Diary of Charles Francis Adams, volume 5



The Convent-School of the Ursuline Community, Mount Benedict, Charlestown, Massachusetts facing or following page 212[unavailable]

The view of the school for young ladies, founded in 1820 and administered by the nuns of the Ursuline Community on the crest of Mount Benedict in that part of Charlestown which is now Somerville, Massachusetts, is that which appeared at the top of the first page of the four-page Prospectus issued by the Community. The Prospectus is undated, but it was issued between 1829, when the two wings were added to the main building, and August 1834, when the whole structure was burned by a mob.

The building, begun in 1826, was of red brick. The central section was of three stories, the wings of two. It was located on a tract of twenty–seven acres, two acres of which were given over to gardens. It was said to have been the “most elegant and imposing building ever erected in New England for the education of girls.” The fee for board and tuition was $125 annually. Courses in music, drawing and painting, foreign languages, and cookery carried extra charges of varying amounts. Instruction in French, Latin, Spanish, and Italian was offered. The school’s clientele was overwhelmingly Protestant. The parents apparently were satisfied that they could rely upon the assurance offered by the Prospectus that “the religious opinions of the children are not interfered with.” The later testimony under oath of Protestant students that they had been able to practice xixtheir religion unmolested and that they had not been proselytized went uncontradicted. “Prospectus of the Ursuline Community”; Justin Winsor, ed., The Memorial History of Boston, Boston, 1880–1881, 3:240; Ray Allen Billington, “The Burning of the Charlestown Convent,” New England Quarterly, 10:5–8 (March 1937).

Beginning about 1830 there was in Boston and vicinity a perceptible growth in the intensity of anti-Catholic feeling, fostered partly among the laboring classes by the threat posed by the rising tide of Irish immigration, among the more educated under the prodding of a substantial segment of the Protestant clergy led by Rev. Lyman Beecher. The conviction that the convent-schools, of which that on Mount Benedict was the most prominent, were part of a new papal design to undermine Protestant New England, became fixed in the minds of many. In such an atmosphere the wildest rumors were sent abroad and were believed. The ample warnings given of the mob action of 11 August were met by official indifference and inertia. Only when the tragedy had occurred, and then in the fear of retaliation by the Irish, did the “responsible” leaders of Boston meet to express their condemnation. The promise then made of a stern search and punishment for the perpetrators was fulfilled in only the most limited way. Although Charles Francis Adams’ comments on the lamentable event and what it portended seemed to limit responsibility for it to “the lower part of the population,” to “the ignorant and little principled,” the comments carry the full sense of the larger damage done, of the way by which the concepts of “freedom” and of “justice” in America are put in jeopardy. See p. 359, 360, below; Billington in New England Quarterly, 10:4–24 (March 1937).

That the members of the Ursuline Community were given refuge after the fire and were able to reestablish their school in the late mansion of H. A. S. Dearborn, at Brinley Place in Roxbury, brightens the record somewhat, though a Committee of Vigilance had to be formed to protect them and a nightly patrol maintained. See Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings , 53 (1919–1920): 326–331.

On Mount Benedict, the blackened ruins of the convent stood for half a century.

Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.