What does the burning of churches in the Middle East have to do a convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts?

If you are like me your heart has been moved by the recent persecution of Christians in the Middle East, especially Egypt and Syria.  The political instability in these countries has nurtured a climate where hatred, brute force, and a mob mentality are allowed to flourish—often resulting in attacks on minority groups, in this case fellow Christians. Our first reaction might be to blame those responsible (namely Muslims), but a brief look into our own local history will show us the root cause, one which is all together human and irrespective of race or creed.

On the night of August 11, 1834 a mob broke through the gates of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The convent (which also housed a boarding school) was looted, its remaining contents destroyed, before it was set ablaze. The convent was reduced to rubble and the sisters were left without a home. Local authorities, bystanders, and fire companies watched at a distance, never intervening. In the years which followed no restitution was made, nor was the convent ever rebuilt.

The events of 179 years ago bear an eerie similarity to the recent destruction of churches throughout Egypt. What stands at the center of these vicious acts of mob violence is not religion, but hatred of neighbor. Some may claim that hatred of neighbor begins with differences in religion, class, or race, or whatever.  But in actuality, hatred of neighbor always directly follows from a deficiency in love, a love that ought to be present in a person’s heart, but a love which is often thwarted and stifled by our sinful condition. With regards to relationships with other people, this sinful state (traditionally called Original Sin) manifests itself as a kind of quiet pride which overlooks a shared humanity, preferring only to see others, not as persons, but as problems to be eliminated. When people who think this way rally around a cause (sometimes even a legitimate one), it’s usually the most vulnerable who will be victimized. Mobs attack vulnerable people because their own poverty of self-worth forces them to see others as the enemy—just think of Our Blessed Lord!

Be it in Charlestown or Egypt, the worst of human nature always attacks the weakest or most marginalized in society. In response, we must love more because love—not revenge—conquers all things. God is the source of all love; if we want more love we need more God. This sounds cheesy, but it is true. The only way we can get more God is from having more knowledge of the faith, praying more, and from frequenting the Sacraments.

There are many things we can read to increase our knowledge of the faith: Sacred Scripture, the Catechism, the writings of the saints—even Catholic blogs! However, it is not enough for us to just know things about the faith or Our Lord; we need to be a friend of the Lord. Prayer puts us into closer friendship with Our Lord and Our Lady because it is relational. To become a friend of the Lord we need to receive to the Sacraments. Each time we receive a Sacrament worthily Christ’s presence remains with us.

Friends, when we are built up in God we are built up in love. Love enables us to stand with those in need and inspires us to share our faith with others. So when we encounter the dark side of human nature––in the Middle East or Charlestown, Massachusetts––let us respond with the Lord’s own love.

A version of this first appeared in the bulletins of the Billerica parishes.

2 Comment

  1. Matt says: Reply

    The things that they leave out of history books amaze me! I never heard of this incident!

    1. Father Gerald Souza says: Reply

      I hadn’t heard of it either until I read a book on the history of the Church in Massachusetts a few years ago.

      Wikipedia has a more in depth article on the burning of the convent:

      This was the first thing I thought of when saw this article on the awful persecutions in Egypt: http://news.yahoo.com/egypt-islamists-hit-christian-churches-235144103.html

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