On August 11, 1834, the Ursuline Convent, a Catholic-run school for girls of all denominations, was set afire by angry workmen who were resentful of an increasing Irish presence in the Town of Charlestown and throughout New England.
The night of terror was led by John Buzzell, a New Hampshire transplant who worked as a bricklayer. The frightened nuns and their young female boarding students rushed from the school as the building went up in flames, with the bloodthirsty mob intent on burning it to the ground. A newspaper later reported that the “pianos and harps, thrown from the windows when the Convent was set on fire, were subsequently burnt, and nothing but an old chair and one or two worthless articles were saved from destruction.”
But the following week, the Boston Morning Post issued a front-page notice by the school's Mother Superior, suggesting that valuable items, especially musical instruments such as "Piano Ports, Harps, Guitars, Silver Cups were stolen at the time of the conflagration," and that the "publication of these items may lead to the detection of the thieves."
The tension in Charlestown had escalated with the arrival of Irish Catholic immigrants to Boston and local towns in the early 19th century.
Charlestown's growth of Irish Catholics starting in the 1820s was rapid, thanks to the efforts of Boston Bishop Benedict Fenwick, who built Saint Mary’s Catholic church, opened a Catholic cemetery, and developed the twenty-four-acre Ursuline Convent, all within the space of a decade. The convent, a boarding school for girls, especially rankled the laboring class, since the young women came mainly from wealthy Catholic and Protestant families in Boston. Fire and Roses author Nancy Lusignan Schultz writes that “these families paid a yearly tuition to the nuns equivalent to a bricklayer’s wages for six months’ labor.”
"The workmen, frustrated by economic woes and the growing competition from immigrants for jobs, took on a nativist mentality that put the rights of Americans above the rights of immigrants. It didn’t help that Rev. Beecher and others were preaching about a Catholic conspiracy, rekindling seventeenth-century Puritan fears of popery and Jesuit priests that had sparked anti-Catholic hysteria more than a century earlier," according to author Michael Quinlin in his book, Irish Boston.
Read more details at MassMoments, a project of MassHumanities.
For more details on Irish history in Boston, visit IrishHeritageTrail.com.