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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Charlestown's Ursuline Convent for Girls Burned to the Ground on August 11, 1834


On August 11, 1834, the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, a Catholic-run boarding school for girls of all denominations, was set afire by workmen furious about the growing presence of Catholics in the town. 

About a dozen frightened nuns and some 57 young female boarding students, still in their nightclothes, rushed from their beds onto the school grounds as the building went up in flames, with the bloodthirsty mob intent on burning it to the ground. 

The night of terror was led by John Buzzell, a New Hampshire native who worked as a bricklayer in Boston.  The mob was prompted by an false rumor being spread around town that a girl was being held against her will in the basement of the convent.  

"We remember no parallel to this outrage in the whole course of history," wrote the Boston Atlas.  "Turn to the bloodiest incidents of the French revolution - roll up the curtain that hangs before its most sanguinary scenes - and point us to its equal in unprovoked violence, in brutal outrage, in unthwarted iniquity." 

The tension in Charlestown had escalated with the arrival of Irish Catholic immigrants to Boston and local towns in the early 19th century.

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 Boston Atlas 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 day after the attack, a group of city officials, business leaders, religious clergy and concerned citizens assembled at Faneuil Hall to decry the violent ambush.  A resolution was quickly approved, stating in part: 

  • Resolved: That in the opinion of the citizens of Boston, the late attack on the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, occupied only by defenceless females, was a base and cowardly act, for which, the perpetrators deserve the contempt and detestation of the community;
  • Resolved: That we, the Protestant citizens of Boston, do pledge ourselves, collectively and individually, to unite with our Catholic brethren in protecting their persons, their property and their civil and religious rights.

Charlestown's growing presence of Irish Catholics began in the 1820s, thanks to the efforts of Boston's 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 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 17th century Puritan fears of popery and Jesuit priests that had sparked anti-Catholic hysteria more than a century earlier," according to the book  Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston's Colorful Irish Past.

Read more details of the episode at MassMoments, a project of MassHumanities

For more details on Irish history in Boston, visit 
IrishHeritageTrail.com.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Boston Hero John Boyle O'Reilly Dies on August 10 in Hull, Massachusetts


John Boyle O'Reilly, one of Boston's most accomplished citizens, died on August 10, 1890 in Hull, Massachusetts, from an accidental overdose of medication.  His sudden death marked the end of an amazing life of heroism, advocacy, leadership and literature that helped transform the city and the nation.

Arriving in Boston in 1870, O'Reilly spent the next 20 years reconciling the city's racial and ethnic factions who struggled against one another.  He became editor and then owner of The Pilot, the leading Irish Catholic paper in America, using the paper as a bully pulpit to advance various causes.  He befriended the Yankee establishment while admonishing them for the prejudices.  

O'Reilly defended American Blacks who were still looking for post Civil War equality.  He welcomed new immigrants such as Italians, Jews and Chinese, insisting that they get the same privileges as nativist Americans.  Throughout his life he pursued freedom of Ireland from Britain, advocating for home rule and land reform.

In 1885 he delivered a thunderous speech in defense of the rights of Black citizens at Faneuil Hall before the Massachusetts Colored League.  He said "So long as American citizens and their children are excluded from schools, theaters, hotels, or common conveyances, there ought not to be among those who love justice and liberty any question of race, creed, or color; every heart that beats for humanity beats with the oppressed."

O'Reilly was a popular poet and speaker, often called upon to deliver poems at noteworthy occasions such as the unveiling of the Boston Massacre Monument on Boston Common in 1888. There, he read a poem dedicated to Crispus Attucks,  killed by British soldiers at the Boston Massacre of 1770. Attucks' father was an African slave and his mother an American Indian. 

In August, 1889, O'Reilly wrote and delivered a powerful poem, The Pilgrim Fathers, at the dedication to the monument by the same name in Plymouth, MA. 

After his death in Hull, O'Reilly was taken back to St. Mary's Church in Charlestown for the funeral, one of the largest in Boston's history. "The greatest of Irish-Americans" is dead, proclaimed The Pilot

O'Reilly Monument in the Fens 

A memorial to O'Reilly was commissioned to noted sculptor and friend Daniel Chester French.   Vice President Adlai Stevenson and hundreds of Boston's prominent and ordinary citizens attended the official unveiling on June 20, 1896. The bust of O'Reilly is set against a Celtic design stone, and the back of the memorial has bronze allegorical figures of Erin, flanked by Poetry and Patriotism. The O'ReillyMemorial is located in Boston's Fens at the intersection of Boylston and Fenway Streets, and is part of Boston’s Irish Heritage Trail.

O'Reilly lived at 34 Winthrop Street in Charlestown, where there is a plaque in his honor.  In 1988 the city dedicated a plaque to O'Reilly in Charlestown at Austin and Main Streets.   City Square Park in Charlestown honors O'Reilly with an inscription and bronze medallion.


City Park, Charlestown, MA

His summer home in Hull is today the town's public library.


Hull Public Library, O'Reilly's summer home

In 1895 sculptor John Donoghue created a bust of his friend O'Reilly: a bronze version is in the Fine Arts Reading Room of the Boston Public Library and one at Boston College's Burns Library.

O'Reilly is buried at Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Calendonian Festival in West Roxbury draws 10,000 People on August 5, 1916


The Boston Caledonian Club's 63rd Annual Scottish Picnic took place at the West Roxbury Grove  on Saturday, August 5, 1916, attracting 10,000+ attendees from the region's Scottish and Irish communities.

According to The Boston Globe, 39 athletic and cultural events ranged from track and field and football (soccer) to Scottish dancing and Bagpipe competitions.

The Caledonian handicap road race of 13 ¼ miles started in front of the State House and finished at the Grove.  “The 16 starters were the crack local marathoners and Mayor James Michael Curley sent them off on their grind at 1:45,” wrote the Globe.

Mayor James M. Curley then traveled to the festival, where he addressed the crowd briefly and enjoyed the activities.  At one point, reported the Globe, Curley “was so pleased with the dance of one of the girls that he gave a personal prize.”

In addition to the sports and cultural competitions, three prizes were also awarded for “Best Dressed Highlander,” which was won by George A. Mitchell.

 According to writer Emily Ann Donaldson in her book, TheScottish Highland Games in America, the Boston Caledonian Club “sponsored Games for more than a century; the last one was held in September 1956 at Brookline Town Field.”

There is a tune called Boston Caledonian Club, which was published in Ryan’s Mammoth Collection in 1883.   

For information on today's Scottish celebrations in the USA, visit the Association of Scottish Games and Festivals.

Find more about Scots-Americans in New England, visit IrishMassachusetts.com.