The Burning of the Charlestown Ursuline Convent and School

Woodcut of convent and school

Woodcut of convent and school

Woodcut of convent ruins

Woodcut of convent ruins

The history of what happened almost 180 years ago can often become unclear.  People write books and articles with conflicting information. What we know about the burning of the Charlestown convent and school, is that on August 11, 1834 a group of 50-200 men with painted faces, burned the convent and school to the ground.

There are reports that 2,000-4,000 spectators including a number of fire companies watched the fire.  On August 12, 1834 the men returned to destroy the gardens, orchards and fences.

The convent was run by the Ursuline nuns who came from Montreal, Canada. The primary purpose of the convent was to educate young women. The Charlestown Convent was used mostly by the daughters of the Protestant upper classes. At the time the convent had 41 Protestant girls and only 6 Catholics girls.

There are a number of possible reasons that this riot and fire happened. Many believe that the men who attacked were primarily workers in the brick factories, who were being displaced by Irish Catholics. Some believe the strong willed Mother Superior, may have fueled the rioters, when she was heard “Telling the rioters that 20,000 Irishmen were going to burn the roofs over their heads.”

Her direct threat did not have the desired result.

There were also conflicting reports that a girl named Rebecca Reed was held in the convent against her will and a second report that Sister Mary John, a nun teaching at the convent came upon Edward Cutter asking for help getting to West Cambridge. Cutter reported that the nun was agitated, so the following day he went to the residence to ask why Mary John had left the convent. He was informed she had returned to the convent. Mr. Cutter went to the convent and spoke with Mary John, who said she could leave anytime. The rioters seemed convinced that a mysterious lady was being held against her will by the catholic nuns.

Learn more about what happened on a hill overlooking Charlestown behind Sullivan Station 180 years ago.

Plaque on the site of the convent

Plaque on the site of the convent

What happened to the ring leaders?

Why wasn’t the Convent and school rebuilt?

What happened to the Mother Superior?

Attend the presentation by Nancy Lusignan Schultz, author of Fire & Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834, on Tuesday October 15, 2013 at the J. W. Conway Bunker Hill Post 26 of the American Legion, 23 Adams Street at 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm.

Cover of Fire & Roses

Cover of Fire & Roses

Sponsored by the Charlestown Historical Society.