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Ursuline Convent, Charlestown, MA

An inventory of Ursuline Convent, Charlestown, MA Papers at The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives


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Descriptive Summary

Repository: The Catholic University of America, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives
Creator: Arthur T. Connelly
Title: The Ursuline Convent, Charlestown, MA Papers
Dates: 1833-1903
Extent: 0.5 linear feet; 1 box
Abstract: The collection spans the years 1832-1903 and includes correspondence, a hand-written copy of an eyewitness report of the convent's burning, a scrapbook history, printed items including journals, pamphlets, and newspaper clippings, and a photo and sketch of the convent. It documents the ministry of the Ursulines of Quebec in Boston during the early 1800s and demonstrates the strong anti-Catholic sentiment that existed in New England.
Collection Number: ACUA 210
Language: English

Historical Note

The Ursuline convent on Mount Benedict in Charlestown, Massachusetts, was the realization of a dream of the Rev. John Thayer (1758 - 1815), a Protestant who converted to Catholicism and served as a priest in Boston from 1788 until 1792. The final years of his life were spent in Ireland, where he procured funds for establishing a convent in Boston. The funds that Thayer collected were remitted to the care of the Rev. Dr. Francis Anthony Matignon (1753 - 1818), who encouraged his parishioners in Boston to contribute to the project. The convent, however, did not become a reality until 1817, when the Rev. John Lefebvre de Cheverus (1768 - 1836), Bishop of Boston, got behind the effort. The Ursulines soon outgrew their original quarters and removed to a new edifice on Mount Benedict in July 1828.

The original members of the religious community were recruited by Thayer during his fundraising campaign in Limerick, Ireland. There he inspired two of the original founders, Mary and Catherine Ryan, to make their novitiate under the Ursulines of Three Rivers, Canada, which was a branch of the Ursulines of Quebec. Soon the convent consisted of ten sisters, the majority of them coming to Boston from Quebec including the Superior, Mother Mary Edmond St. George.

The Ursuline community's principal mission was to administer a boarding school for girls aged six to fourteen. The number of students rose to 55, a few of whom were French-Canadian, while the greater number were children of New England Protestants. The education was comprehensive, covering religion, classics, music, and social graces.

Public opinion soon was to rise against the Ursulines and their school. The revival of evangelical Protestantism in the early 1800s, plus disdain for working-class Irish immigrants, gave rise to militant anti-Catholicism and re-emphasis on traditional nativism. The convent was an obvious target, and rumors spread that the Ursulines were mistreating their students. When the townspeople gathered at the gates of the building on August 11, 1834, they proceeded to burn down the convent without interference from authorities.

After the fire the Ursulines attempted to continue their work in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Once again they were harassed. As a result, some of the religious decided to return to Quebec, and others joined the Ursulines of New Orleans. In 1838, an attempt was made to restore the Ursuline community in Boston, but there were no accessions to their ranks. Two years later, their Bostonian ministry was disbanded.

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Scope and Contents

The collection spans the years 1832 - 1903 and includes correspondence, a hand-written copy of an eyewitness report of the convent's burning, a scrapbook history, printed items including journals, pamphlets, and newspaper clippings, and a photo and sketch of the convent. It documents the ministry of the Ursulines of Quebec in Boston during the early 1800s and demonstrates the strong anti-Catholic sentiment that existed in New England.

The scattered correspondence (1834 - 1836) consists of communications to and from the Superior of the convent, Mary Edmond St. George. Topics of concern are the recruitment of children to attend the convent school, attendance at court proceedings after the fire, plans for the Ursulines to return to Quebec, and the safety of children attending the school after the attack by the mob.

The eyewitness report of the burning of the convent, recorded in a notebook, is an excerpt from a larger work on the Ursulines of Boston and comes from the Ursuline archives in Three Rivers, Quebec, Canada.

A scrapbook of newspaper clippings (1834 - 1894) documents the burning of the convent by mob action on August 11, 1834, and the continuing anti-Catholic sentiment in Boston. Included is a detailed history of the Ursuline community, before and after the burning, written by Dr. B.F. De Costa, an Episcopalian minister and nephew of one of the Ursulines, Sister Mary St. Claire De Costa, the first novice received into the convent.

Assorted publications and clippings, dated immediately before and running to 50 years after the fire, describe the founding of the convent, its destruction, the legal proceedings afterwards, and subsequent acts of violence against Roman Catholics in Boston. Found here is a novella, The Nun of St. Ursula, by Harry Hazel. Giving a fictional account of the burning of the convent, its view of religious life is distorted, and it could be considered an anti-Catholic tract.

Two loose pictures round out the collection. One is a photograph of an engraving of the convent as it looked in 1832. The other is a sketch of the ruins after the fire and is attributed to Dr. B.F. De Costa.

Note: See Oversize Collection for a cartoon lampooning the convent investigating committee.

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Arrangement

The Ursuline Convent, Charlestown, MA Papers consists of five series:






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Restrictions

Restrictions on Access

Due to the fragile nature of the original documents, access to some materials may be restricted.

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Administrative Information

Acquisition Information

There is no acquisition information for this collection.

Processing Information

Processing completed in 1988 by William Guy. Data entry completed in 1999 by Jennifer Jukes. Data entry revision completed by Rebecca Hurley in 2001. EAD markup and digitization completed by Washington Research Library Consortium in February 2003. Additional EAD markup completed by Jordan Patty in 2006. Digital archival object links updated in 2015 by Paul Kelly.

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Related Material

The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives:

Ursuline Convent Digital Collection

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Index Terms

This record series is indexed under the following controlled access subject terms.


Persons:
Austin, James T.
Benedict, Mary
Corcoran, Hannah
Fay, Richard S. (Richard Sullivan), 1806-1865
Fenwick, Benedict Joseph, 1782-1846
Hill, Milton
Hughes, John, 1797-1864
Meagher, Thomas Francis, 1823-1867
Otis, Lucinda Smith
Russell, Lydia Smith
Ryan, Mary Joseph
Saint George, Mary Edmond
Tandy, James Napper, 1740-1803

Organizations:
Ursuline Convent (Charlestown, Boston, Mass.)

Places:
Boston (Mass.)
Charlestown (Boston, Mass.)
Ireland
Newburyport (Mass.)
Philadelphia (Penn.)
Quebec (City)--Ursuline monastery
Saint Johnsbury (Vt.)

Subjects:
Anti-Catholicism--Massachusetts--Boston--History--19th century
Riot--History--Massachusetts--Boston--19th century


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Bibliography

Schultz, Nancy Lusignan. "Fire and Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834." NY: The Free Press, 2000.

Somerville Museum. "Lifting the Veil: Remembering the Burning of the Ursuline Convent." Boston, MA, 1997.

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Detailed Description of the Collection

                       
Series 1: Correspondence, 1834-1836, n.d. (4 folders)
The scattered letters, organized chronologically, are communications from and to Superior Mary Edmond St. George. The letters touch on such subjects as student attendance and safety, legal proceedings after the fire, and plans for removal to Quebec. There is a letter to the second Bishop of Boston, the Rev. Benedict J. Fenwick, from Lydia Smith Russell urging him not to close the convent and defending the ministry of the Ursulines against the Protestant charges.
Box Folder
1 1 April 1834-December 17, 1834
   
    1. Letter to Ursuline Convent from Milton Hill - 2 letters from Mrs. Russell which speak of her difficulties and lack of influence on her children, April 1834
        Letter
        Letter
   
    2. Letter to Sister Superior from Mrs. Russell - regret at not being able to influence children to return willingly to school, June 1834
        Letter
        Note
   
    3. Letter to Mrs. Russell from Rich S. Fay - a letter asking the sentiments of the parents and guardians of the children who were placed at the Ursuline school, September 1, 1834
        Letter
   
    4. Letter to Hon. J.T. Austin from The Superior - letter of gratitude for hospitality shown on the occasion of a court appearance in Concord, Mass., September 12, 1834
        Letter
   
    5. Letter to Hon. J.T. Austin from The Superior - she asks for an exemption from appearing in court in Cambridge, Mass., November 15, 1834
        Letter
   
    6. Letter to Hon. J.T. Austin from The Superior - she suggests the manner of her interrogation and notes some valuable losses to the looters of the Convent, November 30, 1834
        Letter
   
    7. Letter to Hon. J.T. Austin from The Superior - apology for a misunderstanding, December 4, 1834
        Letter
   
    8. Letter to Hon. J.T. Austin from The Superior - this letter was accompanied by an engraving of the ruins of the convent which she asks him to accept. She once again asks to be exempt for a court appearance. December 17, 1834
        Letter
Box Folder
1 2 March 12, 1835-June 11, 1835
   
    1. Letter to Sister Superior from Mrs. Russell - a letter giving the reasons for her daughter Rosalind not returning to school hinging upon the mother's fear that the "organized mob of fanatics" would once again attack. March 12, 1835
        Letter
   
    2. Letter to Hon. James T. Austin from The Superior - this letter speaks of the advice of the Bishop that the Sisters should leave the area for a year or eighteen months and the advice of others that it would be better to stay. She asks for the advice of Austin. March 21, 1835
        Letter
   
    3. Letter to Hon. James T. Austin from The Superior - The Bishop of Quebec urged the Sisters to return to Canada and they would depart in two weeks time. April 15, 1835
        Letter
   
    4. Letter to The Right Reverend Bishop Fenwick from Lydia Smith Russell - This letter entreats the Bishop not to allow the Ursuline Community to depart from Boston. The letter is a long presentation of the value of the type of education offered by the Ursulines. The refutation of charges brought by Protestants against the Sisters. May 10, 1835
        Letter
   
    5. Letter to Mrs. Jonathan Russell from The Superior - Expresses regret that an invitation cannot be accepted and telling of her return to Quebec where she had lived for fourteen years and that she will never return to the United States. May 17, 1835
        Letter
   
    6. Letter to The Superior of the Ursuline Convent from Mrs. Jonathan Russell - This letter praises the Sisters on many accounts, her sorrow at the departure of the Sisters and her regret at not confiding her daughter to their care. June 11, 1835
        Letter
Box Folder
1 3 January 22, 1836
   
    1. Letter to Mrs. J. Russell from The Superior - Ursuline Convent, Quebec - An account of the order of exercises in the school. The letter speaks of a visit to the school by members of Parliament and a description of the program of entertainment for the event as published in the newspapers. January 22, 1836
        Letter
Box Folder
1 4 n.d.
   
    1. Fragment - Account of Miss Reed and the circumstances surrounding her acceptance as novice of the Ursuline Community, n.d.
        Letter
   
    2. The Coadjuteur (in French), n.d.
        Letter
   
    3. Letter to Mrs. Lydia Smith Russell from Lucinda Smith Otis (?) - Request to attend a funeral and at the same time sign a petition to the legislature, n.d.
        Letter
   
    4. Letter to Sr. Superior from Mrs. Russell - Providence Spring, n.d.
        Letter
   
    5. Letter to Hon. James T. Austin from the Superior - An account of articles returned and articles missing, n.d.
        Letter
   
    6. Fragment - list of articles belonging to Miss Russell destroyed at the burning, n.d.
        Letter
                       
Series 2: Handwritten Notebook, n.d. (1 folder)
A 15-page handwritten notebook copied from a larger work, The Ursulines of Boston, and kept in the Ursuline archives of Three Rivers, Quebec, Canada, is an eyewitness account of the fire. It is titled, "Ursuline Report of the Burning of the Convent, August 11, 1834."
Box Folder
1 5 "Ursuline Report of the Burning of the Convent August 11, 1834" n.d.
        Notebook
                       
Series 3: Printed Matter, 1832 - 1903 (15 folders)
Journals, pamphlets, and a short novel present discussion on the efforts to start the convent, its burning, and the acquittal of the rioters, along with anti-Catholic sentiment continuing in Boston throughout the 1800s.
Box Folder
1 6 "Attkinsons' Casket", March 1833
        Journal
  7 "The Gleaner", August 16, 1834
        Journal
  8 "The Boston Observer", January 15, 1835
        Journal
  9 "The Nun of St. Ursula", 1845
        Novel
  10 Pamphlet: "An Account of the Conflagration of the Ursurline Convent" by a Friend of Religious Toleration, 1834
        Pamphlet
  11 Pamphlet: "Six Hours in a Convent: or The Stolen Nuns. A Tale of Charlestown in 1834" by Charles W. Frothingham, 1855
        Pamphlet
        13th edition
  12 Pamphlet: "An Argument before the Committee of the House of Representatives, upon the Petition of Benedict Fenwick and others, with a Portion of the Documentary Testimony" by Richard Sullivan Fay, 1835
        Pamphlet
  13 Pamphlet: "An Answer to Six Months in a Convent Exposing its Falsehoods and Manifold Absurdities" by the Lady Superior, Mary Anne Ursula Moffatt, 1835
        Pamphlet
  14 Pamphlet: "The Rights of Conscience and Property; or the True Issue of the Convent Question" by George Ticknor Curtis, 1842
        Pamphlet
  15 Pamphlet: "Documents Relating to the Ursurline Convent in Charlestown", 1842
        Pamphlet
  16 Pamphlet: "The Convent's Doom: a Tale of Charlestown in 1834" by Charles W. Frothingham, 1854
        Pamphlet
  17 Pamphlet: "The Charlestown Convent; Its Destruction by a Mob, on the Night of August 11, 1834...........also, The Trial of the Rioters.........", 1870
        Notebook
  18 Pamphlet: "The Burning of the Ursurline Convent: a Paper Read before The Worcester Society of Antiquity, March 5th, 1889" by Ephraim Tucker, 1890
        Pamphlet
  19 Broadside - "To The Public of Newburyport", November 25, 1875
        Broadside
  20 Newspaper clippings, ca. 1837-1903
   
    1. Education of Roman Catholics, undated
        Clipping
   
    2. Another missing girl, undated
        Clipping
   
    3. The Sunday rioters, undated
        Clipping
   
    4. Burial place of Mary Ryan : St. Augustine's Church, South Boston, and its romantic history (The Boston Globe), undated
        Clipping
   
    5. Boston mirror, C.W. Moore, editor, undated
        Clipping
   
    6. A sketch of James Napper Tandy, Efqr., Captain of the Liberty Artillery, Vc., Vc., undated
        Clipping
   
    7. T.F. Meagher and Bishop Hughes ; also, Fun after fighting, undated
        Clipping
   
    8. Education of Roman Catholics, undated
        Clipping
   
    9. Who was St. Patrick? : the facts about Ireland's patron saint ; also, Nantucket ice-bound (Boston Evening Transcript), undated
        Clipping
   
    10. Execution of the Spanish pirates (Boston Morning Post), Thursday, June 11, 1835
        Clipping
   
    11. Irish labor : the economic background of Sinn Fein : the Irish labor movement by W.P. Ryan (published by B.W. Huebsch), undated
        Clipping
   
    12. Dedicated to God : impressive services in St. Johnsbury's new Catholic church (St. Johnsbury, Vt.), January 6, no year
        Clipping
   
    13. The Padre's secret (a poem) by Lucius Harwood Foote; also, Suspected of stealing draughtsman's tools; also, The Ninth starts for Philippines, undated
        Clipping
   
    14. The Spanish pirates (Boston Evening Transcript?), undated
        Clipping
   
    15. The Manila of today : influence of climate on habits and business ; also, The botanical calendar ; also, Narcissus (a poem) by Henry R. Kellogg, undated
        Clipping
   
    16. The Sunday rioters, undated
        Clipping
   
    17. Broad Street rioters, undated
        Clipping
   
    18. The Sunday riot, undated
        Clipping
   
    19. Hannah Corcoran, undated
        Clipping
   
    20. Communication, undated
        Clipping
   
    21. Education of Roman Catholics, undated
        Clipping
   
    22. Education of Roman Catholics, undated
        Clipping
   
    23. The rioters, undated
        Clipping
   
    24. The Catholic controversy by Alethia (for the Boston Recorder), undated
        Clipping
                       
Series 4: Photograph and Sketch, 1872 (1 folder)
A photo of an engraving shows the Ursuline convent as it looked in 1832. The ruins after the fire are drawn in a sketch attributed to Dr. B.F. De Costa, 1872.
Box Folder
1 21 Photograph and Sketch, 1872, n.d.
   
    1. Photograph, n.d.
        Image
   
    2. Sketch, 1872
        Image
                       
Series 5: Scrapbook History, 1834 - 1894 (2 folders)
The scrapbook is composed of newspaper clippings giving accounts of the history of the Ursuline community in Boston, the causes leading to the riot of 1834, the outcome of subsequent legal proceedings, and derogatory sentiment against the Superior, Mary Edmond St. George. Included is "The Story of Mount Benedict and What Followed" by Dr. B.F. De Costa and a note by the donor, Arthur T. Connolly, recounting where the sisters ended their lives.
Box Folder
1 22 Scrapbook (Acid Free Copies), 1834-1894
        Some difficult to read due to glue damage.
  23 Scrapbook (Original), 1834-1894
        Scrapbook
        Glue has been very detrimental to contents.

TABLE OF CONTENTS


Descriptive Summary

Historical Note

Scope and Contents

Arrangement

Restrictions

Administrative Information

Related Material

Index Terms

Bibliography

Detailed Description of the Collection

Series 1: Correspondence, 1834-1836, n.d.

Series 2: Handwritten Notebook, n.d.

Series 3: Printed Matter, 1832 - 1903

Series 4: Photograph and Sketch, 1872

Series 5: Scrapbook History, 1834 - 1894

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