20 Times Nativism in American Politics Stepped on Immigrants and Native Americans

Wood engraving entitled: “Ruins of the Ursuline Convent, at Charlestown Massachusetts” (c. 1834). Wikimedia Commons.

19. An explosion of sectarian violence, ignited after decades of simmering tensions amidst longstanding anti-Catholic sentiment throughout the region, in 1834 New England Protestants burned and raised a Catholic convent

Since its foundation in the 17th century, Massachusetts had long possessed a history of intolerance towards Roman Catholicism. Established by Puritans – ideologically fanatical Protestants who believed the English Reformation had been too lenient towards non-adherents – the 1692 charter specifically excluded rights for Catholics. Constructing an Ursuline convent in 1826, the mission offered education to all denominations, retaining forty-seven students by 1834 of whom only six were Catholic. With anti-Catholic violence simmering across the region during the 1820s, in early August 1834 rumors began spreading of a “mysterious woman” held against her will and being tortured at the convent.

Despite being offered a tour to see for themselves the falseness of the story, on the evening of August 11 a mob formed outside the convent. Despite calling for the fire brigade, who arrived and watched the events unfold, barrels of tar were set alight and convent breached by rioters. Raised to the ground within only a couple of hours, the following day the Catholic militia of Boston was activated to defend other properties. Turning back nativists at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Boston’s arsenal, the mob returned to the unguarded ruins of the convent to destroy the gardens and orchards.