Opened in 1820, the Ursuline Convent Academy was the first Roman Catholic school for girls in Massachusetts. The sisters of Mount Benedict taught young ladies ages six to fourteen. The school boasted a more diverse and rigorous curriculum than was typically offered to American girls of the period. The Ursuline’s European-style education exposed pupils to academic subjects, such as geography, astronomy, and philosophy in addition to religious instruction, needlework, and “the extra branches,” which included cooking, music, and painting.
Though the school was popular amongst Boston’s elite Unitarian families, hostility towards Boston’s small but growing Catholic population began to focus on the most visible symbol of the Church’s influence, the Charlestown convent school. On the night of August 11, 1834, a mob gathered outside the school demanding to see a nun who was rumored to be held against her will by the Ursuline Sisters. Although Mother St. George attempted to disperse the angry crowd, they refused to leave and burned the building to the ground. The students and their teachers escaped into the garden and took refuge at a nearby farm.
Last May, Boston College acquired one of only three known eyewitness accounts describing the destruction of the Ursuline Academy. The Elizabeth Hayward Collection of Ursuline Academy Materials was compiled by a former student, Mrs. Elizabeth Williams Hayward (circa 1819-1899), who had been at the convent the night of the fire. In February 1878, Hayward held a reunion of former classmates at her home in Boston. The alumnae of the Ursuline Academy remembered their school days in Charlestown fondly — despite the night of bigoted violence — and many attended or sent regrets along with the reminiscences. Fortunately, Hayward’s collection of letters regarding the reunion have been preserved, along with a small selection of newspaper clippings and pamphlets about the convent school and its burning, all originally folded into small envelopes and kept in a charming vellum-covered trunk.
Among the correspondence regarding the 1878 reunion is a letter by Ann Babson who recounted her own experience of life at Mount Benedict and the night of the fire. She wrote to Hayward of that night, “Some of the teachers came in and told us not to be frightened. I cannot say that I felt frightened, even when, after an hour or two, the mob had increased and drawn very near the building. I was probably too young to realize the situation.” She also recalled one of her classmates, who had lost her harp in the fire, coming over the next day and crying over the loss of the instrument. In addition to her own memories of the event, Babson sent Hayward all of the information she had about former classmates. They were sometimes hard to track down: rather amusingly, one correspondent advised Hayward, when she could not find the address for a Mrs. Jackson, to simply send a letter care of Ralph Waldo Emerson – “as he is her friend and is so well-known.” (How do you suppose the Sage of Concord felt about being used as a letter stop?)
All of Elizabeth Hayward’s Ursuline Academy materials are available to researchers in the Burns Library. In addition, this collection has been completely digitized and is available online at http://hdl.handle.net/2345/2831. For more information on this collection, please contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Adrienne Pruitt, Project Archivist, Archives & Manuscripts, John J. Burns Library
- Alexandra Bisio, Processing Assistant, Archives & Manuscripts, John J. Burns Library