is palpable as the events are relayed to the reader. The riot and fire are not a shock, or course, but the behaviors of the rioters is horrific. What is even more interesting is the story of Mary Anne Ursula Moffatt. Her predicament at the end keeps the reader guessing even when the book is finally put down. This work is valuable for its history of Boston's Catholic community and the Ursuline order of Quebec and Charlestown. More importantly, this work is simply a good read.”—Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1834, a group of fiercely anti-Catholic rioters burned Mt. Benedict, an Ursuline convent just outside of Boston that was home not only to a community of nuns, but also to the prestigious girls' school they ran. Using this singularly explosive example, Schultz, professor of English at Salem State College, conveys the larger current of anti-Catholic sentiment that was prevalent throughout early 19th-century America. While such religious intolerance had existed in New England since the Puritans first landed, the most recent anti-papist explosion could be traced to the departure from the convent of a novice named Rebecca Reed just two years before. A convert to Catholicism, Reed entered the convent school as a charity student and initially aspired to become a nun. However, she began to chafe under the requirements of convent life and imagined that there was a conspiracy plotting to imprison her in a convent in Canada. After fleeing Mt. Benedict, she published an anti-Catholic expose, Six Months in a Convent, filled with tales of abuse that she and other nuns allegedly suffered. Indeed, Reed wasn't the only nun to run away. Her escape was followed by that of a Sister St. John, who the hardworking but overwhelmingly poor townsfolk believed was brought back against her will by the bishop. The Ursuline nuns' dual purpose to serve the poor and to educate wealthy young women was increasingly resented by the struggling laborers who traveled to Charlestown--often from farms in distant New Hampshire--in search of work. Reed's escape, coupled with a series of anti-Catholic sermons by the Reverend Lyman Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe's father), served as the spark that ignited the townsfolk's burning anger. Schultz is to be commended for her riveting historical study, which is plotted like a novel, with tight pacing and fully realized characters. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
The Ursuline Convent at Mt. Benedict in Charlestown, MA, was brutally vandalized and burned in 1834, and this dramatic depiction integrates the details of that harrowing event with the historical context. Situated on a hill, surrounded by acres of gardens and orchards, the convent educated not only young nuns but the daughters of elite Boston Protestants as well. It quickly became the focus of hostility on the part of struggling local brickmakers, for whom the convent symbolized religious mysticism and elitism, feeding the already nativistic, anti-Catholic sentiment of the period. One summer evening, a drunken mob attacked the convent, vandalized the cloister and mausoleum, and then burned the building down, coming back later to destroy the gardens. Rumors had circulated about sex and violence within the walls of the convent, so themes involving class, gender, and religion are woven into a gripping tale. But this work by Schultz (English, Salem State Coll., MA) is essentially a scholarly treatment, well researched, with footnotes, and with the welcome bonus of readability and drama. Recommended for academic and large public libraries.--Bonnie Collier, Yale Law Lib. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Schultz (English, Salem State College, Massachusetts) researched newspaper accounts and archival documents to reconstruct the story of the anti-Catholic mob that destroyed the Charlestown Convent of Urseline nuns in Boston in 1834. Though employing full scholarly apparatus, including frequent quotes from primary documents, Schultz has written the story in the emotive style of a novel. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555535148
  • Publisher: Northeastern University Press
  • Publication date: 4/11/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST PBK
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 317
  • Sales rank: 1,043,341
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Nancy Lusignan Schultz is Professor and Coordinator of Graduate Studies in English at Salem State College. She is the editor of two anthologies, Fear Itself: Enemies Real and Imagined in American Culture and Veil of Fear: Nineteenth-Century Convent Tales. She lives in Swampscott, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Fire & Roses

The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834
By Nancy Lusignan Schultz

Free Press

Copyright © 2000 Nancy Lusignan Schultz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-1256-8

Chapter One

The Seed Is Planted

All the brick-kilns had been set burning, and as night concealed the ugly brickyards and clay-fields in which they were erected, nothing was visible but the magic circle of fire that seemed to be drawn around the Convent. - LOUISA WHITNEY, The Burning of the Convent, 1877

In the twilight of a sweltering August evening in 1834, groups of men are gathering on the Winter Hill Road in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, near the main gate of a Roman Catholic convent. It is Monday, and they have come here after rounds of drinks at the local tavern, following another backbreaking day's work. They are brickmakers, sailors, firemen, apprentices, and hooligans, Charlestown's poorest and least educated, and tonight they have a job to do. Cloistered inside are about a dozen Ursuline nuns who, in the last eight years, have built an elegant brick boarding school for wealthy girls high on a hill encircled by the brickyards of Charlestown, where most of those in the crowd at the gate eke out a meager living. Tall, sturdy fences fully enclose Mount Benedict, the nuns' lush twenty-four-acre farm, with its fragrant orchards of apple and pear, its heavily laden vineyards, its bounteous herb and vegetable gardens, its pebbled maze of walks through roses, a veritable self-contained Eden.

The men at the gate are angry. They're angry about a lot of things. Many have come down to the city from New Hampshire, leaving wives and children behind to manage as best they can the failing farms where the men once made decent livings growing alfalfa and clover for animal feed. As generations passed, the farms had been subdivided, and New Hampshire's sons had inherited fewer and fewer acres. Even with their thrifty Presbyterian Scots backgrounds, the men were finally unable to sustain a living from the exhausted soil of their parcels. Now they lived in dirty, crowded all-male dormitories owned by the brickyard boss, and worked with their backs for a dollar or two a day, supplying bricks for the rapidly growing city of Boston. Daily, as they wiped the sweat from their eyes, they glanced up from the brickyards to see verdant Mount Benedict, where the daughters of some of Boston's most prominent Protestant families were receiving an expensive European-style education from a community of Ursuline nuns. On this night, August 10, 1834, there were about ten Catholic and forty Protestant girls inside, many from elite Unitarian families in Boston, who paid a yearly tuition to the nuns equivalent to a brickmaker's wages for six months' labor.

Though many of the men had indirectly won their livelihood from the extensive construction work at the boarding school, lately the convent's relationship with the neighboring brickyards had deteriorated. Rumors had been circulating around Charlestown that something was amiss. A novice named Rebecca Reed had escaped over the convent wall two years before and told disturbing tales of the abuse she and other nuns suffered within. A convert to Catholicism, Miss Reed had been admitted to the school as a charity pupil, and had aspirations to become a nun. But she became dissatisfied with her life in the community, and fancied that a plot was afoot to imprison her in a Canadian convent. She had found a ready audience for her stories in anti-Catholic Yankee Boston, foreshadowing the wild success in 1835 of her published exposé of convent life. And just two weeks before, another nun named Sister St. John had run away from the convent to the home of one of the brickyard bosses, begging him to take her safely away. That nun had been brought back, against her will, or so the locals believed, by the Roman Catholic bishop, Benedict Joseph Fenwick, after whom Mount Benedict had been named. Now the Mercantile Journal was publishing rumors that St. John, whose given name was Elizabeth Harrison, was dead or held captive within the convent walls. When the selectmen of Charlestown had been sent in to investigate on the day before the riot, they had been treated with contempt by the convent's feisty mother superior, Sister St. George, née Mary Anne Moffatt.

Though Harrison, the escaped nun, assured the selectmen that she now wished to remain in the community, Moffatt's haughty demeanor disgusted them. One ringleader of the rioters, a strapping six-foot-six brick maker named John R. Buzzell, later said that Moffatt was "the sauciest woman I ever heard talk." Yesterday, the Superior had berated the selectmen for interfering with the running of her business. Today, as darkness deepened and the crowd grew, she threatened destruction of their homes and businesses. Standing at the front window, Moffatt ordered the crowd to disperse. If they didn't, she said, "The bishop has at his command an army of twenty thousand Catholic Irishmen who will burn your houses."

Bottles of rum and whiskey were passed around by the men at the gate, some of whom had painted their faces like Indians for the occasion. Around half past nine, a shout went up from the crowd, "Down with the Pope! Down with the convent!" alarming the nuns and students. The mother superior quickly assembled her sisters and ordered them to take the nightgown-clad girls, who ranged in age from six to fourteen, to the rear of the building. She then came to an upper window to face the crowd below, and demanded to know what they wanted.

"We want to see the nun who ran away!"

When Moffatt disdainfully shook her head in denial, two gunshots were fired in the air as a warning. At eleven o'clock the crowd began to tear down the convent fence, and lit a bonfire of fencing and tar barrels on the neighboring property of brickyard owner Alvah Kelley. Its light was visible for miles around. Local church bells began to peal out the signal for fire, and engine companies from Charlestown and Boston raced to the scene. But many of the firemen had friends in the crowd, and escaped nun Rebecca Reed's brother-in-law, Prescott Pond, was a member of Boston Engine No. 13. Instead of fighting the fire, the men from No. 13 provided cover for the rioters as they raced up the hill toward the convent. Stones and bricks shattered the rows of windows in the three-story building and its adjoining wings. A farmhand grabbed a stake to batter in the front door, and the rioters burst into the building. Moffatt ordered the nuns to take the flock of children down the back stairway to the convent garden. She then quickly returned to her office, and put something in her pocket, a miniature of her mother, she would later claim. Two other nuns ran to the chapel and wrenched the mahogany tabernacle from the center of the altar. Inside was an antique silver ciborium, a sacred chalice holding the consecrated bread that in Roman Catholic belief is the body of Christ. The nuns hid the tabernacle in a rosebush blooming in the garden.

By midnight, the rioters had penetrated to the heart of the cloister. Some of them broke up furniture and heaped it in the center of the large assembly room. Others gleefully hurled musical instruments out the windows, violins, harps, and even pianos. Amid cheers and jeers, the Bible, the ornaments of the altar, and the cross were tossed on the pyre and with their torches, the rioters ignited a fire. The firemen outside stood idly by, or returned to their engine houses as a crowd of about four thousand looked on. Hearing the shouts of the rioters inside the convent, the nuns and students, who had been cowering near the mausoleum in the garden where the convent buried its dead, fled through an opening they had made in the fence. In their nightgowns, the women and girls ran through the field in the light of the second-quarter moon, and took shelter half a mile away at the home of Mr. Adams, a neighbor. By one-thirty in the morning they could see that the entire building was engulfed in flames.

The rioters, who for sport had donned the slate gray uniforms and white dresses of the students, began to whoop it up at the bishop's lodge. This was a small cottage tucked away in a quiet corner of the property, where Benedict Fenwick, the second bishop of Boston, would occasionally spend the night after an afternoon happily puttering in the convent's gardens. Fenwick did not have much leisure time in these early days of establishing the diocese of Boston, and gardening in the lovely enclosures on Mount Benedict was one of his few recreations. But on this night, a fresh-faced boy named Marvin Marcy conducted a mock auction with Fenwick's small but well-stocked library, calling out "Sold!" as he consigned books to the flames.

Not satisfied with this vandalism, the rioters moved on to the mausoleum in the garden. This was a tiny chapel of brick where prayers for the dead were offered, and the bodies of deceased nuns lay in the crypt below. The rioters battered their way in, lifted the trap door, and raced down the stone steps of the nether chamber, looking for the bodies of murdered Protestant girls. Only the corpses of six or seven nuns lay in coffins. With pickaxes, they pried off the tops, and pulled the bodies out onto the floor. Turning over a corpse with the toe of his boot, one of the rioters took a cudgel to the skull, and some teeth went skittering across the stone floor. Laughing and joking, still swigging whiskey, the men pocketed the teeth for souvenirs. Next, they moved on to destroy the remaining buildings on the premises: the barn, the stables, the icehouse, and a restored farmhouse. By daybreak, the magnificent convent was a heap of smoldering ruins.

Only one part of the property stood relatively untouched - the convent's lush terraced gardens. After a day recovering from their business of the previous evening, the men returned as soon as darkness fell to finish the job. Crossing the drawbridge to Charlestown once more, they again streamed up the center road to Mount Benedict. Tonight their object was the end of Eden. They pulled the vines laden with ripening grapes from trellises. They swung axes at apple and pear trees heavy-hung with fruit. They trampled neat green rows of lettuce and broccoli, and hurled tomatoes and bean plants skyward. Finally, they trampled the rose bushes, even as the thorns tore at their clothes and skin.

The night before, two men had found the mahogany tabernacle hidden in an especially beautiful rosebush, covered with voluptuous red blooms of an overpowering fragrance. Tonight, one of these men again stood before the bush with a scythe, recalling how he and his companion, a wagon-hand from Newburyport named Henry Creesy, had rejoiced when they spotted the tabernacle hidden there. Creesy, known in his native town as having "a melancholy temper, but inoffensive and industrious," made a slim living from the patronage of the wagoners, whom he followed around the city and offered assistance where needed. The teamsters or truckmen - a hardy crew who manned the long, two-wheeled carts then in use - could be frequently found at disturbances around town. On this night, Creesy assisted the truckmen in perpetrating one of the most notorious acts of anti-Catholic violence in American history. When the wagon-hand pulled the silver ciborium from the tabernacle hidden in the rosebush, he shoved a few of the wafers it held into his breast pocket, and laughed as he announced, "Now I have God's body in my pocket!" At the same moment, he looked up to see flames coming from the convent window. Shrieking with glee, the wagon-hand hurled the silver vessel into a thick hedge.

Creesy must have been pretty drunk, thought his companion, to toss away a valuable silver goblet and just keep the wafers. Last night, the man with the scythe had hunted a long time for it, but darkness and the thickness of the hedge obscured it from his view.

"Drunken fool," he murmured, shaking his head with disgust, as he stood before the imposing bush.

Then he raised his scythe and hacked and hacked at the rose bush until the branches all lay broken, and red petals were strewn like bloodstains on the white stones of the pathway.

Old and hackneyed as they may seem; - threadbare as they may be supposed to have become, by the continual wear and tear ... in the public papers, in private conversation, in the reports of the Committees, and in the arguments of the Bar, - I yet venture to say that there are not only unexhausted, but almost unnoticed incidents in the history of this transaction, which, in the hand of one skilled and practised [sic] in touching the strings and sounding the stops of the human breast, might be made to harrow up the sternest soul, and freeze the youngest blood among us ...

Robert Charles Winthrop made these observations about narrating the burning of the Ursuline convent on March 12, 1835, just as the trials of the convent rioters were winding down, and a few short days before the appearance of escaped nun Rebecca Reed's best-selling exposé of the Charlestown community, Six Months in a Convent. Winthrop modestly went on to demur, "I have no such skill," and left the challenge to others. Though his speech before the legislature in favor of compensating the Ursulines for their losses was compelling, it was ultimately not successful. During the nearly seventeen decades that have followed, many lawyers, commentators, and scholars have taken up Winthrop's challenge to harrow the soul and freeze the blood through the telling of this tale.

And the themes are harrowing. They include the real secrets of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown: mysticism, alcoholism, a secret burial, a possible illegitimate birth, and the mysterious fate of the mother superior, Mary Anne Moffatt, whose strange and troubling disappearance remains an unsolved mystery. Persons connected with the riot suffered a variety of devastating effects. Some went mad, including escaped nuns Rebecca Reed and Elizabeth Harrison, convent rioters Henry Creesy and Marvin Marcy, the daughter of the buffoonish Charlestown selectman John Runey, and possibly Mary Anne Moffatt herself. Others developed permanent disfigurements or disabilities. This was the case with William Croswell, Rebecca Reed's minister, whose once handsome appearance was marred by a worsening facial tic that developed after his stressful involvement in the controversy. At least two deaths indirectly resulted from the catastrophe at the convent. A young Irish nun named Sister St. Henry was the first victim, dying within six weeks of shock and tuberculosis. The father of the only convicted rioter, seventeen-year-old Marvin Marcy, apparently died of shame or grief during the course of the trials. Within four years of the event, Rebecca Reed herself had succumbed to tuberculosis, which the twenty-six-year-old claimed to have contracted at the convent.


Excerpted from Fire & Roses by Nancy Lusignan Schultz Copyright © 2000 by Nancy Lusignan Schultz . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Principal Characters IX
Prologue 1
Chapter 1 The Seed Is Planted 3
Chapter 2 Mount Benedict Blooms: Convent Secrets and the Early Years 37
Chapter 3 Charlestown in Full Flower: Education and Convent Life 69
Chapter 4 A Deadly Miasma: Cemeteries, Cholera, and Catholicism 107
Chapter 5 The Vine Uprooted: 1834: A Year of Heartbreaks 147
Chapter 6 The Lost Garden: Indictments and Trial 191
Chapter 7 The Ashes Scatter 231
Epilogue 269
Appendix Partial List of Students 279
Notes 281
Acknowledgments 305
Illustration Credits 309
Index 311
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