Rebecca Reed accuses nuns of abuse, 1835

Rebecca Reed accuses nuns of abuse, 1835

In 1834 anti-Catholic rioters burned the Ursuline Convent in Charestown, Massachusetts. In 1835, Rebecca Reed published a memoir about her time staying at the convent. Prior to its publication, rumors existed about Reed’s experience that may have motivated the arsonists. In these documents, we read excerpts from Reed’s account and the response from the convent’s Mother Superior Mary St. George. 

Rebecca Reed’s accusations

… I complained to her of my strength’s failing, and of my diet, not being such as I was used to ; she replied, that a Religieuse should have no choice, and that I should have left my feelings in the world ; and she immediately imposed the following penances: — to make the sign of the cross on the floor with my tongue, and to eat a crust of bread in the morning for my portion…. 

The reader may well judge of my feelings at this moment; a young and inexperienced female, shut out from the world, and entirely beyond the reach of friends ; threatened with speedy transportation to another country, and involuntary confinement for life, with no power to resist the immediate fulfilment of the startling conspiracy I had overheard…. 

In a day or two Priest B. again came… he said, ” Is it possible that a young lady wishes to have her name made public ?” I answered, ” You very well know I should shrink from such a thing, but I should rather return to the world and expose myself to its scorn, than remain subject to the commands of a tyrant.” “Then,” said he, ” if you are determined to return to the world, you may go to ruin there for all I can do; and rely upon it, you will shed tears of blood in consequence of the step you have taken, if you do not repent and confess all at the secret tribunal of God.” I told him I should confess to none but God, and that my conscience prompted me to do as I had done. He asked me if I would go with him to the Superior, as she wanted to see me. I replied, ;i No, I will not, for I believe you or any other Catholic would (if directed) take my life, were it in your power, as truly as I believe I am living, and I will not trust myself in your clutches again.”

… I also told him that I believed it had been his intention to deliver me again into their hands, but I had broken the chains which bound me, and felt free; and that I should always be thankful that I had delivered myself from the bondage of what I should consider to be a Romish yoke, rather than the true cross of Christ…. 

If, in consequence of my having for a time strayed from the true religion, I am enabled to become an humble instrument “in the hands of God in warning others of the errors of Romanism, and preventing even one from falling into its snares, and from being shrouded in its delusions, I shall feel richly rewarded.

Rebecca Theresa Reed, Six months in a convent, or, The narrative of Rebecca Theresa Reed, who was under the influence of the Roman Catholics about two years, and an inmate of the Ursuline convent on Mount Benedict, Charlestown, Mass., nearly six months, in the years 1831-2 (Boston: Russell, Odiorne, and Metcalf, 1835)

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The Mother Superior responds

The object of this part of the book is not truth or the public good, or the vindication of private character, as is pretended, but to exasperate the public mind against Catholics and Catholic institutions; to persecute them through the medium of popular opinion, and drive them from the country as the enemies of true religion and of civil liberty. Not content with seeing the few defenceless and pious females composing the Ursuline Community, driven from their habitation at midnight and their property destroyed ; not satisfied with screening the perpetrators from punishment, and even exhibiting these worthies as public benefactors; (not in direct terms perhaps but by their acts, and the general scope of their arguments) they have now finished another act of the drama, by a most foul attempt to blast the fair character of this Community and its individual members…. 

The week after the Convent was burned, half the persons who spoke of the act as an horrible outrage, at the same time intimated the belief, that the Convent was a very wicked place. Upon asking the reasons of such behef, the answer invariably was, “Why, a young woman, who resided there, and ran away, tells very bad stories,” &c. Many, probably thousands, who had merely heard her name, had heard and believed the slanders which were attached to it…. 

It is extremely painful to be obliged to expose a young woman, who is easily called an innocent, a humble and defenceless female ; but when that female unsexes herself and sets about the work of detraction openly and publicly; when she undertakes upon any pretence to destroy the reputations of retired, religious, and defenceless women, at whose hands she has received nothing but benefits, she presents herself in a character which entitles her to no sympathy and renders it absolutely necessary in defence of innocence and truth, to call things by their right names and to do what is attempted in this review of her work. It is admitted by herself, that after long solicitation she obtained admittance to the Convent as an object of charity—that she was fed, clothed and instructed, by the Ursuline Sisters, who could have had no motive on earth, but a charitable one, for she had neither property, or friends, or influence. She had neither mental capacity, docility, or solidity of character, to permit her ever to become a member of their Community, and she never received the least encouragement to that effect. Finding her hopes disappointed, she elopes in a dishonorable manner, and either from revenge, vanity, or as a means of living, commences the abominable work of ruining her benefactors by the private circulation of unfounded calumnies.

Mary Anne Ursula Moffatt, An answer to Six months in a convent, exposing its falsehoods and manifold absurdities (Boston: James Murnoe, 1835). 

Available through the Internet Archive