Remembering the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown Sacked and Burned ~ August 12, 1834

From the achives:

Mass Moments reminds us today that on August 12, 1834 the Catholic convent housing the Ursuline order of nuns in Charlestown, Massachusetts was sacked by a Protestant mob – then burned to the ground. Catholics were not welcome in the early days of Massachusetts – in fact they were banned by law. By 1780 the state’s new constitution guaranteed freedom of religion and the non-threatening well-educated French Catholics were tolerated as the descendants of British Protestants were overwhelmingly dominant. It was the arrival of the Irish immigrants that turned the tide of feeling. Boston’s Irish Catholic population doubled in the 1830s – thereby, the religious, ethnic, economic and political tensions mounted as fast as the Irish increase. Although the Ursulines – devoted to the education of women – were engaged in teaching both Catholic and Protestant young ladies of good families, they and their convent became the misplaced focus of mob wrath that night – fueled by false stories and superstitious fears. When the night was over, the stately convent lay in ruins as the Protestant firefighters ignored the blaze and the nuns and students who escaped in nightclothes were standing in farm fields. The ruins remained as a reminder of the mob act for forty years. The site was leveled in 1875, and the bricks were incorporated into Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

On this day …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 nuns who lived in the elegant building and their students at the female academy they ran were forced to flee for their lives. 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.

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One Response to Remembering the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown Sacked and Burned ~ August 12, 1834

  1. DickH says:

    As with most things, there is a Lowell connection to this event. The Sheriff of Middlesex County at the time of the convent burning was a resident of Centralville named Benjamin Varnum. He is said to have played a major part in the investigation of the incident and that his role was praised by all (although I’m not sure the contemporary historians writing that consulted with the Irish for their opinion).

    Varnum, who was born in 1795, was the son of Major General Joseph Bradley Varnum. Benjamin represented Dracut (Centralville was part of that town until it was later annexed to Lowell) in the state legislature from 1824 to 1827 and in the state senate from 1827 to 1831. In 1828 he was appointed to be a county commissioner and in 1831 he became sheriff of Middlesex County, a position he held until his untimely death in 1841. His wife’s name was Caroline Bradley and she lived until 1883 (age 81). They are buried in the family plot in Lowell Cemetery.