The Lost Convent

Convent lo

This is where the convent was, but that was a long time ago. You wouldn’t know it if you didn’t read the stone marker in front of the library, around the corner. Then again, the convent wasn’t here very long. Now it’s all multi-family houses.

When Paul Revere rode by, nearby, on what’s now Broadway, this was just a big empty hill called Mt. Benedict. In the late 1820s, a convent and school was built here by the Ursuline Sisters, a Catholic order of nuns who had outgrown their space in Boston. At the time, this was part of Charlestown; now it’s what’s referred to as East Somerville.

Boston and its suburbs have a large percentage of Catholics now, but up through the Revolutionary War, Catholics were not very welcome in this Puritan-founded area. Nonetheless, the Ursuline school quickly established itself as a place for educating the daughters of wealthy families—Unitarians, mostly.

Meanwhile, tensions were growing in Boston due to the newly arriving Irish (Catholics). The working-class Protestants saw them as an economic as well as a cultural threat. Preachers and publications fanned the anti-Irish hatred. There were attacks on the streets.

Soon the Ursuline convent became a object of resentment, too. This school for the rich, run by Catholics, became the subject of rumors and suspicions. There were calls for investigations following accusations of children being forced to convert, and women being held against their will. The convent was accused of being immoral and un-American.

Things boiled over on the night of August 11,1834. A riot of locals set fire to the convent. When firemen came, they chose not to act, and joined the growing crowd. Within hours, the convent was a smoking ruin.

An investigation led to some arrests, but juries failed to find anyone guilty. No compensation for the tremendous loss was ever made. No one was punished.

In time, the entire hill was taken away along with the ruins. A highway was built. A neighborhood grew.

As I walked the streets, I noticed that the intersections were named for war veterans. Irish names. Italian names. On front doors, hung palm branches from Palm Sunday. The Catholics had returned.  And on this hill of hate, a diverse neighborhood grew. I saw lots of types come and go from these houses.

After drawing, I had a burrito at the nearby Taco Loco. There, everyone spoke Spanish but me. This place attracts all the Latino immigrants. In the age of Trump, I fear that they are the new nervous.