The following remarks were given by Assistant Principal Dr. Catherine Muldoon at Ursuline's February 27 Diversity Assembly, after which the original chapel bell from Mount Benedict was rung as a sign of solidarity with the founding Ursuline Sisters.
Good morning. Our theme today is “Where I’m From.” My job in today’s assembly is to share with you where we are from as a school and why Solidarity is one of our guiding values.
Ursuline sisters came to Boston from Canada and set up a school here in 1820. That first Ursuline Academy, known as Mount Benedict, was here before Boston College and Boston University. Before the telegraph and the telephone. Ursuline sisters were here before Jesuits (BC High), Christian Brothers (CM), and Religious of the Sacred Heart (NCDS).
So the Ursulines were true pioneers in Catholic education in America. But sometimes we forget the high price that pioneers pay. As it happens, Mount Benedict represented a frightening kind of progress. First, women ran Mount Benedict for the exclusive education of girls. At that time, not only did many Americans think that formal education was unnecessary for girls, it was even thought to be harmful—to your marriage prospects, to your mental health and even to your reproductive abilities. In 1820, not only did American women not have the right to vote, but with very few exceptions, married women had the legal status of juveniles: they could not hold personal property in their own right and common law held that a husband could “chastise” his wife using “limited” physical abuse.
In this context, you have to understand that the Ursuline sisters seemed pretty strange. They lived in community together: no men. They were unmarried and, which was worse, “unsupervised.” Worst of all, they were influential: ¾ of the Ursuline students were Protestant, from families at the top of Boston society; but what kind of women, people wondered, would these girls become under the tutelage of Catholic nuns?
That’s the other thing you have to understand: Catholicism itself was seen as foreign and frightening. Like the phrase jumbo shrimp, the phrase American Catholic back then would have sounded like a contradiction in terms. Many Bostonians viewed the pope as a foreign tyrant and Catholics as the pope’s willing army. And Mount Benedict was just a short walk from Bunker Hill, where American patriots fought to rid themselves of a king and establish democracy. Had those men died throwing off King George III just to have Pope Gregory XVI take his place?
Then as now, the media fed people’s fears: Catholic foreigners with foreign customs and foreign diseases—illiterate brutes from Ireland—were going to arrive in waves and overwhelm American society. The nuns on Mount Benedict, it was said, were just the tip of the Catholic spear.
The violence started slowly: first a local man beat up the Irish immigrant groundskeeper of Mount Benedict. Then someone shot the man’s dog. Finally, at 10:30 on the night of August 11, 1834, local men dragged barrels of tar up the hill to Mount Benedict, lit them and told the mother superior to get her students out or else.
The mother superior put up a fight; as she argued with the mob beneath her window, the fire department arrived… only to stand by and watch as members of the mob began to light torches and break windows.
Nuns ran to wake up the students, who were between the ages of 8-16, and they all escaped through the back door of the dorm. When they got to the fence at the back of the property, some were trapped—but the bigger students and teachers lifted the little ones over the fence, and they ran for shelter at the houses of friendly neighbors.
Meanwhile, the mob invaded: they stole chalices and communion vessels. They destroyed pianos with axes. They looted the personal property of students. They even dug up the bodies of deceased nuns from their graves, and strewed their remains over the grounds. Finally, they burned Mount Benedict down to its foundation, systematically, deliberately, and with a clear purpose: to take back “their” country; to protect “their” privilege that the combination of foreigners, Catholics, and independent women threatened to overturn.
One hundred and eleven years passed before an Ursuline school was again established in Boston.
Why am I telling you all this? Because right now, most of us are the privileged ones. Most of us have not been targeted because of our religion, or because we don’t fit society’s gender expectations, or because we are seen as foreign. So it’s easy for us to become complacent about the roles that fear and prejudice still play in our national life.
But in our time, immigrants still encounter prejudice and rejection.
In our time, gay and lesbian citizens still are fighting to achieve equal civil rights under the law.
In our time, Muslim-Americans and other religious minorities are still the targets of hate speech and violence.
In our time, some of you are going to make $.78 for every dollar that your male colleagues make.
In our time, it is still necessary to say that “black lives matter.”
In our time, therefore, we have to say out loud that we reject prejudice, exclusion and fear. By doing this, and by celebrating who we are and where we all come from, we are honoring the memory of the teachers and students of Mount Benedict. That first Mother Superior, Sr. Mary Ann Moffat, said, before she left Boston, that “the property that belongs to the present inmates of the community belongs, equally, to those who succeed us.” Well, that’s you. You are the heirs of those students and teachers. And so to start today’s assembly, I want to introduce you to part of your inheritance: this is the chapel bell that was salvaged from the ruins of Mount Benedict; it’s a survivor and it’s a symbol of Ursuline solidarity with all those who are targeted because of who they are or where they’re from. So right now, student body vice president Shannon Lawler will give the bell a few good rings. That bell is telling everyone who will listen: we’re still here. We have no fear. Get used to it.
Thank you very much for your attention.