If you don’t know anything about the burning of the Charlestown Convent in 1834, don’t worry: You won’t offend Nancy Lusignan Schultz.
She didn’t know about it either until recently, but now the five-year Swampscott resident is the author of a book that, more than 150 years after it happened, is generating belated but deserved buzz about this event. The book is " Fire & Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834 " and it chronicles a particularly heinous act of religious persecution against the Catholic Church by Protestants.
" Fire & Roses, " a non-fiction but novelistic account of this ugly event in Boston’s history, illustrates the conspiratorial behavior of prominent institutions, including the non-Catholic clergy, the news media and the courts. While clearly it’s a story about religious persecution, it’s also about the early promotion of women’s education by some, including a man whose name is well-known on the North Shore — even if those who know his name aren’t familiar with him in this light.
" It’s a hidden part of our history, " says Schultz, Ph.D., a professor and the coordinator of graduate studies in English at Salem State College. " It was a period when the Irish were just starting to come over. I’m interested in the scapegoating of newly arrived groups. We don’t always give newcomers a warm welcome. "
One might expect Schultz, a professor with interest in the subject matter, to have had at least a passing knowledge of the incident. But in fact she stumbled upon this subject. It was 1992 and Schultz, who was on sabbatical, was living in Somerville — which is where the convent would be if it were standing today, on what is now considered Lower Broadway.
She was working on an essay about a lesser-known Harriet Beecher Stowe novel when she discovered that Stowe had an ambivalent attitude towards the Catholic Church. Not only that, but Stowe’s father, Rev. Lyman Beecher, gave three anti-Catholic sermons on the day before the convent riot.
How could this be, wondered Schultz. They were such good abolitionists, she thought. It seemed contradictory.
Nonetheless, this new knowledge led Schultz to do more research on the burning of the Charlestown Convent. Quite a bit of research, actually. She started in 1992 and continued on and off for the next eight years — with much time spent looking at all she could at the Somerville Public Library and taking two trips to Quebec to learn more about one of the main figures in the book.
Her research coincided with the birth of her two children. Her son Jackson was born at the start of the project and son Jonas was born 10 days before she completed it. " I call my boys ‘the bookends,’ " Schultz says.
While she is well aware that many people aren’t aware of this incident or the historical climate in which it occurred — or at least they weren’t prior to hearing about or reading her book — she thinks there’s a story to tell and a lesson to learn from it. " This whole story is a chapter in history that is not as well-known as it should be, " she says.
One person who did know about this event before reading the book is Paul DeAngelis, the director of the Somerville Public Library. He says he’s fascinated with the book, not only because it’s a terrific read, but because he’s a lifelong resident of what is known as the Nunnery Grounds in Somerville.
" I live right in that area, and we are very proud of it, " DeAngelis says. " We all know about it. Growing up in the ’50s as a teenager, I would say about 90 percent knew about it. As I remember it was never mentioned in church or parochial school. I heard about it from people in the neighborhood. But in the last 20 years I wonder just what percentage knows about it. "
Going against the tide
One of the most prominent real-life characters in the book is Sister Mary Edmond St. George —known by the lay name Mary Anne Moffatt.
Moffatt ignored cultural expectations of 19th-century women and built the Charlestown convent into the region’s most prestigious academy for girls. But her strength was also her undoing, Schultz contends.
" The themes of religious intolerance, distrust of powerful women and class warfare that led to the burning of the Charlestown Convent resonate even in today’s society, " Schultz says.
Schultz is fascinated by Moffatt. " She was an amazing woman for the 19th century, " she says.
And she writes in the book: She " would have been an extraordinary woman had she been born in any age, but her achievements in the early 19th-century America were especially remarkable, given the constraints on women during that historical period. "
Moffatt was instrumental in establishing the convent as an elite boarding school for girls, especially noteworthy considering the dearth of educational options for women. Also helpful in setting up this school before Moffatt arrived on the scene was Bishop Benedict Fenwick — the man for whom the parochial high school on the Peabody-Danvers line was named.
" He was instrumental in developing the school. He was a backer of education for women, " Schultz says.
The school was set up for the education of poor Catholic women. But when Mary Anne Moffatt came from Quebec in 1834, she brought with her a vision of what she left behind — an elegant Ursuline academy. And, along with the help of Bishop Fenwick, she saw her vision become a reality.
Schultz writes: " Mount Benedict would not be a school for poor Irish girls — but an elegant academy that would attract the daughters of Boston’s and other cities’ elite. It would be a high-priced school that would use Protestant money to help build the Roman Catholic mission in the area. The refined Ursulines would improve the image of the Church Fenwick was anxious to mainstream, and the girls graduating from Mount Benedict would influence their husbands and sons to look benevolently on a growing Catholic presence. "
As fascinated with Moffatt as Schultz is, she is also intrigued by Bishop Fenwick, who was the founder of the College of the Holy Cross. Like Moffatt, she says, he too " was ahead of his time. " Schultz, a graduate of Holy Cross herself, realizes, however, that many people — particularly on the North Shore — may know his name in connection with the high school, but don’t know all, if anything, that he has done.
Schultz says, " I’ve heard from two or three people who have read the book ... saying ‘I never had any idea of who he was.’ "
While Fenwick thought an educated community would help to encourage tolerance of Catholics in Boston, Schultz writes, " The bishop, unfortunately, was not always a perceptive reader of the social and political climate. Throughout his involvement with the convent, Fenwick tended to underestimate the level of hostility that a Catholic presence was generating. "
" He’s well known for his role in Holy Cross, " Schultz says. " Let’s imagine that if the convent had not been destroyed, and it became a progressive school for women, how we would have been remembered. "
More than what it seems
Unfortunately, the school never got that chance to thrive. As Schultz depicts to gripping effect in " Fire & Roses, " rumors of a " Mysterious Lady " being held at the convent against her will eventually led to the uprising by a mob of Protestant men.
The men tore down the front door, destroyed icons, ransacked the possessions of both sisters and students, burned the Bishop’s library and eventually the entire building. They returned the following night and tore up the convent’s garden by its roots.
While this story clearly has elements of religious persecution, Schultz says it’s also about hostility against the convent and Moffatt herself.
" For me the story was so much richer than being about religion, " she says. " The story I ended up telling is about the tensions over the role of women and the role of women’s education. Religion only became one part of it. "
As for Moffatt, Schultz says, " She was feisty, proud and she didn’t suffer fools easily. The working men felt she didn’t respect them. It was a complex web of factors in a particular historical moment. "
Schultz will be the guest on the David Brudnoy show on Friday, March 23 from 9 to 10 p.m. on WBZ Radio 1030 AM. For more information about the book and to find out about upcoming book signings, go the to Web site www.fireandroses.com.