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Details missing in account of anti-Catholic riot

By Michael Kenney, Globe Staff, 10/17/2000

Fire and Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834
By Nancy Lusignan Schultz
Schultz Free Press, 317 pp., illustrated, $25
  Buy it on   ( receives a small percentage of each sale.)

n the evening of Aug. 11, 1834, a crowd of anti-Catholic demonstrators, most of them laborers, gathered outside the gates of an Ursuline convent and girls' school in what was then Charlestown. As the night drew on, about 60, many with their faces painted like Indians, broke into the convent, forcing the nuns and their students to flee, and, after ransacking the buildings, set them afire while local firefighters stood by.

It was the most notorious of a series of anti-Catholic incidents that occurred in Boston in the years after 1820, when Irish immigration to the city was sharply increasing. The incidents were sparked by the economic fears of Yankee laborers -- and fueled by the incendiary sermons of preachers including Lyman Beecher, the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In "Fire and Roses," the attack on the Ursuline convent has received a passionate recounting from Nancy Lusignan Schultz, a professor of English at Salem State College. In her account, it is not the rioters or the city's social leaders who take the leading role, but Mary Anne Moffatt, who took the religious name of Sister Mary Edmond St. George. The daughter of a Loyalist (or Tory) who fled to Canada during the Revolution, she became a Catholic and entered a Ursuline convent in Quebec. She was sent to Boston in 1824 to lead a struggling convent, located then on Franklin Street.

Moffatt, writes Schultz, "would have been an extraordinary woman had she been born in any age." She was able to "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."

But her imperious manner probably contributed to the anger of the mob. She was, in the words of John Buzzell, the Charlestown brickmaker who was the ringleader of the rioters, "the sauciest woman I ever heard talk." And the "elegant" academy with its formal gardens was sited on a hill overlooking -- lording it over, might be a more appropriate term -- the brickyards and working-class neighborhoods of Charlestown.

Suspicions about Catholic ritual and life inside the convent were compounded in the months before the riot by the flight of two young nuns -- one of whom, a charity case from Charlestown, was to write a scandalous account of her stay in the convent, published the year after the burning.

Rumors about the other nun's flight and subsequent return brought an investigating committee of Charlestown selectmen to the convent the afternoon of the attack, demanding to see the young nun, popularly described as "the Mysterious Lady." They did interview her briefly and inspected the convent at some length, apparently searching for imprisoned nuns or their bodies. They left apparently satisfied, saying they planned a story to that effect in the next day's newspapers -- but the rioters were gathering even as these worthies departed. Buzzell and other leaders of the mob were arrested within a few days and 12 of them were eventually indicted on charges of arson and burglary. Only one was convicted, however -- a youth who had burned some books, and he was subsequently pardoned.

Of more interest is the report of a special committee formed to investigate the incident (a panel whose membership and legal status is frustratingly unaddressed). In its report, Schultz writes, the committee "suggested that a larger conspiracy was behind the riot." While the committee failed to prove that "it was hatched by prominent and respectable men who enticed the lower classes to do their dirty work," Schultz notes, it expressed its concern that "the well-placed men who had planned the riot would escape" punishment.

The reference to "well-placed men" draws attention to what may be the most curious aspect of the incident -- the inability, or reluctance, of members of the elite whose daughters attended the school to prevent the riot. These Yankee parents were aware of the rumors of an attack, and indeed, two of them went to the convent during the late afternoon. They were accosted outside the gates by someone -- apparently the leader, Buzzell -- but left without entering the convent or taking any steps to provide protection for the nuns or their own daughters.

For all of Schultz's obvious interest in the event, and her considerable scholarship, there is little sense of time or of place, other than in detailed descriptions of the convent. The unwary reader will be confused, for example, by Schultz's failure to note that the convent was located in an area that split off from Charlestown in 1842 to become Somerville. And despite references to "Mount Benedict," the area had been known locally as Ploughed Hill.

Finally, while Schultz tells us much about convent life in Quebec and in Charlestown/Somerville, she seems curiously uninterested in the lives and workplaces of the rioters. Considering the importance of the event in the history of Yankee-Irish relations in Boston, this leaves a serious gap in her account.

This story ran on page E5 of the Boston Globe on 10/17/2000.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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