Mass Moments: Ursuline Convent Burned to the Ground

Mass Moments reminds us that on this today – August 12th –  in 1834 the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown lay in ruins. The night before  a Protestant mob sacked it and burned it to the ground.

The rioters were mostly poor Yankee laborers who feared and hated Irish Catholic immigrants. While some of Boston’s wealthiest Protestants sent their daughters to the Ursuline Academy, most Yankees harbored a deep prejudice against Catholics. Long suspicious of “popery,” Protestant Boston was receptive to the malicious rumors that swirled about the convent. The convent burning was a prelude to the fierce anti-Catholicism that would greet the famine Irish who flooded into Boston a decade later.

Read the full article here at

Later in the 1850s with the emergence and power of the “Know Nothing” Party in Massachusetts – Catholic nuns were again the object of attack and religious prejudice. The Know Nothings feared the rising influence of the Catholic Church and its Irish immigrant believers. While working to curb the voting power of immigrants the Know Nothings while in control of the Massachusetts Great and General Court passed measures aimed at limiting the influence of the Catholic Church. One of the most infamous acts passed was the establishment of the Smelling Committee – an investigative body comprised of Know-Nothings and Nativists whose mission it was to “investigate” abuses in Catholic convent schools.

The Lowell Connection:   The Smelling Committee announced it would be visiting the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur convent in city of Lowell in March 1855. Armed with the deep-seated Know Nothing antipathy for all things Catholic, the Committee arrived on the doorsteps of the convent.  The sisters refused them admittance declaring they would not do so without the presence of  their spiritual leader – Father Timothy O’Brien.

Father O’Brien arrived shortly after being notified and was able to prevent the Committee from inspecting the sisters’ personal quarters even though they had been quite adamant about doing so. The Committee stayed overnight in the city where – the story is told – the committee leader Joseph Hiss used Commonwealth funds to carouse with a local  woman – the scandal was quickly exposed. The convent ultimately passed its inspection.

The Know Nothing movement eventually declined and fell from the national scene  by the late 1850s.