Fire and Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834by Nancy Lusignan Schultz
In the midst of a deadly heat wave during the summer of 1834, a woman clawed her way over the wall of a Roman Catholic convent near Boston, Massachusetts and escaped to the home of a neighbor, pleading for protection. When the bishop, Benedict Fenwick, persuaded her to return, rumors began swirling through the Yankee community and in the press that she was being held… See more details below
In the midst of a deadly heat wave during the summer of 1834, a woman clawed her way over the wall of a Roman Catholic convent near Boston, Massachusetts and escaped to the home of a neighbor, pleading for protection. When the bishop, Benedict Fenwick, persuaded her to return, rumors 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 imagined fate of the "Mysterious Lady," as she became popularly known, ultimately led to the destruction of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts on the night of August 11, 1834 by a mob of Protestant men.
After battering down the front door, the men destroyed icons, smashed pianos, hurled the bishop's library into a bonfire, ransacked the possessions of both sisters and students, and finally burned the imposing building to the ground. Not satisfied with this orgy of vandalism, they returned the following night and tore the lovely gardens up by the roots. The ruins sat on Mount Benedict, a hill overlooking Boston Harbor, for the next fifty years. 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 Schultz brings alive this forgotten moment in the American story, shedding light on one of the darkest incidents of religious persecution to be recorded in the New World. The result of painstaking archival research, Fire&Roses offers a rare 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. Schultz examines the imagined secrets that led to the riot and uncovers the real secrets in a cloistered community whose life was completely hidden from the world. 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. Although the roots of these conflicts were in the Puritan migration to America, it was ultimately the mob's perverse fantasies about cloistered women -- in an independent community -- that erupted in a combustible night of violence.
By unearthing the buried truth and bringing alive these fascinating characters, Nancy Schultz tells a gripping story of prejudice and pride, courage and cowardice in early nineteenth-century America that not only restores a clouded chapter in the country's history but also has a poignant resonance for our own times.
"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
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Read an Excerpt
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. The terrifying legends that arose after this event are intertwined with larger historical themes of class warfare, erupting tensions over religion and gender, and the struggle to define a democratic society in the years following the American Revolution. In many ways, the story of this riot in antebellum Charlestown, Massachusetts remains the story of today's America.
Henry Creesy's suicide and the snapshot of the riot contain many of the larger threads of the story. But history begins with people, not events, and the story of the destruction of the Charlestown convent is the story of intersecting lives: Mary Anne Moffatt, the convent's powerful mother superior; the ambitious second bishop of Boston, Benedict Fenwick; the impressionable and romantic novice Rebecca Reed and her high-strung minister William Croswell; the beautiful and eccentric nun, Mary Barber; and the unflappable leader of the convent rioters, John R. Buzzell, the strapping brick maker from New Hampshire. The lives of these main characters, as well as of a host of supporting players, help weave the tapestry of this formative event in American history, which itself has ancient origins. Members of the Charlestown Ursuline community and their attackers were actors in a centuries-old tradition with both European and colonial American roots.
The story of the Charlestown Ursulines dates back to the settling of North America. The first nuns on the continent were Ursulines, arriving from France in 1639, and settling in Canada to teach Indian girls and the daughters of French settlers in their Quebec monastery. For a century before their arrival in the New World, the Ursulines had been pioneers in women's education. As in many religious orders, Ursuline nuns take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but for five hundred years, this venerable order has made a fourth commitment: to devote their lives to educating women. In 1727, with the arrival of ten sisters in New Orleans, the Ursulines founded what was to be the first permanent establishment of religious women in the United States. Half a century before the Revolution, the New Orleans Ursulines became in fact the first professional elementary school teachers in the United States. Though other orders later founded houses, the Ursulines remained one of the most elite, enjoying the friendship and patronage of American founding fathers Samuel Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.
In fact, the first-rate schools run by these women had historically attracted the daughters of the upper classes, both Protestant and Catholic, and the order developed its prestigious reputation. Ursulines heroically adjusted their mission and nursed American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Roman Catholic Church leaders in the United States also appreciated the excellent work of the Ursulines in women's education. The first Catholic bishop in the United States, John Carroll, was advised by Rome in 1788 to bring in more Ursuline sisters to help with setting up the first diocese. Mary Anne Moffatt, Mary Barber, and the other Charlestown Ursulines, then, were continuing this long and distinguished tradition of service in establishing the Ursuline Academy in Charlestown, Massachusetts during the early nineteenth century.
Other Roman Catholic nuns followed. Between 1790 and 1829, twelve different orders of nuns established convents in the United States, though only about half of these communities flourished and grew. An Ursuline house in New York that had been founded in 1812 by sisters from Ireland was one of the early casualties. Summoned by the state's vicar-general, Anthony Kohlmann, the sisters had some success in attracting pupils, but not American postulants, girls who would prepare to join the order. To remain a viable institution, the New York Ursulines needed to attract Americans who could afford a dowry of $2,000. As a historian of this period notes, "Since no interested New Yorker of the day could afford the dowry, none entered, and the sisters returned to Ireland in 1815."
The Boston Ursuline mission had been the dream of a priest, Father John Thayer, a former Congregationalist minister who had once served as chaplain to Massachusetts Governor John Hancock, the American statesman and first signer of the Declaration of Independence. Born in Boston May 15, 1758, John Thayer was the fourth son in a family of eight boys, the children of Cornelius and Sarah (Plaisted) Thayer. On a trip to Rome in 1793 after his graduation from Yale, the twenty-five-year-old Thayer converted to Catholicism, after witnessing miraculous cures at the shrine of the venerable Benedict Joseph Labré. Thayer wrote a vivid account of his conversion experience that was widely read, reprinted in several editions, and translated into eight languages. Almost immediately, the young man decided to enter the priesthood. Thayer was fervent in his new faith, but lacked tact and prudence. He often alienated both Protestants and Catholics with whom he came in contact, including John Adams, Quebec's Bishop Hubert, and Baltimore's John Carroll. While on his way back to America from Europe, he had traveled to Boulogne-Sur-Mer in France and met with members of the Ursuline order there. Impressed with their way of life, he vowed to establish an Ursuline convent in his birthplace, Boston. An Indian school run by the Catholics that had been in existence earlier had closed, leaving no Catholic schools in the city, and the small population of children of this faith were educated in public or Protestant institutions.
In 1790 Thayer returned to Boston, where Catholics numbered fewer than a hundred out of a population of 18,000, and began his ministry. There the young priest proposed the radical idea of founding a convent in Boston. His Catholic opponents ridiculed Thayer for this plan, because until 1803, there were only two convents in the entire United States, the French Ursulines in New Orleans and the Carmelites of Maryland. Thayer's vision of educating women was somewhat eccentric since there were no schools for young Catholic men in the area. Thayer probably saw the education of girls as a means of strengthening Catholic families, and thought that the poorest Catholics needed the greatest assistance. But in selecting the Ursuline order for this mission, Thayer may have inadvertently planted the seed for controversy. The Ursulines had always had a dual mission in women's education, a commitment to helping the poor as well as to educate the daughters of the elite. With the move from Boston to Charlestown, the New England convent's mission easily shifted from Thayer's original intention, heightening Yankee anxieties about the convent's education of upper-class Protestant girls.
In Boston, Father Thayer quickly became enmeshed in disputes with local Protestant ministers, which convinced him that the hostile climate he perceived in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century New England would hinder his dream of bringing a monastic community into the city. He decided he would have to find outside financial backing in order to found an Ursuline convent in this Yankee stronghold. Thayer requested a transfer to Virginia, and Bishop Carroll of Baltimore agreed and sent a replacement for the Boston mission. Thayer subsequently embarked for Europe in 1803, and to Ireland in 1811, settling in Limerick to work among the poor and raise money for the Boston academy, which he was still intent on founding. In Limerick, the priest stayed with a cloth merchant's family by the name of Ryan, giving French lessons to the youngest daughter, Margaret. Two of James Ryan's others daughters, Mary and Catherine, had been educated by Ursulines at Thurles, in Tipperary County, and Thayer believed the Ryans had the faith and education to open and operate a school in Boston. Surely by now, he believed, the city would have become more tolerant in its attitude toward Catholics.
During his stay with the Ryans, the charismatic Father Thayer spoke often of his vision of founding an Ursuline convent in Boston, and of his disappointment at the refusal of the Blackrock Ursulines of Cork to found another mission after their abortive attempt in New York in 1812. Moved by the priest's description of the spiritual needs of New Englanders, Mary and Catherine Ryan, each independent of the other, offered to join the projected community. That the two sisters volunteered is not surprising, since the Ryan family was notable for its vocations. James Ryan's four daughters all became Ursuline nuns. His daughter Anne, the only one to marry, bore three daughters and a son before she became a widow and followed her sisters into an Ursuline convent. All four of her children became members of a religious community, the son joining the Jesuits and the three daughters the Ursulines.
Once he had a commitment from Mary and Catherine Ryan to found the Boston mission, Father Thayer arranged for the women to train for the sisterhood in the Ursuline Convent at Trois Rivières in Canada. Their sister Margaret and widowed cousin Catherine O'Connell Molineaux also signed on for the project, and planned to join them at Trois Rivières the following year. There the four women would train to become Ursuline nuns and study the administration of a convent, but would not enter as members of the Canadian community. Instead, they would be preparing to found their own in Boston. Thayer expected to accompany the Ryans to Canada but in 1815, the fifty-three-year-old priest fell suddenly and gravely ill. Realizing he would die without seeing his dream fulfilled, he wrote to Boston, entrusting his Ursuline project to a priest and former Sorbonne professor named Father Franç:ois Antoine Matignon who was stationed in the city. Thayer bequeathed his considerable savings, a sum of over ten thousand dollars, to the Ursulines. The whole estate was valued at $10,764 -- a large one for the day, consisting of a house on Prince Street valued at $1,000 and diverse stocks. Father Matignon, the assistant of Boston's first bishop, Reverend Jean Louis Anne Magdeleine Lefebre de Cheverus, was named his legatee. Matignon, like Cheverus, was an aristocratic refugee from the French Revolution. Both men were admired and respected by many of Boston's Protestant leaders, and therefore were able to considerably improve the climate for opening a school in the city.
The Ryans made the crossing on May 4, 1817, on the ship Victory, which sailed from Limerick to Boston. Matignon then escorted them to the Ursuline convent at Trois Rivières to begin their training. In Boston, Matignon and Bishop Cheverus, who had arrived in Boston in 1796, together worked to foster the fledgling Catholic church and the planned Ursuline mission. Matignon invested Thayer's money wisely, and the original legacy nearly doubled. When Matignon himself died on September 19, 1818, he also directed a third of his inheritance, $2,500, toward the future Ursuline foundation to be established in that city.
A month after they were saddened by the death of Father Matignon, but with a renewed sense of mission, Mary and Catherine Ryan took preliminary vows in the Ursuline order at Trois Rivières in October 1818 under the religious names of Mary Joseph and Mary Magdalene. Later that year, the Ryans were joined in their vocation by their sister Margaret and their cousin, Catherine Molineaux, who took the names Augustine and Angela. A year later, Mary and Catherine Ryan took lifetime vows.
By June 16, 1820, Bishop Cheverus was proceeding with plans to bring the Ursulines to Boston, and to bequeath them his rectory as their home. For the location of his new rectory, Cheverus purchased a lot adjacent to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross for $4,500, and welcomed the four sisters from Trois Rivières. Cheverus had long cherished the idea of a school for Catholic girls in Boston as the foundation for building strong Catholic families. Though he privately expressed a preference for Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton's Sisters of Charity, Thayer's will had been absolute in dictating that the Boston academy be opened by Ursulines. Father Thayer's protegée, Mary Ryan, now Sister Joseph, was named superior, and the sisters opened a day school for the education of poor girls as their benefactor had planned. The first professed American postulants who trained in Boston were Elizabeth Harrison, Sister Mary John, and Catherine Wiseman, Sister Mary Frances. Two additional American converts would later join the order, Mary Rebecca Theresa DeCosta, Sister Mary Claire, and Sarah Chase, Sister Mary Ursula. By 1822, the community numbered seven religious and two novices. All of these accessions attracted public attention, and some discomforting rumbling was heard in the press about a growing Catholic presence in Boston. The popular Bishop Cheverus intervened with an editorial, appealing to the ideals of liberty and freedom that the nation stood for, and rhetorically asking what threat could be posed by a small number of people assembled for the just cause of teaching children.
The small band of Ursulines opened their school adjoining the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Franklin Street in Boston, and welcomed about one hundred pupils as day scholars, half of whom attended in the morning and half in the afternoon. With the inheritance they had received from Fathers Thayer and Matignon, the Boston Ursulines had sufficient support to operate their academy, so the girls, mostly poor and the daughters of Irish immigrants, paid no tuition. According to the second superior of the Ursuline convent, Thayer's will had dictated that "the property was to belong solely to the Ursuline Community." Some of the money continued to be invested in public funds and stock, and was generating income from interest. The revenue from these investments enabled the first Ursulines to offer free education and the school thrived immediately.
But their prosperity was to be short-lived. Soon the members of the Ryan family would begin suffering from symptoms of deadly tuberculosis. Then, in 1823, the king of France recalled the ailing Bishop Cheverus to France, despite a petition for him to remain in Boston signed by two hundred prominent citizens. When the bishop returned to France in 1823, he too left a portion of his property to the Ursulines. It is likely that among his gifts to the Ursulines was the antique ciborium that Henry Creesy so carelessly tossed aside on the night of the riot. Cheverus's replacement, Bishop Benedict Fenwick, did not arrive in Boston until 1825.
During the final months of Cheverus's tenure, the Ursuline sisters were plagued with tuberculosis. Both Catherine Molineaux, Sister Mary Angela, and Catherine Ryan, Sister Mary Magdalene, died the same year. Ryan, who had been inspired by Father Thayer to cross the Atlantic and found the Boston convent, passed away on April 9, 1823 at age twenty-eight. Three months after Bishop Cheverus left, the first Ursuline superior, Mary Ryan, Mother St. Joseph, also dying of tuberculosis, asked the Reverend William Taylor, whom Cheverus had appointed two years earlier to administer the diocese, to write to another community of Ursulines in Quebec City for help. By mid-1824, three of the four foundresses, all in their twenties and thirties, had died, leaving the community with very little leadership. The fourth, Margaret Ryan, Sister Mary Augustine, would die in 1827. Reverend Taylor turned to the elite Quebec Ursulines for help in maintaining the community, and the Canadian Monseignor Plessis was able to lend one sister from the Quebec monastery, thirty-year-old Mary Anne Ursula Moffatt, Mother Mary Edmond St. George.
Madame St. George, who gazed down from her window on the night of the fire with such angry disdain, had arrived in Boston in Spring 1824. Mary Ryan, the first Boston superior, then lay near death in the final stage of tuberculosis. When the plea for help came from the illness-decimated New England Ursulines, Mary Anne Moffatt had already been a member of the Quebec cloister for ten years, and had risen to the position of mistress of the demi-pensionnaires, wealthy day pupils, at the academy. Monseignor Plessis, the monastery's spiritual advisor, approached Moffatt as a possible superior for Boston, but she initially declined, citing her unworthiness. When his disappointment was reported back to her, "that he had believed her capable of greater generosity," she agreed to begin the long trip from Quebec to Boston. Moffatt thus consented to undertake a radically different mission in Boston from that of Quebec's. She would be relocating from a community that dated back nearly two centuries to one that had been founded only four years before. And the school's clientele as envisioned by Father Thayer was quite different from the daughters of Canada's notaries, military officers, and physicians. One week after her community had voted to come to Boston's aid by lending her to the struggling Ursulines, Moffatt packed her nun's habit into a trunk, donned traveling clothes, and boarded a steamboat. She left her quiet home in the monastery and her native country of Canada to assume a central role in the tragedy that exploded in Charlestown, Massachusetts a decade later, but which began and ended with the gate of the Quebec cloister shutting behind her.
At her profession, Moffatt had taken the religious name of St. George, martyr and legendary slayer of dragons. Her choice of the knight as a personal patron was an appropriate choice for a woman of her strong character. Given her status as a convert, it is interesting that Moffatt chose St. George, a saint frequently associated with the English Protestant Church. The legend of Moffatt's patron saint, a Christianized variant of the Perseus and Andromeda myth, however, echoes many of the threads of the historical narrative of the Charlestown convent riot. Like Moffatt, St. George left his home and traveled to a new province, where he rose to prominence. The knight came to a town that bordered on a swamp where a terrible dragon lived. The people had mustered together to kill the beast, but its breath was so foul that they had to flee. To keep the monster away from their homes, then, each day the townspeople fed the dragon two sheep. When sheep became scarce, they drew lots for a human sacrifice. It was the king's daughter who made the unlucky choice. When no one volunteered to take the princess's place, the young girl bravely arrayed herself in her bridal finery and went out to meet her doom.
Riding his horse through the forest, St. George spied the virgin about to be sacrificed. The brave knight attacked the monster and transfixed it with his lance. He then borrowed the maiden's girdle, fastened it around the dragon's neck, and the maiden led the now docile beast into the city. When the townspeople saw the dragon, they were terrified, but St. George assured them that if they would only believe in Jesus Christ and be baptized, he would slay the beast at once.
After the king and thousands of his subjects converted to Christianity, St. George killed the dragon, and oxcarts transported its body to a safe distance. The king offered St. George the hand of his daughter, but the knight declined. Instead, St. George made four requests to the king, asking him to maintain the churches, honor priests, attend religious services regularly, and show compassion to the poor. Like Moffatt, St. George chose a life of celibacy and promoted Christianity and its works in a strange land with many dangers. In Moffatt's vision of the Charlestown academy, the daughters of the aristocracy would enroll in her school, untouched by popular anti-Catholic sentiment in Boston, and their spotless white dresses and pink sashes would calm the opposition. Girls from her academy would go forth and become Christian mothers who would slay the beast of religious intolerance in New England. But the life of the mythical St. George was not to be without intense suffering, and Moffatt's life contained severe trials as well.
According to Butler's Lives of the Saints, as St. George continued to work toward the conversion of heathens, his work fell under the scrutiny of the emperor, who assigned a henchman named Datianus to stop his teaching. Datianus ordered that St. George be beaten with clubs, tortured with red-hot irons, and tossed into prison. But during the night, the saint was miraculously restored to health. The henchman then sent a magician to prepare for St. George a deadly poison -- but the drug had no effect on him, and the magician was converted because of the miracle he witnessed. Angrily, Datianus ordered an even crueler physical punishment: St. George was to be crushed between two spiked wheels, then boiled to death in a cauldron of molten lead. Even then he emerged unscathed so Datianus called the executioner to behead him. This proved effective, and St. George died instantly. At the moment of martyrdom, a holy vengeance was wrought, and fire rained down from the heavens, consuming Datianus.
The story of St. George's martyrdom is filled with suffering and dominated by images of destructive fire. It tells of a saint who struggles heroically to save souls in a heathen land, but whose death yields many more conversions. Like St. George, Mary Anne Moffatt withstood many assaults on her property and reputation, fighting bravely as long as she retained the position of superior. But when she was, in effect, "beheaded," removed from her role as superior by Roman Catholic officials in 1835, like the legendary St. George, she was finally vanquished.
Madame St. George, Mary Anne Moffatt, would have been an extraordinary woman had she been born in any age, but her achievements in early-nineteenth-century America were especially remarkable, given the constraints on women during that historical period. She had a sharp intelligence and was an efficient administrator. Moffatt had developed in herself a cultured refinement, and she was a great lover of music and the arts. She was perfectly bilingual in French and English, and probably had command of other languages as well. As the new mother superior of the Ursuline academy, Moffatt helped transform a day school offering the rudiments of education to Boston's poor immigrants into Charlestown's elegant and flourishing academy, enrolling the daughters of the Boston elite, mainly Harvard-educated Unitarians. From Father Thayer's early vision of a school ministering to poor Catholic girls, Moffatt, together with Bishop Benedict Fenwick, shifted this mission to serve a vastly different clientele.
The bishop saw in the opportunity to build an elegant new boarding school in Charlestown a way of amassing Protestant dollars to incubate his infant Catholic diocese. Moffatt was operating within the tradition of the Quebec Ursuline academy, catering historically to Canada's most elite Catholic and Protestant daughters, where she had herself been schooled and professed. Like her Ursuline sisters in Quebec, Moffatt enjoyed authority within her own community as superior, as well as power in the local community. She moved in Boston's upper social circles, a figure respected by the doctors, lawyers, and military officials whose daughters enrolled in her school. In the antebellum United States, there would have been no other route outside the convent for a woman to achieve a comparable authority.
But the path to social eminence through the cloister was fraught with perils, at least in New England, as Moffatt would ultimately learn. The very nature of cloistered life, a seclusion from the secular world, in some ways contributed to her own and to her community's undoing. In taking lifetime vows in the Ursuline order, a woman made three binding promises: to live a life of chastity, poverty, and obedience. In abjuring sexuality and personal wealth, and in ceding total authority to one's superiors, women in the Ursuline order made some paradoxical gains. A gold ring pledged them to be the spouse of Christ, but freed them from the demands of childbearing which, in the nineteenth century, was difficult and dangerous. The work the Ursulines did was for the glory and benefit of the community, but within its structure, many nuns had more freedom than the average woman to pursue what in our age might be called careers: teaching, administration, and the arts, including music, painting, sculpture, needlework, and writing. The convent's hierarchical structure promised the opportunity for ever-increasing authority and responsibility. Convent vows that were framed as self-imposed limitations in some ways gave nineteenth-century women their best chance for a life of self-expression and fulfillment.
Ironically, had Moffatt not been as ambitious, capable, and visionary in building Mount Benedict, the school and the Ursuline order might have survived nineteenth-century Boston. Her personal success was in some ways the institution's downfall. When John Buzzell, the ringleader of the convent rioters, characterized Moffatt as "the sauciest woman I ever heard talk," he captured a trait that would so enrage the neighboring brick men that Moffatt became the focus of their animosity. Even after she had returned to Canada, they detested her memory enough to burn her in effigy. The rioters' hatred for Moffatt was exacerbated by her outspokenness, which included penning a reply to Rebecca Reed's best-selling exposé of convent life, Six Months in a Convent. Moffatt's book, Answer to "Six Months in a Convent," sold out of its first printing of five thousand almost immediately, and a second printing of the same quantity had to be issued. For many years following the event, Moffatt would remain an object of scorn.
In August 1835, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the burning of her convent, some of the ruffians who had participated in that riot gathered to mark the day. In colonial Boston, similar gatherings had marked "Pope Day" with parades through the streets, at least until the custom was prohibited by General George Washington. Pope Day, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes Day, had been transplanted from England with the arrival of the first settlers. It commemorated an unsuccessful plot by Catholic conspirators to blow up King James I and the assembled Parliament on November 5, 1605, in revenge for English laws against Roman Catholics. During Pope Day, it was customary to parade effigies of the Pope through the streets. To mark the first anniversary of the Ursuline convent's destruction, the party focused on a different icon. In this anniversary parade, marchers carried an effigy of Mary Anne Moffatt, the mother superior, which was first used as a shooting target, and then burned as a fitting commemoration of the fire that had taken just about all she and her community owned.
Even after she was forced by Roman Catholic authorities to leave Boston and return to Quebec in May 1835, fascination with Moffatt continued. Rumors about her origins and fate abounded in both anti-Catholic and Catholic sources. One of the most interesting rumors involved speculations that she had entered the convent to hide her true identity. Some nineteenth-century sources charge that her name was not Mary Anne Moffatt, but Sarah Burroughs. The first rumors that she had purposely assumed a false identity appear in an anti-Catholic source in 1835, shortly after Moffatt walked out of the doors of the Quebec monastery for the last time and seemingly off the pages of history. Both here and in a later Canadian source, Moffatt's father is said to be named Burroughs or "Lord Burleigh." In Rebecca Reed's Supplement to "Six Months in a Convent" (1835) and in an appendix of Maria Monk's anti-Catholic book about a Montreal convent, Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery, the second edition of which was published in July 1836, Sister St. George is alleged to be Sarah Burroughs, the daughter of a notorious New Hampshire rake named Stephen Burroughs. Burroughs had gained a degree of fame by writing a best-selling book about his adventures as a forger and counterfeiter. Monk called Moffatt the "late Lady Superior of the Charlestown Nunnery" and claimed that she and St. George had spoken together in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal. In context, the word "late" here must mean "recent" because her text continues, "Saint Mary St. George [sic] as she called herself, or Sarah Burroughs, daughter of the notorious Stephen Burroughs, as is her real name, removed to Canada at the latter end of May, 1835." Moffatt in fact returned to Canada in May 1835, and stayed for a few weeks at Montreal's Hotel Dieu Nunnery before returning to Quebec.
The allegation that Moffatt was the daughter of Stephen Burroughs found its way into Catholic sources, and is repeated in Isaac Frye's monograph about the convent riot published in 1870. Frye suggests three surnames for Moffatt: Burroughs, Burley, and O'Boyle. In Byrne's History of the Catholic Church in New England (1899), William Leahy, in his chapter on "The Burning of the Convent," says her name was Grace O'Boyle and that her sister, Sister Mary St. Henry, succumbed to tuberculosis after the riot. The Burroughs hypothesis appears to have been taken less seriously in the twentieth century, but following the media glare cast upon her as a major character in the Charlestown riot, rumors and misinformation about her identity have remained. Looking at these accounts today, it becomes clear that the hypothesis that St. George was a member of the Burroughs family is plausible, though ultimately false. Like Moffatt, Burroughs led an interesting life, cultivated various identities, and wrote a best-selling book. Burroughs was, according to one source, "a splendid liar and a master of sophistry, in addition to his talents as an imposter, a thief, a counterfeiter, a seducer and a reflective moralist." In his youth, according to his published autobiography, he confessed to being the worst boy in town. Later, he became a good parent and, like Moffatt, entered the field of education, serving as headmaster of an elite boys school in Trois Rivières. At the end of his life, Burroughs became a devout Catholic.
Like Burroughs, Moffatt shaped her own identity as a colorful nineteenth-century personality. Described in contemporary sources as "a woman of masculine appearance and character, high-tempered, resolute, defiant, with stubborn, imperious will," Sister St. George had been born Mary Anne Moffatt in Montreal on August 28, 1793 of a Protestant family. Her parents were William Moffatt and Genevieve Barbe Turkington (variations of her mother's name appear as Tarkington and Surkington). Moffatt's dominant role in the Ursuline convent tragedy becomes even more compelling given the adversity she faced prior to entering the order.
The downward path of her life following the convent burning, that is, from a high social and economic position to being rendered penniless and a pariah, is foreshadowed in the vicissitudes of fortune she experienced during her earliest years, even before the age of seventeen. The first years of her life, like those following her strange and troubling disappearance in 1836 from the Quebec monastery, have been shrouded in mystery for two centuries. But now a slim historical record has come to light, allowing us to confirm her family name and piece together a partial picture of those formative years.
There are very few solid facts to build on. A small fiche in the Ursuline monastery in Quebec lists Mary Anne Moffatt's birth date and the names of her parents, but the spelling of both parents' names, first and last, appear with many variations even in convent documents. Records of the boarding school affirm that Moffatt was enrolled as a student in the Quebec academy for three or four months during 1805, her tuition paid by her father, and again from 1807 to 1810, with the costs paid by her mother. One published letter, which is probably a translation from French, gives a few more details, mainly that she is the daughter of a British officer who died before May 1810, and that Moffatt, her mother, and a sickly brother were then living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There her mother struggled to support the impoverished family by sewing. On June 22, 1810, Mary Anne Moffatt abjured the Protestant faith and became a Roman Catholic in the Chapelle des Congrégationistes in the presence of Mrs. Catherine Bouchaud Wilson, her daughter Flore Wilson, and an M.A. Bouchard (probably Mrs. Wilson's sister).
In addition, three letters of recommendation for Moffatt from Monseignor Edmund Burke of Halifax to the bishop of Quebec are in the collection of the archives of the Archdiocese of Quebec. In one of these letters, Father Burke fondly refers to Mary Anne as "a girl made for heaven," attesting to her faith and goodness. These letters, dated August 13, August 17, and September 9, 1811, seem to be the only documentary evidence about Moffatt's life before she entered the Ursuline monastery in Quebec in 1811. Consequently, a narrative of her early years must be based upon a hypothesis about her identity, drawn from compelling, but still circumstantial, historical evidence. This evidence has emerged from sifting through hundreds of Canadian land grant applications, land transfers, and the records of Canadian notaries.
Only one William Moffatt appears in these documents for the correct place and time in the Montreal district where Mary Anne was born in 1793. A couple of key facts support the hypothesis that this man is her father. First, a William Moffatt was living in a boarding house in Quebec City during the same period Mary Anne was enrolled in the Ursuline academy there, from roughly 1806 to 1809. Second, the name of Mary Anne Moffatt's baptismal sponsor's husband, Thomas Wilson, appears in some of the same documents detailing William's business dealings. Wilson, who announced his engagement to Catherine Bouchaud in 1793, the year of Mary Anne's birth, had business dealings in Caldwell's Manor, south of Montreal near the Vermont border, during the time that William Moffatt lived and worked there. Thomas Wilson's name also appears on the same land grant petition, August 4, 1792, as William Moffatt's. That both Mary Anne and William lived in Quebec City at the same time, along with at least an eighteen-year connection with the Wilson family, strongly suggests that William Moffatt of the Eastern Townships is Mary Anne's father. The strongest evidence that he was not her father is that this same William married a woman named Jane and lived with her in Albany, New York. But this evidence is tempered by the fact that the name Jane in French Canada is often Genevieve, the name French Catholic records list for Mary Anne's mother.
When the American colonies went to war against Great Britain, a number of colonists remained loyal to the British. Many of these Loyalists were well-established businessmen whose economic success was tied to the current system of government, and who were not anxious to test their financial well-being under a new revolutionary system. A number of upper-class Loyalists were Anglicans by faith, and their strong loyalty to the ruler and obedience to law were not only political but religious tenets. William Moffatt was a successful merchant and a manufacturer of potash, a fertilizer made from wood ashes. He owned a house in White Creek, Albany County and lived there with his wife Jane and a son Robert, born around 1773. According to his own affidavit, he owned "a valuable Farm and a variety of personal property amounting to Two Thousand Seven hundred pounds New York Money."
In 1777, William Moffatt joined the British Army under Lieutenant General Burgoyne, at Fort Edward, and served until his capture by Revolutionary soldiers. Moffatt wrote in an 1802 petition for compensation, that he "went into the service of the Government under Majr Keene...and continued in His Majesty's service until he was taken a prisoner by the Americans and carried in irons...and thrown into an ignominious Gaol." Moffatt was a prisoner of the Americans for two years, before he made a dramatic escape from jail. He fled to Canada and joined a Loyalist regiment under the command of Major Edward Jessup, in whose corps, Jessup's Rangers, he served until the general reduction of the British troops in 1783. On July 14, 1783, the same year he finished his military service with the British government, all of Moffatt's property was seized by the State of New York, on account of his adhering, with force and arms, "to the Enemies of this State, against the Peace of the People of the State of New York and their Dignity."
Moffatt's decision to remain loyal to the Crown was both economically and personally costly. His wife Jane took the opposite side in the conflict, supporting the Revolutionaries. Thirteen years later the couple was still separated. The 1790 Vermont census lists William Moffatt as living alone in the island town of South Hero, Vermont, in Lake Champlain, near the Canadian border. Jane Moffatt is listed as Head of Family, in Albany County, New York, in the 1790 census, along with one free white male under sixteen years, probably her son Robert. In the surviving historical record, we can see themes that foreshadow some of the experiences and traits of Mary Anne Moffatt. It is not surprising that Moffatt, as Sister St. George, Canadian Ursuline, was not anxious to move to the United States when requested to do so in 1824. After all, the Yankees had imprisoned and probably mistreated her father. The seizing of his property in the name of American democracy may even seem to foreshadow the events of 1834, in which an ungoverned American mob took the law into their own hands and destroyed all she owned in the Charlestown convent. Moffatt's strong personality may well have been inherited from her mother Jane, who defied her husband's political beliefs by refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the British. Even after she apparently rejoined her husband in Canada, some time after 1790, Jane Moffatt continued to refuse to take that oath for another decade and a half. And with a substantial grant of 1,200 acres of land as her inducement, Mrs. Moffatt apparently refused to renounce her loyalty to the Americans.
One year before Mary Anne's birth in Montreal, her father was in Quebec applying for compensation for his losses during the war. The British government had offered Loyalists an opportunity to apply for grants in what was called "the Waste Lands of the Crown." Loyalists and their dependents were typically offered two hundred acres each in areas the government wished to see settled as English townships. One such area was Chateaugay, lying directly across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, and that is where, on July 7, 1792, "William Moffitt late of Jessup's Rangers for himself & Son" applied for two hundred acres of land. During the same year, he also filed several other land grant applications. He took out a mortgage on a property on the island of South Hero (Grand Island) in Lake Champlain, where he had been living alone in 1790, from a farmer named Jesse Heath. In 1794, the family was most likely living in Missisquoi Bay, on Lake Champlain in the town of St. Armand, near the Vermont border, not far from Grand Island. All of William Moffatt's petitions for these various substantial land grants were ultimately unsuccessful, mainly because the contested border between the United States and Canada during this period, as well as the mountainous terrain, made it impossible for the British government to guarantee such a grant.
Between 1794 and 1804, Mary Anne's father spent periods of time, sometimes alone, at Caldwell's Manor, working for the wealthy Henry Caldwell, who was the lord, or seigneur, of a large estate. Today, the Caldwell's Manor area is the Canadian border town of Henryville, on the Richelieu River that connects to Alburgh, Vermont, in the general vicinity of St. Armand. While it is certain William Moffatt lived in Caldwell's Manor during the 1790s, the family seems to have moved away, since there are no records of Moffatts in the Anglican Church which opened there in 1815. The name Griggs, that of Moffatt's business partner, appears often in the Anglican records after 1815. In August 1795, Moffatt's petition for land in Chateaugay was granted, and he was given four hundred acres in the town, two hundred for himself and two hundred for his son. This area was incorporated as the Township of Godmanchester.
By September 1795, Major Moffatt had sufficiently recovered from his losses in the American Revolution to loan a fellow Loyalist, Moses Cowen, the enormous sum of two thousand pounds. A notarized document in the hand of M. LeGuay, a Canadian notary public, hints of a troubled business deal into which Mary Anne's father and his partner, Major John Griggs, from Alburgh, Vermont, entered into with Cowen. At the time this deal was signed, Mary Anne would have been a toddler. In 1797, the Canadian notary LeGuay recorded and deposited the original deed, before witnesses and bearing the signature Wm. Moffitt. Five years earlier, Moses Cowen had successfully applied to the British Government of Canada for a land grant in the township of Stoke, on the River St. Franç:ois, in the Province of Lower Canada. In building a settlement and a mill, Cowen had run out of money, and had been forced to strike a deal to divide his land with Griggs and Moffatt. In advancing Cowen two thousand pounds, Griggs and Moffatt became partners with him in one-half of the township of Stoke. Moffatt thereby assumed a one-third share in half of the township of Stoke, on the banks on the River St. Franç:ois, about ninety kilometers from his home on the Vermont border.
He was also successful in obtaining six hundred acres in the township of Shefford, a haven for Loyalists. During 1800-1802, the family remained at St. Armand, and William continued to pursue compensation for his war losses. But by February 1802, William had moved to a farm in Shefford, and sold one of his three two-hundred-acre lots for one thousand pounds. On August 11, 1802, Moffatt finally received word that he would be compensated for his service in the form of 3,600 acres in Ham. Four years later, however, the security of this grant was still uncertain because his wife Jane and a daughter of the same name had not yet taken the oath of loyalty to the king. In fact, it appears that the 2,400 acres were lost, 1,200 each for Jane and his daughter, because they were unavailable or refused to take that oath. Only William, who took the oath, retained 1,200 acres. The existence of these two Janes raises some concerns about the hypothesis that William is Mary Anne's father. No application for land for Mary Anne, to which she would have been entitled as the daughter of a Loyalist, has been uncovered. We have seen that the wife's name might be a variant of the French Genevieve, the name listed as Mary Anne's mother in convent records. And very little is known about Mary Anne's siblings, outside of a sickly brother living with Mary Anne and her mother in Halifax in 1810. But two letters from 1835 and 1836 written by Mary Barber, a nun from the Charlestown convent, refer to Mary Anne's two nieces, named Mary Anne and Josephine, though no last name is given. According to Quebec monastery school records from the period, there were no Moffatts enrolled. So it is likely that Mary Anne and Josephine are the daughters of a married sister, possibly Jane Moffatt, who may have refused to compromise her principles to acquire a British land grant.
The refusal of his wife and daughter to take the loyalty oath resulted in legal troubles that would plague William Moffatt for years until his death sometime before 1810 when the family was plunged into poverty. Mary Anne Moffatt had entered the elite Ursuline Academy in Quebec as a boarding student the year before. The evidence for this comes from a letter written by Sister St. James, the Ursuline superior, dated May 24, 1810, to her brother, Jacques Panet, rector of the parish church of L'Islet, near Quebec City. From this letter, we learn that by 1810, William Moffatt, an officer in the British army, had died and left his family in a state of near-poverty. Mother St. James wrote, "Four years ago, her daughter came to our Boarding School, her board being paid by a friend of her mother, on condition that she would not become a Catholic, although she is one secretly..." So we can deduce that while William Moffatt lived in a boarding house in Quebec City, his daughter boarded at the elegant Ursuline academy, with the financial assistance of a family friend. By May 1810, Moffatt's mother, then a widow, was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia "with a sick son who consumes all that she can earn by sewing."
Moffatt's mother consented to Mary Anne's public conversion to Catholicism on June 22, 1810, and her admission to the Quebec monastery as a novice in October 1811, but as the superior of the Quebec monastery lamented, "...she possesses nothing." In her letter, St. James appealed to her brother, as a fellow member of the wealthy and powerful Panet family, to grant her request for "The charity which can do all and fears nothing." St. James was in fact asking for her brother's help in contributing to the dot, or dowry, which was customarily paid when a young woman entered the prestigious Ursuline community. To strengthen her case, St. James added,
The demon, jealous of the conversion of souls, employs and will employ everything to hinder her salvation. You can oppose him by your charity, and promise to assist this young lady to her profession, which will be within two years if she still persists in these pious sentiments.
Whether or not Reverend Panet was able to assist, on June 22, 1810 sixteen-year-old Mary Anne Moffatt abjured the Protestant faith and became a Catholic at the Chapelle des Congrégationistes in Quebec City. Because she had already been baptized in the Protestant faith, a second baptism was not administered for conversion, but an abjuration. Permission for the service was given by Genevieve Moffet, her mother and tutrice or guardian. The abjuration record, with her signature, "M:A:U: Moffet," is in the Basilica of Notre Dame de Quebec.
Following this life-changing event, Moffatt returned to Halifax, Nova Scotia, presumably to await the arrival of her dot from the Reverend Panet. During the year, she was partially supported by the bishop of Nova Scotia, Edmund Burke, and engaged in helping him open a Catholic school. This is mentioned in three letters of recommendation from Monsignor Burke to the bishop of Quebec, found in the collection of the archives of the Archdiocese of Quebec, dated from the late summer of 1811.
In the first, Burke discussed the growing border tensions between Canada and the United States during this period and wrote that he was making preparations to send "la petite Moffat" to her convent in Quebec. He described her impatience to depart -- and seconded the plan for two reasons. He called her a "très bonne fille," a very good girl, that the Quebec community needed, and noted that, although he had his own plans to open a school in Halifax, he dared not think only of that. He continued with his second reason, "La seconde est quelle me coute de l'argent que je peux employer autrement," her support was costing him money that he needed to spend elsewhere.
Bishop Burke's letter, along with Mother St. James's plea for assistance with the dowry, highlight the Moffatt family's poverty. But with assistance from Catholic supporters, and from her close relative, a Captain Robinson, aide-de-camp of the governor, the eighteen-year-old anxiously awaited her opportunity. When a boat left Halifax for Quebec around August 17, 1811, Moffatt, however, was not on board. An officer accompanying her relative Captain Robinson had bragged of being an atheist, and the strong-willed teenager refused to share the same boat with him. Her next opportunity to leave was September 9, 1811, when Burke wrote to the bishop of Quebec that la petite Moffat finally would make her departure for the monastery in Quebec. Burke said "elle m'a toujours paru une fille faite pour ciel" -- she had always seemed to him to be a girl made for heaven -- and that he was sending her to Quebec to deflect any suspicions that he made her into a religious because he needed her for his own fledgling school.
According to the records of the Ursuline monastery in Quebec, Moffatt entered the Novitiate on October 20, 1811, shortly after her arrival from Halifax. She took the veil on January 25, 1812 and made her profession according to schedule two years later. It was then that Moffatt chose the religious name of the knight St. George, slayer of the fiery dragon, and Christian martyr. All that is known of her life in the cloister for the next ten years is that she rose to the position of mistress of the demi-pensionnaires, or day pupils. Her name appears in an 1818 census listing as one of thirty-seven soeurs de choeur, or choir nuns, living in the Quebec monastery, but most of her life during this period is shrouded in the veil of time and the cloister.
During the same period that Moffatt left the world behind and entered the convent, border skirmishes broke out between the United States and the British army in Canada. The growing tensions are alluded to in the series of letters from Reverend Edmund Burke in Halifax to the bishop of Quebec. Just a few months after Moffatt's profession as an Ursuline nun, a man named William Moffatt from the same region of Canada, possibly her brother, broke ranks with his regiment and crossed enemy lines to marry a girl, probably an American. That this man bears the same name as Mary Anne's father, and comes from the same region of Canada, where the border tensions were building, strongly suggests he is Moffatt's brother. If indeed he was, instead of taking a step up the social ladder, as she did, with lifetime vows in the elite Ursuline order, he took a step down. His disgrace provides quite a contrast to the station of his sister, who for the next ten years was a rising member of the elite and prestigious Quebec Ursulines.
One week after her community voted to come to Boston's aid by lending her to their New England sisters, Moffatt left her home on March 18, 1824, and boarded a boat for what would turn out to be an unexpectedly long journey. She traveled to various religious houses for shelter, including the Soeurs de la Congregation de Notre Dame at Pointe-aux-Trembles, then to Champlain, then to the Ursulines at Trois Rivières, to the home of a parish priest at Berthier, and then on to Montreal. In a letter written by her Quebec superior, Mother St. Henry, asking the Ursulines of Trois Rivières to provide her with a night of hospitality, Moffatt is affectionately described by her superior as "half of my soul, the heart of our venerable Mother St. Xavier and the glory of our institute." After nearly a month's stay with the Soeurs Hospitalières in the Hotel Dieu convent, she would board a steamboat for Boston. Moffatt's trip began somewhat inauspiciously, as she was stranded in Montreal by an ice-jam on the St. Lawrence River, from March 23 to April 18, 1824. When she was finally able to depart, she boarded the steamboat Congress, which docked at White Hall, New York. Moffatt then boarded a packet boat for the Hudson Canal, headed for Albany, where her parents had lived before the Revolution.
From there, Moffatt wished to travel by land to Boston, but was told it was not practical. During the early 1820s, the best route to Boston was considered to be a steamboat to New York. On the steamboat Richmond, dressed as a lay woman, Moffatt traveled down the Hudson River to Long Island Sound, and stayed in New York with the Sisters of Charity. From New York, she took Captain Bunker's sailing boat, Connecticut, for a rough trip through Long Island Sound to Providence, arriving in Boston on April 30, 1824, forty-four days after her departure from Quebec.
The next day, on May 1, Moffatt joined a community grieving the death of their superior, Mary Ryan. She comforted them in their sorrow, they elected her superior, and she took immediate charge. The Reverend Taylor was very enthusiastic about the choice of St. George, since he had specifically requested a nun who spoke English. In a letter to Bishop Plessis of Quebec, Taylor wrote, "In selecting for us Madam St. George your Lordship could not have made a more happy choice; she is remarkably well calculated for the meridian of this city; and I am certain, with God's assistance, she will be a valuable acquisition to our infant but rapidly increasing establishment." He repeats this sentiment in several other letters as well, praising her as a "saintly woman."
Taylor also wrote frequently to alleviate anxiety in Quebec about Moffatt's well-being in the tuberculosis-ridden Boston convent. When the bishop of Quebec expressed deep concern for the health of St. George because of the recent deaths of the three Irish nuns, Taylor replied that the problem was not really the confined convent at all. A physician of celebrity, he wrote, pronounced the Ryans' complaint "a hereditary consumption" and said that the "contracted scale on which the convent is erected can not be, even remotely, influential in generating the disease of which the Ladies died." Despite Taylor's assurances, however, cloistered life in Boston, with its lack of fresh air and no area for exercise, was clearly hazardous to the health of the sisters, and they needed a more wholesome location for the convent school. With the administrative talent that had marked her ascendancy in the Quebec monastery, Moffatt began planning the move. Within two years of her arrival, the Boston nuns were packing up their belongings and moving everything to a small farmhouse in Charlestown. At the center of the first Mass celebrated in the modest but freshly painted structure was the silver ciborium that would be desecrated on the night of the convent fire.
Moffatt herself described her pivotal role in the decision to move to Charlestown in the petition for indemnification from the State of Massachusetts after the fire. She wrote, "[I]n the year 1826, I, being Superior of this Community, with the approbation of its members, sold this property, in Franklin street, to Bishop Fenwick, for eight thousand dollars, and delivered into his hands, between seventeen and eighteen thousand dollars, the proceeds of sales of the stocks, (which sum was quite unconnected with the eight thousand before specified,) for the purpose of purchasing Mount Benedict, and building the convent." Furthermore, after 1824, when Moffatt arrived in Boston, the fortunes of her family continued to improve. In the same petition for indemnification Moffatt added this note about the financial standing of her relatives during her years in Charlestown: "The property of the Community, has been increased every year, by liberal donations of my relations and friends, of at least, $600 or more, each year." Apparently, the fortunes of the Moffatt family had risen along with those of Mary Anne as she rose to prominence in the Ursuline order.
Inscribed on the base of the battered but lovely ciborium, the vessel for holding the consecrated host, are the words "Marine de Brest." This silver vessel was forged in the seacoast town of Brest in French Brittany during the late eighteenth century. According to Ursuline legend, it was still lying on the anvil, and the branding iron had just impressed on the foot the crest of its birthplace, when a naval officer named DeGrasse entered the craftsman's shop.
"The French monarch," announced DeGrasse to the silversmith, "has resolved to dispatch a military force to aid the American Colonies in just rebellion against the Mother Country. Count Rochambeau, who has today been appointed Lieutenant-General and placed in command of about 6,000 men, mostly all Catholics, has obtained a chaplain for his regiment and I am to provide the sacred vessels for the divine service." With an approving glance at the just minted chalice, DeGrasse saluted the shopman and departed. The modeler at once plunged the brass cup into a bath of purest silver, then lined it with gold.
Later, after Count Rochambeau addressed his troops as they prepared for their departure to the colonies, the ciborium served as sacred vessel in a Mass for the success of their enterprise. It glittered in the sunlight during Mass out in full ocean, with the army chaplain whispering over the soldiers' bowed heads, "Hoc est enim Corpus meum!" Convent legend tells us it was part of the "divine morning repast" spread out on the shores of Newport, Rhode Island, where the French troops assembled before battle, to assist the Americans in the patriot's cause. The story continues that after "victory twined double garlands around the banners of France and America," Rochambeau remained in America, keeping with him the silver ciborium that had inspired such courage in his troops.
Convent lore also tells us that Rochambeau, who died in 1807, visited an unnamed Ursuline convent with the ciborium he intended to bestow as a gift. According to this account, twelve nuns formed a circle around their friendly visitor. As one of the Canadian nuns regaled him with the tale of the burial of the French general Montcalm in the Ursuline Chapel in Quebec, his face glowed with patriotic gratitude. He stood erect and presenting the ciborium to the prioress he declared:
This has been to me a most sacred amulet ever since I received the title of Lieutenant General. In the name of France I present it to you as an evidence of our appreciation of the Ursulines.
Despite the legend, it is unlikely that Rochambeau gave the ciborium directly to an Ursuline convent -- since the convent in Boston was not established until thirteen years after his death. Rochambeau might have presented the ciborium to Bishop Cheverus, who had arrived in the city of Boston on October 3, 1796 -- eleven years before the death of the general -- and had been appointed bishop in 1808. But the most likely scenario is that the ciborium was in the possession of Abbé de la Poterie, the chaplain who had served the French fleet in the West Indies.
In the summer of 1788, the fleet, under the command of Marquis de Sainneville, cruised to northern waters to avoid tropical hurricanes. The French ships anchored in Boston on August 28. There the troops were warmly welcomed, attending a festive dinner given by Governor Hancock and a ball in which the elite of Boston mixed with French officers. When the French fleet sailed out of Boston Harbor on September 28, 1788, Abbé de la Poterie deserted and remained in Boston.
Historian John E. Sexton believes that de la Poterie, the first resident priest of Boston, celebrated Mass on November 2, 1788 using an altar stone, sacred vessels, and vestments in the service that had been part of his navy chaplain kit. La Poterie, whose real name was Claude Florent Bouchard, departed for New York and then to Quebec eight months later, on July 3, 1789. Though he left Boston under a cloud of disgrace, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston was so named because de la Poterie was a Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, and he had obtained a relic of the cross in Rome. In de la Poterie's original mahogany box with brass ornaments, that relic -- said to be a piece of the true cross -- still lies in the cathedral. When de la Poterie left this relic behind, it is possible that with it, he also left the ciborium. The clergyman quit Boston in haste after being suspended from the ministry because of his bad character. His offenses included running up large debts and exploiting Boston's gratitude to the French king to line his own pockets. If the ciborium remained behind, it would have been used by la Poterie's successors, Father Louis de Rousselet and Father John Thayer, who left all his property to the Ursulines.
But if it had been given to Bishop Cheverus by Rochambeau, perhaps the bishop, before his departure to France in 1823, would have bestowed this gift upon the Ursulines in recognition of their community's care of the French General Montcalm, following his mortal wounds in battle on Quebec's Plains of Abraham. Evidence for this surfaced during the testimony of the rioters. During the trial, descriptions were given of the some of the sacred vessels lost on the night of the fire, and the damaged ciborium may have even been introduced as evidence in court. Mary Anne Moffatt testified that "there were silver ornaments [a piece of silver was produced]. It was presented to the institution by the Archbishop of Bordeaux (Cheverus). This piece of plate was on a small altar -- there was a cross on it formerly." If this is the same ciborium, its cross may have been repaired following the trials. Whether the ciborium came to the Ursulines from Father Thayer or from Bishop Cheverus, once in the possession of the Ursulines, it was the very center of the key event at daily Mass, the consecration and transubstantiation of the Host.
On the night the convent was attacked, two sisters raced to the chapel to remove the tabernacle, and hid it in a bush in the convent garden. One of the nuns in the convent, Mother O'Keefe of Saint-Joseph, told a version of the ciborium story which was recorded by a sister at Trois Rivières. With the rioters at the door, said Mother O'Keefe, "Sister Saint Ursula came to my aid, and together we carried the whole tabernacle, for it was not yet fastened solidly to the altar. While we worked to save our most precious treasure, the broken panes of glass covered the carpet of the sanctuary and we had hardly time to leave the chapel, when a crowd of ragamuffins invaded the holy place." She went on to say that the tabernacle was hidden, as she recalled, "in a clump of asparagus which must have been three feet high...[O]ur intention was to ask a priest to remove the holy articles when the mob should have gone away." In Charlestown, it is likely that consecrated host from this valuable ciborium spiritually comforted the Loyalist's daughter, Mary Anne Moffatt, as she renewed her covenant with her adopted church, in her adopted land.
Copyright © 2000 by Nancy Lusignan Schultz
Meet the Author
Nancy Lusignan Schultz, Ph.D., is the editor of two anthologies, Fear Itself: Enemies Real and Imagined in American Culture and Veil of Fear: Nineteenth-Century Convent Tales. She is Professor and Coordinator of Graduate Studies in English at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts.
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