In 1846 in the city of Pittsburgh, a handful of the Sisters of Mercy announced that they were going to open a hospital, the first in the city, to care for the poor. A local newspaper, the Presbyterian Advocate, greeted the announcement by telling its readers that it believed the Sisters of Mercy were engaged in prostitution.
Religious orders of sisters have been a traditional target of the seamier side of Catholic urban legends—those falsifications of history that have become part of the cultural DNA of America. The animus against nuns persists today. It can be seen in such diverse places as the theater production Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and in unremitting attacks on Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta by the likes of comedians Penn and Teller and iconoclastic author Christopher Hitchens.
An Un-American Creed
At the beginning of the 19th century, virtually every American viewed Catholics as non-Christians who were mired in meaningless superstitions and thoughtless rituals that were a product of a pre-enlightened era, the “crosses and idle ceremonies of popery” as a popular pamphlet of the period explained. A Boston minister, referring to John Carroll, the first bishop of the United States, said: “It seems strange that a man of sense should be so zealous in the cause of nonsense.”
It was universally believed that the Catholic Church, dominated by the pope and his hierarchical and priestly minions, was the sworn enemy of freedom and incompatible with life in a republic. Thus the need for test acts for public office, requiring that Catholics swear an oath that they would not have an allegiance to any foreign power—meaning the pope. It was a common thread throughout 19th-century populist thought that there was danger that, on the orders of the pope, Catholics in America would rise up to violently overthrow the government and install “popish” rule.
Catholicism was identified as the religion of people deemed inferior by the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment. They were considered to be an alien presence within the United States with no understanding of or dedication to republican principles. Catholicism was seen as a faith contrary to true Americanism, essentially alien to the predominant Protestant culture. Benedict Arnold described a Mass attended by leaders of Congress and wondered: “Do you know that the eye which guides this pen lately saw your mean and profligate Congress . . . participating in the rites of a Church against whose anti-Christ corruption your pious ancestors would bear witness with their blood?”
Propaganda and “Puritan Porn”
With this common understanding of Catholicism, with a popular culture steeped in centuries of Catholic urban legends, America was ripe for the nativist explosion that took place in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s.
As early as the 1820s, a number of factors were merging to bring Catholic urban legends to the forefront of American thinking. The Catholic Church was growing larger and becoming more of a public, visible presence—threateningly so. At the same time, a strong Protestant revival was underway and anti-Catholic newspapers and books began to be widely distributed. Most important, a trickle of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany became a tidal wave. In the past, the few immigrants to America had been Irish Protestants from the North of Ireland. But Catholics from the south began to arrive in growing numbers on the Atlantic coast, and from the 1830s to 1850s, they arrived in overwhelming numbers.
Oddly enough, the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1828 in England, which restored a host of basic rights denied to Catholics since the “Gunpowder Plot,” added fuel to the fire of anti-Catholicism in America. Tracts and propaganda fighting the 1828 legislation sent England into one of its regular anti-Catholic binges, and America got the overflow of the propaganda.
The Catholic priesthood was invariably linked to sexual deviancy. Clergy were portrayed as lascivious predators of the young and innocent. In America, anti-Catholic literature was so strewn with sexual perversion that it was often referred to as “Puritan Pornography.”
In this tidal wave of anti-Catholic literature, books detailing convent horror stories became enormously popular in the United States in the 1830s, and most of these were imported from England. Works such as Female Convents and Secrets of the Nunneries Exposed established the common elements of anti-Catholic convent horror stories: lecherous priests, secret tunnels between seminaries and convents, and the babies who resulted from these unholy unions slaughtered and buried in the basements.
(Fake) Nuns’ Tales
The first distinctly American convent horror story work to gain widespread popular attention was Rebecca Reed’s Six Months in a Convent, published in 1835. Reed claimed to have been a nun who escaped an Ursuline convent in Charlestown. (The Mother Superior explained that Reed had not been a nun, but an employee who had been dismissed.)
There was not much to Reed’s book, a first-person narrative rewritten by local Boston publishers who knew what would titillate the New England Brahmins without guilt. Her story centered on various penances the nuns allegedly performed, none of which would shock by today’s standards but which were charmingly salacious to her contemporary readers. Yet, her “inside story” sold nearly 200,000 copies within a month of publication and remained in print for well over a century.
Reed’s public telling of her story in Boston—prior to its publication—was part of the vicious anti-Catholic propaganda that led directly to the burning of the Ursuline convent by a mob on August 11, 1834, one of the first overt acts of violence aimed at a Catholic institution. The mob believed that a woman was being held in the convent against her will. When the Mother Superior confronted the crowd with the threat that the bishop had armed Irishmen at his disposal to protect the convent, they responded by burning the convent to the ground.
Rebecca Reed would not last long after her success. She died of consumption in 1838, her supporters claiming that her death was caused by the harshness of convent life. Reed’s book, however, would be overwhelmed by the success of the most famous work of anti-Catholic literature ever distributed in America.
Awful Disclosures of the Hotel-Dieu Nunnery of Montreal, or as it was more popularly known, then and now, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, was first published in 1836. It would sell hundreds of thousands of copies in its early years and has continued to be published ever since.
Born in Canada, Monk claimed in her Awful Disclosures that she was raised Protestant and entered the convent school at the Hotel Dieu in Montreal for her education. There she converted to Catholicism and became a nun. According to Monk’s version, after making her vows she was forcefully introduced to her main responsibilities as a nun: serving the perverse sexual needs of Catholic priests. She alleged that babies that resulted from these unholy unions were killed. She said that she had discovered a gruesome cemetery in the convent’s basement where the tiny bodies were buried, along with the young nuns who refused to take part in the orgies.
Monk claimed that a “Father Phelan” had impregnated her. Fearing the murder of her child, she fled the convent. That was where the first edition of the Awful Disclosures ended. In the second edition, the tale continued with attempted suicide, pursuit, and finally her arrival in the United States. Pregnant and near starvation, she claimed to have been found by hunters on the outskirts of New York. She told her terrible story to a Protestant clergyman who encouraged her to write it down.
The reality was quite different. Monk, a little disturbed from a childhood accident when she stuck a piece of slate into her head, had fled the Catholic asylum to which her grandmother had committed her. She had help from her former lover, who was the likely father of her child. In New York, she met some Protestant clergymen who saw the opportunity to make a strong anti-Catholic statement (as well as a few bucks). Those ministers approached the publishing house of Harper Brothers with Monk’s story. The Harper brothers set up a dummy corporation to publish the book, unwilling to have its reputation sullied with a tale not for polite ears.
Released in January 1836, the Awful Disclosures was an immediate sensation. It received rave reviews in the contemporary Protestant press and was cited as the first accurate depiction of convent life. The small Catholic community protested that it was a hoax. As the controversy grew, two Protestant clergymen went to Canada to inspect the Hotel-Dieu convent. When they reported that the convent was nothing like Monk’s description, they were accused of being Jesuits in disguise. When a prominent Protestant journalist investigated and denounced Monk as a fraud, he was charged with taking a bribe from the Jesuits.
Monk disappeared in August 1837, only to resurface in Philadelphia and claim to have been kidnapped by priests. It was discovered that she had actually taken off under an assumed name with another man. While this indiscretion seemed to discredit her story, many Americans were still willing to accept her “awful disclosures” as truth. That year she published another book claiming that pregnant nuns from the United States and Canada lived on an island in the St. Lawrence River.
That book marked the end of her literary career. Lawsuits attempting to control the profits from her first book revealed much of the corruption behind the whole story. In 1838 she once again became pregnant and claimed it was a Catholic plot to discredit her. She married, but her husband soon left her, claiming infidelity and uncontrolled drinking on her part.
A Legacy of Shame
The anti-Catholic Know-Nothing political movement made the most of Monk’s testimony. Pamphlets and tracts alleging all kinds of horrific tales of convent life were widely distributed and devoured, most following the same kind of fabrications that Maria invented with the help of Protestant clergy. This trend continued well into the 20th century.
The Know-Nothing Party had one election cycle of real success. In 1854, they gained political control in Massachusetts and elsewhere. The convents quickly became their special target. In their anti-Catholic zeal, the Know-Nothings managed to pass a “nunnery inspection” law in Massachusetts that included Catholic schools. Committees were to investigate certain unnamed “practices” allegedly taking place within these Catholic institutions, a common enough belief based on decades of popular anti-Catholic literature boldly proclaiming immoral activity and “white slavery” conditions in convents.
According to Thomas H. O’Connor in Boston Catholics, A History of a Church and Its People:
The so-called Nunnery Committee undertook three special investigations—one at Holy Cross College in Worcester, another in a school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame in Lowell, and a third at a school in Roxbury operated by nuns of the same order. The investigation at Roxbury was particularly offensive, as some two dozen men suddenly appeared at the school, announced they were on state business, and proceeded to tramp through the building. They poked into closets, searched cellars, intimidated nuns, frightened the children—and found nothing incriminating. (96)
Maria Monk died in jail in 1849 after being arrested for pickpocketing at a bawdy house. In a curious footnote, in 1874, Mrs. L. St. John Eckel published a book in which she claimed to be Monk’s daughter from her last marriage. It gave a picture of Monk’s last days, as well as the story of Eckel’s conversion to Catholicism.
The Awful Disclosures remains one of the most widely distributed “religious” titles of all time, remaining in print and selling untold millions for many publishers for over 170 years. A couple of clicks today will get you the full text on the Internet.