In the midst of a deadly heat wave during the summer of 1834, a woman clawed her way over the wall of a Roman Catholic convent near Boston, Massachusetts and escaped to the home of a neighbor, pleading for protection. When the bishop, Benedict Fenwick, persuaded her to return, rumors began swirling through the Yankee community and in the press that she was being held at the convent against her will, and had even been murdered. The imagined fate of the "Mysterious Lady," as she became popularly known, ultimately led to the destruction of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts on the night of August 11, 1834 by a mob of Protestant men.
After battering down the front door, the men destroyed icons, smashed pianos, hurled the bishop's library into a bonfire, ransacked the possessions of both sisters and students, and finally burned the imposing building to the ground. Not satisfied with this orgy of vandalism, they returned the following night and tore the lovely gardens up by the roots. The ruins sat on Mount Benedict, a hill overlooking Boston Harbor, for the next fifty years. The arsonists' ringleader, a brawny bricklayer named John Buzzell, became a folk hero. The nuns scattered, and their proud and feisty mother superior, Mary Anne Moffatt, who battled the working-class rioters and Church authorities, faded mysteriously into history.
Nancy Schultz brings alive this forgotten moment in the American story, shedding light on one of the darkest incidents of religious persecution to be recorded in the New World. The result of painstaking archival research, Fire & Roses offers a rare lens on a time when independent, educated women were feared as much as immigrants and Catholics, and anti-Papist diatribes were the stuff of bestsellers and standing-room-only lectures. Schultz examines the imagined secrets that led to the riot and uncovers the real secrets in a cloistered community whose life was completely hidden from the world. She provides a glimpse into nineteenth-century Boston and into an elite boarding school for young women, mostly the daughters of wealthy Protestants, vividly dissecting the period's roiling tensions over class, gender, religion, ethnicity, and education. Although the roots of these conflicts were in the Puritan migration to America, it was ultimately the mob's perverse fantasies about cloistered women -- in an independent community -- that erupted in a combustible night of violence.
By unearthing the buried truth and bringing alive these fascinating characters, Nancy Schultz tells a gripping story of prejudice and pride, courage and cowardice in early nineteenth-century America that not only restores a clouded chapter in the country's history but also has a poignant resonance for our own times.
In 1834, a group of fiercely anti-Catholic rioters burned Mt. Benedict, an Ursuline convent just outside of Boston that was home not only to a community of nuns, but also to the prestigious girls' school they ran. Using this singularly explosive example, Schultz, professor of English at Salem State College, conveys the larger current of anti-Catholic sentiment that was prevalent throughout early 19th-century America. While such religious intolerance had existed in New England since the Puritans first landed, the most recent anti-papist explosion could be traced to the departure from the convent of a novice named Rebecca Reed just two years before. A convert to Catholicism, Reed entered the convent school as a charity student and initially aspired to become a nun. However, she began to chafe under the requirements of convent life and imagined that there was a conspiracy plotting to imprison her in a convent in Canada. After fleeing Mt. Benedict, she published an anti-Catholic expose, Six Months in a Convent, filled with tales of abuse that she and other nuns allegedly suffered. Indeed, Reed wasn't the only nun to run away. Her escape was followed by that of a Sister St. John, who the hardworking but overwhelmingly poor townsfolk believed was brought back against her will by the bishop. The Ursuline nuns' dual purpose to serve the poor and to educate wealthy young women was increasingly resented by the struggling laborers who traveled to Charlestown--often from farms in distant New Hampshire--in search of work. Reed's escape, coupled with a series of anti-Catholic sermons by the Reverend Lyman Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe's father), served as the spark that ignited the townsfolk's burning anger. Schultz is to be commended for her riveting historical study, which is plotted like a novel, with tight pacing and fully realized characters.