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Anti-Catholic Violence In Charlestown, 176 Years Ago

On August 10, 1834, rioters burned down the Charlestown convent. (Courtesy of Northeastern University Press)

At midnight on August 10, 1834, rioters gathered outside the Mt. Benedict Academy for Girls, an Ursuline convent located in what is now East Somerville, demanding to see Sister Mary John, a nun who had escaped the convent walls two weeks before.

Rebecca Reed fled the convent in 1832. (Northeastern University Press)

Mother St. George, also known as Sister Mary Ann Moffat, insisted that the cloistered nun was resting.

She asked that the rioters from the brickyards surrounding the verdant 24-acre compound leave the premises, threatening that the Bishop of Boston would send his army of 20,000 Irishmen to “burn the roofs” over their heads.

This was not the best strategy to mollify the crowd.

What followed is called the worst act of anti-Catholic violence in United States history. Today, we explore it in detail.


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  • http://milhomme.blogspot.com Bill Milhomme

    The burning of the Ursuline Convent in 1834 was truly an outward sign of the anti-Catholic sentiment at the time. But I do not agree that it was “the worst act of anti-Catholic violence in United States history.” I suggest a greater act of violence would be a century of subtle anti-Catholic activities in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

    Anti-Catholic sentiment is like an undertow that lies beneath the peaceful waters. There are singular events of anti-Catholic violence, such as the Ursuline Convent burning; however, it was the generations of Catholics eking out their lives throughout the rural towns of Massachusetts that persevered in their faith in the face of generations of anti-Catholic activities and violence that laid the foundation stones of the present day Catholic Church in Massachusetts. Unfortunately these stories rarely see the light of day. Some highlights of this sentiment follow.

    1831: During height of the 1830s summer “Second Great Awakening” revival meetings, a Fr. Connelly attempted to minister to the Catholic laborers working Foxboro. In a letter published in the July 1831 issue of the Boston “Jesuit” newspaper He described his visit to this mission stops. He wrote, I proceed to Foxborough to see a few Catholics in the employ of General Leach, and here I met with still worse treatment from individuals of the same cast as the former. In the absence of an agent, who, I subsequently understood, felt indignant at their proceedings, they, in imitation of the ‘Indian war-hoop,’ sounded a horn to collect a larger group, to prevent me from imparting religious instruction to the Catholics, and one exclaimed in his holy wrath that ‘He was sorry he had not a load gun by him!’

    1854: In the 1854 state elections the Know Nothing Party, officially known as the American Party, won complete control of the executive and legislative branches of the Commonwealth. It took the governorship, all the state offices, all congressional seats, and all the state Senate seats, and won all but three House seats. Foxboro elected two residents to this Know Nothing legislature, Jedson E. Carpenter and John Litttlefield. State Senator Carpenter was the son of a prominent local family, a school committee person and insurance agent. Representative John Littlefield was a local surgeon dentist. History records that it was Carpenter who “introduced this [American] party into the town and was one of the most earnest in procuring for it numerical strength and party power.”

    The secret oath sworn by Know Nothing Members included the phrase, “To defend our Republican Institutions against the encroachments of the Church of Rome…and its ignorant and deluded followers….we are associated on a secret Military Order…. Raise your right hand up before the floating flag of your country [and] place your right foot on the emblem of the Church of Rome.”

    On January 22, 1855, Littlefield and Carpenter presented to the Massachusetts General Court the Foxboro petition of local business magnate, Erastus P. Carpenter and 225 male residents, the three selectmen among the signers, the following petition, “The Undersigned Petitioners believing that no person should be deprived of Liberty without due process of law and believing also that in certain institutions within this state, known as convents, nunneries or by whatever name they may be designated, persons who once enter them and take upon themselves certain vows are forever debarred from leaving them however much they may desire to do so, and believing that acts of villainy, injustice, and wrong are perpetrated within the walls of said institutions with impunity as a result of their immunity from public inspections. Therefore your petitioners earnestly and respectfully pray your honorable bodies, to enact such a law as will bring all such institutions under the inspection of the Civil Authorities of the state.”

    1862: On February 23, 1862 the new church was destroyed by a fire of suspicious origin. The scene of devastation was described in an anonymous letter from Foxboro to the Boston Pilot newspaper. “Mr. Editor – It is my painful duty to send to you this sad announcement. The new and neat Catholic Church, recently built by Fr. Carroll, in Foxboro; was totally destroyed by fire on Saturday night, February 23rd. The fire broke out between 12 and 1 A.M., and in less than three hours the building lay in a heap of ruins. But, Mr. Editor, the scene, though mournful, was truly painful when Fr. Carroll arrived. The grief depicted in his care-troubled countenance can be better conceived than described. As there are no fire engines in the village of Foxboro, there he stood among the multitude, only to gaze with sorrow on that which he could not save. The origin of the fire is unknown

    1895 : In Massachusetts the American Protective Association was very active in Boston and several outlying towns, including Foxboro. In January 1895, Mr. E. H. Dunbar of the “Supreme Council” of the American Protective Association was invited to speak at the “Patriotic” rally held in the Foxboro Town Hall l. According to the Foxboro Reporter the rally was attended by a crowd that filled the hall to its utmost capacity. “The platform was decked in the national colors, and the altar in front was draped with the American flag, upon which rested the Holy Bible.” Dunbar was quoted stating, “The A.P.A. is organized to protect the flag, the school, and all our glorious institutions against the assaults of the Roman Hierarchy…that the religion of Roman Catholics is a gigantic political scheme as now conducted in this country…that if the Pope should curse the United States, every Roman Catholic is absolved from his allegiance to the United States…for as long as Catholics owe a higher allegiance to a foreigner, they are unfit for public office in America.”

    1923: Founded in the nineteenth-century South, the Ku Klux Klan attracted new adherents in the early 1900s, as increasing numbers of immigrants brought their own ethnic and religious traditions to the nation’s cities and towns. At Klan rallies, speakers warned that “real” Americans were losing control of the country. Newcomers were taking over local government, the police, and the schools. The Klan claimed that foreigners, especially Catholics and Jews, would soon outnumber white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Something, the Klan insisted, had to be done about it.

    One of the first documented crossing burnings in southeastern Massachusetts during this era took place in Foxboro. In an article titled “Flaming Cross brings Police to Robinson Hill late Sunday Night.” the September 15, 1923 edition of the Foxboro Reporter reported, “An autoist passing through town last Sunday night reported that a flaming cross was in evidence on the top of Robinson Hill and he thought the Ku Klux Klan might be responsible for it. Officer Fred W. Pettee immediately went to the place with the first truck and found a cross six fee long and four feet wide had been made of seasoned fence rails, saturated in kerosene and then erected on th4e highest point of the hill and set on fire. No person was there and three young men from Mansfield were in the vicinity and they were gathered in and Chief White called. The police put the young men through the third degree but they would not admit their guilt and were allowed to go on their way.”

    The crossing burning was probably a direct result of the mass publicity campaign preceding a major recruiting drive of the Ku Klux Klan which was held at Mechanic’s Hall in Worcester on September 23, 1923.

    Foxboro is only one of 351 towns in the Commonwealth. Similar untold stories are waiting to be discovered.

  • Aley Martin

    YAY! Wonderful and interesting to hear Nancy!

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