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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 767-768
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Fire & Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834
Fire & Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834. By Nancy Lusignan Schultz. (New York: Free Press. 2000. Pp. xiii, 317. $25.00.)
Is there a more dramatic single episode in American Catholic history than the destruction of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, by a nativist mob on the night of August 11, 1834? The convent became the symbolic target for working-class anti-Catholic forces, which attacked the place and burned it to the ground. But the incident offers historians more than just melodrama. The convent was an institution run by and for women in an era when such things were rare. Its school enrolled almost as many upper-class Protestant girls as poor Catholic immigrants, a pattern that invites detailed, multilayered analysis. Positioning the riot in its overlapping contexts--social and gender roles in the early republic, Jacksonian-era violence, and the contested territory over what it meant to be white and American--is an important historiographical challenge. A history of this incident should tell us much, not just about American Catholic history but about American history generally.
For these and other reasons, one wants to say good things about Fire & Roses. A trade book from a major publisher on a topic in Catholic history ought to be greeted enthusiastically. This is the product of a commendable research effort, including attempts to track the participants through the fragmentary, scattered, and inconclusive evidence. The writing style is lively and engaging, as one would expect from a teacher of literature. With an emphasis on narrative, the story moves right along, though not without problems. The author shifts back and forth between the religious and secular names of the Ursulines--"Sister [End Page 767] Mary John" reappears unpredictably as "Elizabeth Harrison," for instance--and this can be confusing. Even so, a general reader wanting a basic outline of events will find it here.
Unfortunately, its strengths cannot overcome the book's shortcomings. For historians, the most obvious of these will be a distressingly uncritical use of sources. Speculations about the role of the convent superior, for example, whose "mannish" behavior--surely a phrase that needs careful unpacking--enflamed the rioters, are based on Maria Monk and Rebecca Reed, whose fictions are treated as if they were factual. In the same way, a laughable description of the nuns' habit--each sister not only wore a "surplice," but (somehow) a cross was "suspended" from it--is taken from a contemporary evangelical newspaper, again as if it were an accurate, dispassionate account. At least one of these methodological gaffes turns up in nearly every chapter. Anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant sources are, of course, very useful in studying this topic, but they cannot be, as they are here, treated as objective descriptions of what actually happened.
The author's unfamiliarity with the physical and mental world in which her subjects lived also leads her into an embarrassing number of factual errors and a use of language that is either just not right or blatantly anachronistic. A "chalice" is not "sacred," for example (not even when the object in question is a ciborium), and new bishops are not "inducted" into office, as if they were joining a lodge. But in these pages the "United States" existed in 1727; a "media glare" surrounded the departure of one of the sisters from the convent; and the "dram shops" mentioned in the sources, where the rioters gathered their forces and their courage, have become "drum shops." The base of secondary sources is also very thin, more dependent on older, sometimes merely antiquarian publications than on serious recent work on local history, the history of women religious, and other topics. A solid history of the Charlestown convent riot remains to be written.
James M. O'Toole