On the night of August 11, 1834, the Charlestown Convent lay in ruins, destroyed by a furious anti-Catholic mob. Completed only six years earlier, the convent had been the showpiece of the Catholic Church in America. Situated on 22 acres overlooking Boston, the convent property included a school building, a chaplain’s house, gardens and orchards. When Benedict Fenwick had become bishop of Boston in 1825, he had decided to move the Ursuline sisters out of their cramped quarters next door to the cathedral to this much more spacious setting. To express their appreciation for all of the bishop’s efforts, the sisters named their property “Mt. Benedict” in his honor.
The sisters residing in Charlestown were a diverse lot: there were Irish natives and well heeled American converts and the Mother Superior, Mary Ann Moffatt, was a strong-willed convert from Canada. The sisters had diverse talents as well and were able to teach a range of subjects at their school from foreign languages to fine arts.
Tuition at the school was $125, which put it out of reach for most of the Catholics in the area. However, wealthy Protestant and Unitarian families happily sent their daughters to the Ursulines so that they could learn French, embroidery and drawing.
Nativist sentiment was increasing in Boston in the early 1830s as large numbers of Irish immigrants began competing with working class Yankees for jobs. Anti-Catholic ministers like Reverend Lyman Beecher added to the tensions with their warnings about papal designs on America. Still, the sisters, while objects of suspicion because of their vows and habits, would probably have survived unscathed if it had not been for a problem with one of their members. In July 1834, Sr. Mary John, an overworked music teacher, walked out of the convent and went to stay at a neighbor’s house. The following day Bishop Fenwick went to see her and persuaded her to return to her community.
After Sr. Mary John’s return, rumors spread among the nativists that the Ursulines were holding her against her will. To settle the question, a group of Charlestown’s councilmen went to the convent to see her in early August. Sr. Mary John gave them a tour of the convent and assured them that she was perfectly free to leave at any time. While the councilmen were satisfied, many other Charlestown residents were not. On the night of August 11, a large crowd surrounded the convent and demanded to see Sr. Mary John. The Mother Superior curtly refused and then warned the crowd that Bishop Fenwick had 20,000 Irishmen at his disposal.
That was all the mob needed to hear. They charged into the convent, smashing furniture and throwing books into bonfires. While the sisters were able to get all of their students safely off the premises, the mob continued its rampage. Hosts were stolen from the tabernacle in the chapel and caskets in the graveyard were dug up and desecrated.
As news of the attack spread, the Mayor of Boston, Theodore Lyman, and many other leading citizens of Boston gathered the following day in Faneuil Hall to denounce the “cowardly and unlawful” attack. Bishop Fenwick appeared on the following day as well, speaking before a large crowd at the cathedral and urging his listeners not to seek “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Nevertheless there was violence again on the night of August 12. A group of nativists returned to the convent grounds to finish the job they had started on the previous night. This time, fences were torn down, gardens were uprooted and trees were set on fire.
In the aftermath of the attacks, efforts were made to apprehend the ringleaders and reimburse the sisters for their losses. Thirteen men were put on trial in December and all but one was acquitted. The only one convicted was a 17 year old, who was given a life sentence but was released after serving seven months in jail.
In 1835 an effort was made to obtain compensation for the sisters but was rejected by the legislature. Petitions backed by John Greenleaf Whittier and William Lloyd Garrison were brought forth again in 1846, 1853 and 1854 but each time the representatives voted them down.
With no funds available to them to rebuild their convent and school, the Ursuline community dispersed. Some sisters went to convents in Quebec and others went to join the Ursulines in New Orleans.
Fenwick was deeply discouraged by the attack and the events that followed it. When the verdicts were announced, he wrote bitterly in his diary: “No law or justice is to be expected in this land where Catholics are constantly calumniated & the strongest prejudices exist against them. Shame! Shame!” The rest of the American hierarchy clearly shared Fenwick’s sentiments. In their 1837 pastoral letter, the bishops wrote at length about the “Outrage of Charlestown”: “The ruins of this establishment yet blacken the vicinity of Bunker Hill, and cast a dark shade upon the soil of Massachusetts. You need not our recital of the dastardly assault, the extensive robbery, the deliberate arson, the wanton insolence, the cold cruelty, and the horrid sacrilege of that awful night.”
Fenwick died on August 11, 1846, on the twelfth anniversary of the attack. For years after Fenwick’s death, the Boston diocese left the ruins standing so that passersby would not forget the injustice suffered by the sisters. Finally, in 1866, Bishop John Williams decided to make constructive use of the ruins: he used convent bricks to build the archway in the new Cathedral of the Holy Cross.