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Miss Reed and the Superiors: The Contradictions of Convent Life in Antebellum America

Daniel A. Cohen
Journal of Social History
Vol. 30, No. 1 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 149-184
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3789753
Page Count: 36
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Miss Reed and the Superiors: The Contradictions of Convent Life in Antebellum America
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Abstract

This article examines the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts that was destroyed by a Protestant working-class mob in 1834, and compares the experiences of Rebecca Reed, an impoverished farmer's daughter whose allegations against the nuns reportedly helped instigate the riot, with those of the two Superiors of the Ursuline community. It suggests that tensions and conflicts within the Charlestown convent and between the nuns and their Bishop-along with broader class and gender anxieties in antebellum society-may have had nearly as much to do with the demise of the Ursuline community as purely sectarian hostilities between Protestants and Catholics. The essay's formal thesis is that the experiences of Reed and the Ursulines expose two fundamental contradictions in convent life in antebellum America: a contradiction between the personal pride and ambition of many of the women who entered convents and the monastic virtues of humility and obedience to which they were expected to conform, and an even more explosive contradiction between dominant antebellum gender norms (variously designated as "domesticity," "separate spheres," or "True Womanhood") and the essential structure of convent life. It is largely based on antebellum newspapers, polemical publications spawned by the riot, and unpublished Catholic correspondence and diocesan records.

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