Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Roberta L. Wollons

Second Advisor

Julie P. Winch

Third Advisor

Jonathan M. Chu


On the evening of August 11, 1834 the city of Boston, Massachusetts experienced an unprecedented level of anti-Catholic violence. The Ursuline convent in Charlestown, home to both the Ursuline religious community and the young women who attended their boarding school, was overtaken by a mob, and burned to the ground. Provoked, in part, by severe gender-based tensions and other concerns, including—as scholars have noted—the fear of female imprisonment behind the convent’s walls, the nuns’ clear challenge to antebellum gender expectations, the convent’s perceived threat to the safety and respectability of the women living inside the convent school, and their dislike of the Lady Superior’s bold and arrogant character, the rioters successfully carried out a targeted attack against the Ursuline convent school, and in a wild fury, burned it to the ground. However, despite the violence directed against the Ursuline convent and the spirit of anti-Catholicism that would grow in the years following the riot, the one other Catholic women’s religious community remained untouched.

Studies of the Charlestown convent riot of 1834 have given very little attention to the religious community that remained unmolested in the city in the years prior to and following the convent riot: Boston’s community of the Sisters of Charity—the only other Catholic community of women religious residing and working in Boston in the years between 1832 and 1849. The present study contends that depictions of the Sisters’ lives and work are significant as they never aroused the same severe gender and social tensions as did the Ursulines, posed far less of a challenge to prevailing notions of feminine values of virtue, purity, and selflessness, and never presented the Sisters of Charity as threatening the wellbeing of those women residing with their community. The following study offers a comparative analysis of public perceptions of the activities of these two religious communities, and argues that public depictions of the Sisters of Charity provide a more nuanced understanding of several recognized factors that contributed to the destruction of the convent: gender-based tensions along with the school’s perceived threat to female safety, the Lady Superior’s character and perceived defiance, the school’s dubious mission, its seclusion from the public, and its questionable utility in the community.


Free and open access to this Campus Access Thesis is made available to the UMass Boston community by ScholarWorks at UMass Boston. Those not on campus and those without a UMass Boston campus username and password may gain access to this thesis through resources like Proquest Dissertations & Theses Global or through Interlibrary Loan. If you have a UMass Boston campus username and password and would like to download this work from off-campus, click on the "Off-Campus UMass Boston Users" link above.