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THE BURNING OF THE URSULINE CONVENT IN CHARLESTOWN
From a print. Collection of Bostonian Society.
THE RUINS OF THE URSULINE CONVENT IN CHARLESTOWN
Soon after the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in Boston the Ursuline Sisters opened a convent, which they later moved to Mount Benedict Hill in Charlestown, now part of Somerville. This situation, with gardens, trees and beautiful lawns was most attractive. It was rumored that Mary St. John Harrison was being confined in the convent when she was desirous of leaving it. Also at this time a book appeared entitled “Six Months in a Convent,” which was written by an ignorant pupil and contained many falsehoods. The reports were all unfounded, yet the people were so excited that they openly made threats to burn the convent and even posted in Charlestown placards announcing that the event would take place on a certain night. The authorities could not believe such a disgrace could happen, but on that same night, the 11th of August, 1834, a mob consisting chiefly of a guild of Boston truckmen, assembled on the grounds and a bonfire was then lighted as a signal that the event was about to take place. The Superior of the convent, Mrs. Moffatt, when notified to leave the building, rushed out on the balcony and ordered the men to disperse, adding “for if you don’t the Bishop has twenty thousand Irishmen at his command in Boston who will whip you all into the sea.” These remarks sealed the fate of the institution, and the work of destruction began. The furniture was broken and destroyed and the convent set on fire. Nothing remained except the bare walls, and these stood for forty years as an example of the only destruction in Boston of a religious institution by a mob. The firemen from the neighboring towns hurried to the scene but would take no part in subduing the flames. Colonel Thomas C. Amory, the chief engineer of the Boston Fire Department, went to Charlestown at the first alarm and did all he could to persuade the firemen to stick to their duty. His efforts were well-nigh useless, nor did the local authorities have any better success.
A meeting was called in Faneuil Hall, and Otis and Quincy made speeches denouncing the burning as “a base and cowardly act,” and the Mayor appointed a committee to investigate the affair and to bring the offenders to justice.
It looked as if there would be a riot in Boston the day after the burning, but Mayor Lyman by a clever ruse prevented a serious conflict between the rioters who were carrying some trophies from the convent and a band of Irishmen organized for the purpose of attacking the plunderers. The Mayor sent for the leader of the band which was to lead the procession of rioters and said: “You are to play at the head of the procession. The militia are under arms. They will fire. You are a stout man and will surely be shot!” Immediately the band-master informed his friends that he had decided not to play, and their ardor was so dampened that only a few paraded across Charlestown Bridge towards Boston. Here the Mayor had stationed a man on horseback, who on seeing the procession approach galloped off post-haste. “He is going for the military!” they cried, and the mob dispersed. Several persons were arrested and tried, Chief Justice Shaw and Governor Davis of Massachusetts doing all in their power to punish the offenders. Unfortunately it was impossible to obtain sufficient proof against any of them and they were therefore acquitted.
Mount Benedict is no more, the hill having been razed some years ago.
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